DALLAS (AP) -Every time Kevin Willis pulls on his No. 45 jersey, he's guilty of a little false advertising.
He's only 44.
The oldest player in the NBA, and proud of it, Willis wanted to wear his age on his back when he joined the Dallas Mavericks a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, one of his new teammates already had it.
Willis could've claimed seniority. He could've flashed the menacing glare that worked so well over his previous 20 NBA seasons. If that didn't scare Austin Croshere into giving up No. 44, Willis could've offered to arm-wrestle for it. A challenge like that would've announced his arrival in the locker room, plus given Willis a chance to show how strong he still is.
Instead, he smiled and took the next best thing.
That simple story illustrates many of the reasons the 7-footer was given the chance to tag along for the ride with the Mavs this postseason: experience, an understanding of his place in the team hierarchy and the fact he still has a hulk of a body that's the envy of players half his age, making him capable of providing some quality minutes every now and then.
``I'm about making the team better,'' Willis said. ``That's my main goal. That's part of me, part of my character. ... I'm here to go out and encourage guys, root guys on to go out there and play hard.''
The Mavs open the playoffs against Golden State on Sunday night. With the Warriors likely to use a small lineup, don't expect to see Willis much this round. He's willing to wait.
Willis broke into the league in 1984, the same year two of his Dallas teammates were born. His best years were spent alongside Dominique Wilkins on the Atlanta Hawks, then he became a big man on the move: Miami, Golden State, Houston, Toronto, Denver and back to Houston before landing in San Antonio, where finally won a championship at age 40 as David Robinson's backup.
After another year with the Spurs, then a return to Atlanta, Willis was done. He was out of the NBA all of last season and most of this one.
``The door was closed,'' he said. ``I didn't close it. Somebody closed it. But I knew it wasn't locked.''
Walker, a maker of upscale denim jeans for the big-and-tall crowd that he and a friend began in 1988.
That job led Willis to Las Vegas in February for a fashion industry convention. When it ended, the NBA All-Star weekend was about to start, so he stuck around a little longer. He literally bumped into Mavs owner Mark Cuban going into a hotel soon after. In early April, Willis was slipping into his new jersey, regaining the title of league's oldest player from Dikembe Mutombo.
As quaint as that story is, Dallas president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson insists Willis already was on the club's radar.
The Mavs had been holding open a roster spot since the trade deadline, looking for just the right complementary player. Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller were the chic names thrown out, with Pippen even showing up courtside as a reminder that he was available.
But what Dallas needed most was a third center. Not just a deep reserve, but someone who could bang against Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop in practice, who would be OK with limited playing time yet be capable of holding his own during the few minutes he did get and someone who wouldn't ruin the club's great chemistry. As a bonus, they were hoping for someone who knew how - and, especially, when - to provide veteran wisdom, but not in a know-it-all-way, like Darrell Armstrong did last postseason.
``The emphasis on this whole thing was not making the wrong move,'' said Nelson, whose club is trying to follow its best-ever regular season with its first-ever NBA title. ``We had A through Z scenarios. When the dust settled, he was the best fit for us.''
How's this for a perfect fit: Willis played in college with Mavs assistant coach Sam Vincent and a few years ago was teammates with Mavs coach Avery Johnson. They also have a lot of mutual friends in San Antonio who vouched for Willis.
``He's one of the mentally toughest players I've ever been around,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ``His teammates love him, he exudes confidence and he's a team guy. It's a good move on Avery's part. In the playoffs, he's one of the guys who gets you through the bad times.''
Willis also brings the toughness expected from the guy with the eighth-most fouls in NBA history. He added to that total 11 seconds into his Dallas debut and wound up with 11 fouls (and 12 points) over the five games he played.
At practice Friday, Willis wore pads on both elbow - mainly for the protection of Dampier and Diop.
``The first day of practice, he pushed me out of bounds,'' Diop said, laughing. ``He's a strong guy. ... He talks to me every time I come out of the game. He helps a lot. I've never had a player like that before. He's like my dad.''
He's certainly old enough to be.

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