By Judy Wiley
DALLAS (Reuters) - Victory Plaza lived up to its name at last on Thursday, as hundreds of thousands of jubilant fans packed downtown streets for a parade in honor of the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks.
They waved banners, screamed and danced along the route during the hour-long procession that culminated at the plaza, which is outside the main entrance to American Airlines Center, the team's downtown Dallas home.
"Guess what? We got one and we're going to try to get more," a tearful Mark Cuban, the team's owner, told the crowd gathered for a post-parade celebration at the Center. "We love you guys."
Cuban held the championship trophy aloft for much of the parade, and player Jason Terry confirmed the owner slept with it on the trip home from Miami. Terry himself kept a large cigar in his mouth throughout both the parade and celebration. But it was Dirk Nowitzki the crowd wanted most.
The lanky German forward flashed victory signs and waved along the route to adoring fans who erupted in cheers whether they were watching him on the street or on giant screens in Victory Plaza. Game replays featuring Nowitzski, named the Most Valuable Player of the Championship series, elicited screams.
"It's been an amazing ride, an amazing journey," said Nowitzki, now in his 13th season with the Mavericks, during the post-parade celebration for season ticket holders. Before that event, he stood on a balcony and led the crowd in an off-key rendition of what he called his "new favorite song": Queen's "We Are the Champions."
Fans and players alike have been waiting for this moment -- the Mavericks' first championship -- for the 31 years the team has existed.
One group of men from the town of Keller near Fort Worth had painted themselves blue and wore nothing but underwear. Frank Perez, also of Keller, said he shaved his head and arms to paint himself like "an NBA basketball," complete with a net on his head.
An extended family of 10 came from Fort Worth and put out chairs and blankets under the big screen in Victory Plaza, officially called AT&T Plaza. Mom Linda Campbell said she came because "I might not live to see another one."
Cuban, whose vocal outbursts have cost him some $1 million in NBA fines over the years, had not spoken publicly since the team won the Western Conference Finals in May, but he grabbed the spotlight this week by saying he'd pay for the parade. Mavericks spokeswoman Gina Calvert said she didn't have a cost estimate, but Mayor Dwaine Caraway has said the tab is expected to run $500,000 to $1 million.
Cuban also rocked the boat by suggesting he might give the players something besides the traditional championship rings, calling them old-school. Coach Rick Carlisle and players have objected, and Cuban has not said whether he'll stick to his guns.
The Mavericks clinched the championship by defeating the Miami Heat 105-95 Sunday, ending a painful, five-year grudge. In 2006, Dallas announced plans for a victory parade when the Mavericks held a 2-0 lead over the Heat in the finals, but had to retract them when Miami team came back and took the title.
City leaders predicted a quarter million people would turn out for the parade, but city spokesman Frank Librio said in a statement that an actual crowd estimate will not be released because gauging an accurate number would be difficult.
Police presence was heavy along the route and at Victory Plaza, and included a mounted patrol from nearby McKinney, Texas. Parade safety has been a major concern in Dallas since 1993, when fights broke out during a Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl celebration.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)