A young fan finds a Maverick hero, and his own way to score

There are plenty of parents who would balk at the idea of raising a Maverick. But with all the greed and misdeeds running rampant through the NBA and even high school basketball these days, local loyalty to teams has taken a back seat to character education in our house.

That's how I came to be raising a Dallas Mavericks' fan in the pinelands of South Jersey.

My son Ian is the shortest, skinniest kid in the second grade. He has never set foot in Texas, but is a die-hard Mavs fan. Ian has unruly brown hair, eyeglasses, and, since the Mavs won here recently, a very big grin, because for him this was a moral victory.

Ian is wild and wily - the class clown. But there are two things he is deadly serious about: squirrels and basketball. He loves squirrels because they are driven, quick, and nimble, which are all his own strengths. He loves basketball because he can't play it worth a lick and he appreciates seeing people do something he can't.

But being obsessed with this odd combination makes things tough, particularly since his favorite NBA team is not a local one. He gets a lot of grief.

Ian listens patiently while people tell him he's silly, goofy, and all wrong. "Squirrels and basketball do not really go together," an adult recently informed him. Another told him, "You should be rooting for the Nets or Sixers."

Ian just gives naysayers his best grin and says, "You obviously haven't watched the Dallas Mavericks play. Ever hear of a guy named Nash? Steve Nash? He is like a squirrel in human form. This team never quits, and they don't do things just because people try and bully them to change."

Standing his ground on his love for Dallas is not an easy thing to do, but seeing Steve Nash defy both fashion and gravity has had a profound effect on Ian.

Originally he was a Philadelphia 76ers fan. He loved to watch Allen Iverson rip up and down the court. But he was deeply disappointed when Iverson got into legal trouble last summer and it was all over the news.

While Ian still cheers for Al, something is missing. He related to Al being small, quick, and the underdog. He didn't want to relate to being in trouble. Iverson was cleared, but the clean, innocent feeling of hero worship was tarnished.

Then one night my husband was watching a Mavericks game and Ian sat down with him.

"Who's playing?" Ian asked.

"The Mavericks," his father answered. "Call them the Mavs."

"Wicked name. What's a maverick?" Ian wanted to know.

"It's two things. It's either a cow that hasn't been marked by its owner, or it's a kind of person who likes to do things his own way. Somebody who thinks and does things his way, even if everybody else thinks and does something else."

Ian liked this a whole lot. The word "maverick" was about to become part of his everyday vocabulary, especially in sentences that began, "I am a real maverick...."

"Who's that small, skinny guy with the long hair?" Ian asked as Steve Nash snapped up the ball and drove for the basket, weaving through the opposing team like a squirrel through a room full of cats.

His father told him who it was. Ian got very quiet. He didn't cheer. He didn't yell or whoop. This was very unusual. Ian is a yeller and a whooper.

After an entire quarter had passed in silence, his father asked, "Don't you like the game?"

Ian didn't take his eyes off the screen where Nash was passing the ball without so much as glancing at the recipient. Ian whooped, "I love that guy! He's awesome! Look at him go. He didn't even look!"

Then he settled in to listen to the things the announcers were saying about the team. One voice moaned, "Man, when is that Nash ever going to get a haircut? This team will never win a championship. They don't have a defense."

The other voice agreed, "That hair has to go! What's up with that hair?"

Ian suddenly leaped up off the floor like a scalded cat, "What? What's wrong with those announcers? Didn't they see him move? Can't they see how great their teamwork is? They're criticizing someone for his hair? That's not right."

He listened to more of the same from the announcers. Then he put his feelings into words: "But this team is awesome. They never quit. They just wear the other guys out. They're ... like ... beautiful. Like art."

His father looked at him appreciatively and said, "That's why we're watching them now." He explained that for the team, and the announcers, basketball is only about winning championships. He said, "But for fans like us, it's about the way they play."

Ian got his grin on again, "Hey, I know that one. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. I get it now." Then he added, "I think people should remember that when they watch sports. Somebody should remind those announcers."

So Ian became a huge Mavericks fan. He doesn't care if it makes him unpopular at school. He doesn't care if the Mavs ever win a championship. He does care if Steve Nash ever cuts his hair to please the commentators. "Never," says Ian. "That would just be wrong."

He may live in South Jersey, but he is a true Maverick at heart.

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