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Mavericks might miss more than Najera's hustle

Traded forward's production was limited, but not his fan appeal

02:38 AM CDT on Sunday, August 29, 2004

By EDDIE SEFKO / The Dallas Morning News

In less than two months, the Mavericks have lost perhaps the two most popular players on their team.

Steve Nash walked in free agency. Eduardo Najera was traded last week to Golden State for Erick Dampier.

While it is clear the Mavericks are reshaping their roster, it's equally obvious that they now must start marketing a different team. Najera's hustle and spirit, not to mention his connection with the Hispanic community, will not be replaced easily. Similarly, fans who enjoyed watching Nash's stringy-long hair flying in his wake also must go through an adjustment period.

Re-grabbing the fans and keeping that regular-season sellout streak (currently 112) going is going to be a challenge.

From a basketball perspective, the trade for Dampier "was one we couldn't not do," according to Mavericks president Donnie Nelson. But the Mavericks do not underestimate the contributions of the 6-8 forward in his four seasons.

"The hardest part of this thing all along was Eddie," Nelson said. "He was the heart and soul in a lot of ways for this team. We tried everything we could to keep him out of the deal, but it was a deal-breaker from Golden State's viewpoint."

Other Mavericks officials declined to comment.

The upcoming season will require the public to put a new face on the franchise. Billboards throughout the city had featured a horizontal Nash diving for a ball or an energized Najera doing the dirty work. These were players who were easy to market. They also embodied the Mavericks' persona as a fun team.

"Eddie was extremely popular here," said Roberto Gonzalez, who handles much of Najera's endorsement and business dealings in Dallas and Mexico. "I don't think there's any question that he was one of their most marketable players. The Hispanic people adored him."

As do most fans, period. Fans, of course, are some of the most resilient creatures on Earth. They likely will grow to embrace the new Mavericks, of whom there are plenty. At least nine players are expected to be new.

"We're going to have a different look, for sure," Nelson said. "But the proof will be in the pudding."

On the court, the loss of Najera will be less dramatic. Since recurring left knee problems began in the 2002-03 season, the 6-8 forward has been inconsistent. He never played more than 62 games in his four seasons with the club.

He was not the same player last season that he was in 2001-02, when he had his best season, averaging 6.5 points and 5.5 rebounds.

That doesn't mean Najera won't have good seasons ahead of him. If his knee is healthy, he's got five or six more seasons in which he can augment his reputation as an undersized bruiser who outworks everybody he plays against.

And as Mavericks fans know all too well, there's a lot to be said for reputation and work ethic. That Najera will be missed in spite of limited production is proof.

E-mail esefko@dallasnews.com

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