A TRUE MAVERICK
Peace, tranquillity, harmony . . . they’re overrated. Ask Mark Cuban.
So are patience and experience. Cuban, a 41-year-old, hyperactive, self-made billionaire who’s now turning the Dallas Mavericks around in the midst of a personal out-of-gourd experience, doesn’t need them.
What for? They’d only slow him down, and he doesn’t drive 55. More like 155.
In the business press, which followed his exploits at Broadcast.com and understands what he’s talking about, he is talked about as a genius. Worth magazine notes that while he’s embarking on this rampage through the NBA, he’s also considering forming a company to overturn the music industry and rock the biggies--Universal, EMI, Sony, Warner.
In Dallas, where cobwebs had grown over the Mavericks, he’s refreshing and beloved by the local press.
In the rest of the league, well, let’s just say no one has ever seen an owner so . . . uh, impulsive.
It’s halftime of Cuban’s last trip to Staples Center, where the Mavericks, who are off to one of their best starts, are beating the Clippers. Cuban, watching from a second-row assistant coach’s seat, ideal for looking over Coach Don Nelson’s shoulder, is, nevertheless, beside himself.
“Have you ever seen anything like this refereeing?” he exclaims.
For sure, he hasn’t. Although this will be a rare game for him--he won’t say anything he’ll be fined for--he’s engaged in a running cross-country assault on whoever officiates his games.
As anyone could tell him, if only he’d listen, this is the definition of a no-win proposition, yielding only embarrassment and muttering officials, so that every time he fires, he hits himself in the foot.
In Sacramento, where the Mavericks lose by 25, a margin you’d think would preclude complaints about refs, he goes off and is fined $5,000.
Three nights later in Phoenix where the Mavericks lose by 21, he has to be escorted from the floor, all the while yelling at official Hue Hollins.
The league fines him $15,000 this time. Cuban agrees he has been bad. With two games left on the trip, he goes home to Dallas, conceding, “I was wrong in doing that and it won’t happen again . . . I hope.”
From now on, he says he’ll sit upstairs, where the refs, maybe, won’t be able to hear what he says.
Hope springs eternal, but with Cuban, injustice seems to as well. The Mavericks lose at Utah and Cuban, who watches on TV, denounces Karl Malone for acts of “thuggery” against Christian Laettner and Eduardo Najera, for which he says Mailman should be arrested or suspended.
The league reviews the tape the Mavericks send in and suspends Malone for a game.
“Well, I just wish Cuban could buy another team so he can get the best players off two teams and win a championship,” Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan says, “so we don’t have to listen to him anymore.”
No such luck.
The very next night, back in Dallas with Cuban sitting courtside, not upstairs, the road-weary Mavericks are upset by the Seattle SuperSonics. A glowering Cuban posts himself outside the referees’ dressing room. As they walk by, he asks aloud, “Am I mistaken or did No. 30 [official Gary Benson] just hand them the game? Nice game, No. 30!”
The league dials it up to $25,000 for this one, bringing his nine-day total to $45,000.
A referee with a memory poses a problem, but the NBA guys are used to the hurly-burly. However, Cuban has additionally gotten into it with such league stalwarts as Jerry Buss, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley; with reporters in general and with the Dallas Morning News and the influential Pete Vecsey of the New York Post in particular.
In real life, Cuban is a likable, attention-loving guy. Sportswriters working from a distance torch him to a crisp, but those who meet him often write overwhelmingly positive pieces, because he’s accommodating and fun to be around.
He laughs at the furor he stirs, as if the last mistake he’d ever make was taking himself seriously.
Of course, it’s never too long before he launches himself into his next controversy.
He went back and forth with Jackson after Jackson, irritated at Nelson’s comments about beating the Lakers to Laettner, criticized Cuban for trying to buy a title and not following the rules.
Of course, the rules allow Cuban to pay as much luxury tax as he wants, so long as he acquires players according to cap rules, as he has.
In any case, Cuban responded that any players the Lakers couldn’t afford, he’d take.
He and Jackson then fired off a few more volleys, Jackson saying at one point that Cuban had his head somewhere that can’t be discussed here.
“The thing I always remind myself,” Cuban says, “it’s a business on the court, it’s a business off the court--but it’s not world peace. These aren’t real bullets that are flying.”
The NBA has had problem owners before. Cleveland’s Ted Stepien gave away so many No. 1 picks (including the one the Lakers got for Don Ford and turned into James Worthy), the league office had to intervene.
However, it has never had a fast-talking, sharp-tongued, outside-the-gentlemen’s-club owner. The Chicago Tribune reported several old-line owners are upset at Cuban’s conduct, with one, who wasn’t named, saying, “We’re going to have to have some people talk with him.”
If anyone talked to Cuban, officially or informally, harshly or gently--NBA Commissioner David Stern says no one did--it didn’t do much good. That was a month and a dozen or so transgressions ago.
For his part, Cuban is unconcerned.
“I haven’t approached this any different from any business I’ve been in,” he says. “If you go back and look at Broadcast.com, I was focused and I said what I thought would give us an advantage and did what I thought would give us an advantage. . . .
“I’d speak in front of groups, I’d say, ‘My goal is to put you all out of business, I don’t care. My goal is to sit in front of an antitrust committee and have them try to break up Broadcast.com. I’ll hustle, I’ll sell you, I’ll do everything I can . . . ‘
“They are the competition. Who cares?”
Big D, as in Derelict
Of course, if you had been sentenced to following the Mavericks for the last 10 years or so, Cuban would be looking pretty good to you too.
Hatched as an expansion team in 1980, they took the Showtime Lakers, who were en route to Riley’s guaranteed repeat in 1988, to Game 7 in the Western Conference finals. They even became a hot ticket in Dallas, where the four seasons had been Cowboy football, Southwest Conference football, spring football and summer vacation.
The first owner, Don Carter, was a trucking magnate who sat courtside, wearing a large cowboy hat, as if he were Bum Phillips. Carter wanted to do things the way Tom Landry did, and his error-prone front office talked a lot about good people, while taking Mark Aguirre over Isiah Thomas and Sam Perkins over Charles Barkley.
In the ‘90s, they submerged for the rest of the decade, going 24-140 in one two-year span. Everything Carter did blew up.
Favorite son Roy Tarpley couldn’t stay out of trouble.
Carter hired Quinn Buckner, who was thought to be a top coaching prospect. Who knew Buckner would try to be the pro version of Bobby Knight?
They landed the celebrated three Js, Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson. Who knew they wouldn’t get along?
In 1996, Carter sold to a group headed by Ross Perot’s son, Ross Jr. Little is known of Junior, since he was rarely around, but his partner, a Realtor named Frank Zaccanelli, stepped into personnel and sent Kidd--generally considered the J they had to keep--to Phoenix.
Sensing they needed a professional, they hired Nelson out of retirement in Maui. Striking boldly in Nellie style, he traded Jackson, Sam Cassell, Chris Gatling and George McCloud for Shawn Bradley, who hasn’t done much more in Dallas than he did in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
It took Nelson three seasons to dig out from that one.
However, they had begun stirring last season in the high-scoring-little-guys-zipping-around style of Nelson’s Golden State Warriors, led by Michael Finley and Dirk Nowitzki, a 6-11 German sharpshooter whom Nellie had traded up to draft in an authentic coup.
Then Cuban arrived on the scene in his own characteristic style.
After a 14-26 start, they were on a 7-1 run when their new owner got them Dennis Rodman, out of shape, carrying considerable emotional baggage. He lasted 13 games, of which they lost nine.
Finally, after a loss at Seattle, Rodman lectured Cuban through reporters in his own inimitable style, telling him to stop hanging around the athletes like Cowboy owner Jerry Jones.
The words were still hanging in the air when Rodman was fired, though Cuban says Rodman’s comments had nothing to do with it.
The Mavericks then finished on a 16-6 run, meaning they’d won 23 of their last 30 without Rodman. They missed their first playoff appearance in 10 years by four games.
“I don’t really regret it,” Cuban says of Rodman. “I learned from it. We were in a position where there was no place for the Mavericks to go but up. I was willing to take a chance. If it had worked out, it would be great but we were right where we were, anyway.”
That’s one way of putting it. Cuban was asked the same question last season by Clipper announcer Michael Smith.
Said Cuban more succinctly that time, “Oops!”
The Boss From Heaven
“I mean, I’m not here to tell you, ‘Oh yeah, I worked my . . . off and I can do it again in a heartbeat.’ I didn’t expect all this to happen. It’s just that some things hit and when they do, it has to happen to somebody.” That was Cuban in Worth, November issue, 2000. Of course, when it happens, it’ll probably happen to one of the people who tried hardest to make it happen.
As a kid in Pittsburgh, Cuban, who’s now built like a lifeguard, weighed 230 pounds and was nicknamed “Boris,” because he took Russian. He was, he told Sports Illustrated’s Rich Hoffer, one of the “Jewish kids who hang out in the library.”
He was buffed out by the time he enrolled at Indiana University. He was pure driven capitalist, who started by hawking stuff door-to-door, possessed of an acquisitive spirit so great, it encompassed shoplifting until he was caught and had to endure the talk with his father.
Cuban was running fast, and, as luck would have it, in the right direction.
He moved to Dallas and got into the computer business when it was still about mainframes, which occupied entire floors of buildings. He founded his first company, MicroSolutions, in 1983, and sold it in 1990 for $5 million.
He was already rich when he and a friend, who wanted to pipe in Indiana basketball broadcasts, started Broadcast.com. Skeptics scoffed at the notion of turning a $1,500 computer into a $5 radio, but the company quickly opened new vistas. Not only audio but streaming video. Not only games but events such as the Victoria’s Secret runway shows.
In 1998, they went public. Offered at $18 a share, it closed the first day at $62.50.
A year later, they sold out to Yahoo! for $5.7 billion. All 300 of their employees received stock options that made them millionaires.
In other words, no matter how wiggy he looks, Cuban is the boss of your dreams.
Being Mark Cuban, a die-hard hoops fan, he needed a new world to conquer and a year ago, that became the Maverick franchise, which he bought for a shocking $285 million . . . because he could.
Of that, $85 million was his share of the new arena that’s now going up. That left $200 million for a woebegone franchise, optimistically valued at $125 million.
“That’s what it was going to take to buy it,” says Cuban, totally unconcerned.
“I didn’t care. First of all, it’s relative to--however I say this, it’s going to sound bad but . . . the amount of money wasn’t the biggest impact for me, it was the dream of owning a franchise and having the opportunity to turn it into something.”
What he means is, if he runs it better than the other guys--and who couldn’t?--it’ll pay off in the end.
Of course, there were pitfalls he didn’t see . . . and still may not.
Cyberspace was an infant when he arrived, waiting to be conquered by fast-steppers with heads full of ideas, who could grab the so-called “first-look” advantage.
Sport is different. Because it’s accessible and widely exposed, fans think they know what’s going on. The reality is invariably different.
Take the Walt Disney Co., which thought it knew something about the entertainment business. It brought it all to bear on the Mighty Ducks and Angels. Subsequent developments suggested there was much it had to learn, which is why Disney is now reportedly open to offers.
Then there’s Fox with the Dodgers.
Or Cuban with the Mavericks, spitting out ideas like sparks from a Roman candle.
Let’s sign Rodman and let him be who he is!
Of course, Cuban wasn’t the first to think of that. The Lakers had said the same thing the season before.
Let’s chart the referees! What’s our record with Joey Crawford? With Hue Hollins? Wouldn’t that be worth knowing?
That was done too, 20 years ago by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Harvey “SuperStat” Pollack, to no useful purpose.
Just what all Cuban’s sound and fury will signify remains to be seen. DVDs in players’ stalls, facilities upgraded to the pasha class, eight assistant coaches or twice the normal complement--the Mavericks are obviously great to play for but how can they recruit if they don’t have cap room?
And how will they get any cap room if they bring in Loy Vaught to play 15 minutes a game, although he’ll make $5 million a year through 2002-03?
Answer: They won’t.
Cuban has rejected rebuilding through free agency as a “prom night” approach and plans to go with his current nucleus for the duration.
Criticism and referees notwithstanding, Cuban says he’s having the time of his life.
“I came in with a fan’s perspective,” he says. “I hope I still retain a fan’s perspective.”
His fans are happy. Lots of others are dubious, but it’s early and the balance on the refreshing/outrageous scale is still going back and forth.
Good luck, big guy, this league can use you, if it can survive you.
DALLAS at LAKERS
Fox Sports Net
Only question about Paul Westphal’s firing was, when? D7
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