Coach Rick Carlisle draped his arm around Tony Romo as the crowd roared in the final minutes of the Dallas Mavericks' honorary game for the retiring Cowboys quarterback.
Fans desperately wanted to see the career passing leader for the storied Cowboys franchise get in for at least a few seconds in a meaningless 109-91 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night, and he was acting like he might actually play.
It just wasn't going to happen because Romo wasn't on the roster and didn't sign a contract. He showed his football No. 9 with a white "Dallas" across the front of the jersey just once — when he was introduced with the starters before the game.
"Obviously we knew we couldn't check him in," said star Dirk Nowitzki, who helped hatch the plan to honor Romo. "We were faking it and the crowd was loving it. And they wanted to see him out there so bad. We just couldn't pull it off."
Gary Harris scored 20 points in the first game for the Nuggets (39-42) since getting eliminated from the playoffs. Nowitzki led Dallas with 21 points.
With nothing at stake in a lost season that will be the worst for Dallas (32-49) since going 20-62 in 1997-98, the Mavericks followed through with an idea that Nowitzki and owner Mark Cuban discussed weeks ago at a party after the 19-year veteran reached 30,000 career points.
Even then, it was clear Romo wasn't returning to the Cowboys. Ultimately, he decided not to play for another team after losing the starting job he held for 10 years to rookie Dak Prescott following a back injury in the preseason last year.
Romo, who turns 37 this month, had his honorary day with the Mavericks exactly a week after he announced he was leaving football to become the No. 1 NFL analyst at CBS.
After going through the morning shootaround , pregame warmups and the pretend starter introduction, Romo took the floor to address fans at the end of a brief ceremony in which Carlisle and Nowitzki also spoke.
"This is an honor that I could never dream of," said Romo, who rose to fame as an undrafted player out of lower-division Eastern Illinois in 2003. "It's a little embarrassing, but I'll tell you what, I'm a very lucky guy. Thank you, Dallas. I love you."
Wearing a dark blue warmup top, Romo sat next to Cuban, who tried to persuade Commissioner Adam Silver to let Romo play. Instead, Cuban was the one pulling Romo back to his seat with the crowd roaring and chanting his name in the final minutes.
"I told him what I was going to do and said, 'Fine me if you don't like it,"' Cuban said of his conversation with Silver. "But once he said the contract wasn't getting approved, then he kind of killed that."
The sidelines were packed with fans taking pictures and videos while Romo went through pregame warmups. He drew the biggest cheer when he hit a jumper over Devin Harris, and he hit a 3-pointer as well. But he couldn't match Harris' swish from midcourt, and shook his head over an airball on a 3-pointer.
"I feel like they're all 7 feet tall," Romo said after participating in the morning shootaround. "And they'll all long and lean. I look like a turtle out there next to these guys."
For Carlisle, the Romo plan was never about the former high school basketball standout in Wisconsin actually playing. He wanted to recognize a frequent front-row fan who always has a seat right behind where Carlisle roams the sidelines.
"There is a circus surrounding this because everybody wants to get a glimpse," Carlisle said. "We understand that. This is how we feel about a special guy who's been a very special competitor in really a very special sports market."
Mavericks: Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews both were sidelined for rest, and Carlisle said Nowitzki wouldn't play the finale. Other regulars are likely to sit as well. ... The roster spot Dallas hoped would go to Romo ended up being DeAndre Liggins on a waiver claim from Cleveland. Carlisle said Liggins would play in the finale. ... J.J. Barea had 13 points and nine assists.
Nuggets: Coach Michael Malone said four regulars wouldn't play in the final two games: Kenneth Faried (low back pain), Jameer Nelson (right calf strain), and Danilo Gallinari and Will Barton (rest). ... Mason Plumlee and Malik Beasley scored 16 apiece and Juan Hernangomez had 14.
At least a dozen of Romo's former teammates attended, including Ezekiel Elliott, the standout rookie running back who never got to play with Romo because of the 14-year veteran's injury. The NFL rushing leader for the NFC East champs was there in Romo's No. 9 football jersey.
Longtime friend and tight end Jason Witten had a seat in the first half behind the Dallas bench near Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and Romo's last offensive coordinator in Dallas, Scott Linehan.
Mavericks: Finale at Memphis on Wednesday.
Nuggets: Finale at Oklahoma City on Wednesday.