Front Row with James Donaldson
Gary Shultz owned front row season tickets to the Dallas Mavericks. They weren’t “50-yard line” front row seats, but were located at the end of the court, directly behind one of the baskets.
I’m not certain what Gary Shultz did for a living. My friend Taylor, his youngest son, didn’t seem to know either. We went to see Taylor’s dad at a grand opening of a Burger King one time, so for all we knew, he owned Burger King. Anyway, all that was important was that whatever Gary did, it allowed him the opportunity to purchase front row season tickets to the Mavs. And on occasion, he and Taylor would take me along.
It was the tail end of the Aguirre/Blackman/Harper heyday when I first went. These were still the “good times.” I would have been around 13 years old.
It was at this game where I had my Richard Dreyfuss moment. I’m thinking specifically of that instant in Jaws where Dreyfuss’ character is throwing chum into the sea, looks down, and comes face-to-face with the title character mama shark.
I believe stunned is the word.
I’m guessing it was the first quarter when a similar moment happened to me. I was having the time of my young life, enjoying the sights and sounds of the game as the teams lined up for a free throw attempt.
That’s when it happened.
Seven-foot two-inches, 270 lbs, came lumbering directly at me. His shoulders were the first thing to catch my eye. They were massive, glistening with sweat. His legs were like two redwoods, with his shins, seemingly, no smaller than his thighs. His chest – My God! – his barrel chest heaving in-and-out like some kind of fire breathing behemoth.
This was my own horror movie happening a good 10 feet away. This wasn’t cinema. This was live theatre. This man, similar to that mama shark, could have eaten me whole and no one would have been the wiser. This man was James Donaldson.
An old high school coach of mine in North Richland Hills once said that he wouldn’t “trade a bucket of warm piss” for James Donaldson.
And yet, that is the plight of the NBA center. They are certainly not all viewed with the wide-eyed bewilderment of a 5’6” 13-year-old boy. They are, without a doubt, the most criticized and elusive creatures in the game. Net a good one and you expect multiple banners to hang from the rafters. Miss out on those elite talents and you end up like the Boston Celtics after losing out in the draft lottery to the Spurs in ‘97.
It’s a long way between big man Tim Duncan and swingman Ron Mercer.
Some franchises have been lucky enough to have had many great centers walk through their doors. The Lakers had Mikan, Kareem and Shaq. The 76ers had Wilt and Moses. The Knicks had Ewing and Reed. Heck, the Rockets had Olajuwon and Sampson at the same damn time.
But the Mavericks list is, shall we say, not up to par.
Up until last year’s title run when Tyson Chandler manned the middle, James Donaldson had been the franchise’s preeminent center. Of course, his career averages of 8.6 points and 7.8 rebounds, might speak more to his competition than to his sterling career. The list of Mavericks centers is a true list of no-names: Eschmeyer, Blab, Diop, Okezie and Podkolzin!
What are their career averages?
Donaldson, as clearly stated, was a mountain of a man. Well before the finesse-style, perimeter-shooting big men infiltrated the league, the NBA was dotted with the likes of Donaldson, Mark Eaton of the Jazz and Tree Rollins of the Hawks. These men eschewed skill for size, talent for… uh… size.
They were total pros, though. They might be marginally skilled, but they knew their roles and ate up a ton of space in the paint. And maybe that is one and the same, as eating up a ton of space in the paint was their primary role.
James Donaldson did the dirty work for the Mavs while the troika of Aguirre, Blackman and Harper got the press. He set the picks, grabbed the boards, played sound post defense and for one glorious season, 1988, was even rewarded by being selected to the All-Star game.
And yet, most Mavs fans probably viewed Donaldson as my old coach did. Not good enough. They saw his enormous size and hoped for more. They took his hard-hat, yeoman’s work for granted as they salivated over the talent and skill of one Roy Tarpley.
And any good Mavs fan knows how that one turned out.
Oh, but last year.
Last year, it looked like we finally had one. Tyson Chandler was magnificent. He could defend like a guard, finish at the rim and be the vocal leader the team so desperately needed. My heart swelled with pride as I saw him accept his championship ring a couple of weeks back.
And yet it is well known that we let Chandler walk to take a swing this coming summer to land the biggest of the big: Dwight Howard.
What general manager could resist?
But here’s a salute to James Donaldson, at one time the preeminent center in Dallas Mavs history and, from where I sat as a 13 year old, the largest man I’ve ever seen.