Dallas' Maverick Cuban, Doing It His Way, Shakes Up Team

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Since taking over Dallas' NBA team in January, Mark Cuban has become the league's biggest maverick.

The Internet billionaire has thrown around millions to round out trades, hired nearly a dozen assistant coaches and treated players like guests at the Ritz-Carlton. He even let Dennis Rodman live in his mansion.

Cuban has jokingly jawed with Michael Jordan and attended MJ's $15,000 fantasy camp. He rejected Scottie Pippen's request for a tour of his house and recently got into a war of words with Phil Jackson. He's given referees an earful, too.

Fans love him because he's one of them: a jeans-wearing former season-ticket holder who posts his e-mail address on the scoreboard and responds to every letter. He threw postgame parties last season and bought steak dinners for the 18 fans who went to every home game.

Other owners welcomed him at first because by overpaying for his team, he increased the value of theirs. Now, they're not quite sure what to make of the 42-year-old bachelor with about as many ideas as dollars.

It's not yet clear whether Cuban's endless and infectious energy can revitalize the team with the worst record (240-550, .304) of any major sports franchise in the 1990s.

But he's already pulled off one amazing feat: People are paying attention to the Dallas Mavericks.

"Mark is a fan of the game and, with that, his love of the game is there," All-Star guard Michael Finley said. "Fortunately for us, he's our owner and he wants the best for our organization, whether it's player-wise or the front office.

"He wants everything to be top-notch. He's going to make the free-agent changes and get the best rookies that he can. It's just up to us as players to go out there and make him look like a genius."

It only makes sense that Cuban devotes his time and money to basketball. After all, his love of the game--specifically, the Indiana Hoosiers--is what made him filthy rich.

While living in Dallas, more than 700 miles from Bloomington, Ind., Cuban and a friend wanted to listen to IU games on the radio and figured out a way to do it over the Internet. They turned their idea into broadcast.com and sold it last year to Yahoo! for nearly $6 billion.

In January, after several failed bids, Cuban persuaded Ross Perot Jr. to sell him the Mavs. His winning offer: $280 million, $155 million more than Perot paid less than four years before.

Players already knew Cuban by sight because he was among the rowdiest fans in the baseline seats next to their bench. When they realized that guy was their new boss, they couldn't believe it.

Fans were excited by the change, but skeptical.

Cuban came across like another Jerry Jones at first, especially after the grandfatherly ownership of franchise founder Donald Carter, whose wife baked cookies for players, and the regime of Perot, who had to ask how many players are on the court at the same time.

It didn't help that Cuban's first move was to fire the longtime public-address announcer and replace him with a WWF-style screamer, or that his next big change was bringing in Rodman, an experiment that blew up after 13 games.

But Cuban has proven to be more like his image of an ideal owner: Portland's bottomless-pocketed Paul Allen.

While Cuban is more brash than Allen, his intentions are the same. All he wants is to build a winning team. Sure, he savors his new celebrity status, but he's not driven by it, nor by money or other ulterior motives.

The early results can't be ignored. Dallas won 16 of its final 21 games last season to finish 40-42, its best record since 1989-90.

"I can just feel the sparks coming off of me," Cuban said on the opening day of training camp, usually a low-key event. "I can't sleep at night."

Cuban mostly stays out of personnel issues, leaving them to coach-general manager Don Nelson and his ever-growing staff. He talked Nelson out of retiring as coach with a $25 million, 11-year deal that keeps him on the bench through 2003, and in the front office after that.

"Nellie is not only a coaching genius, but he's somebody that's open with me," Cuban said. "He'll tell me when he thinks I'm full of you-know-what and he doesn't mind when I respond the same way."

It was Cuban's idea to hire practically as many coaches as players.

The league allows only a few assistants, so Nelson calls his extra helpers "greeters." Cuban considers it a way to make former Mavs feel welcome. He's also extended an offer to one guy outside the family: former Hoosiers coach Bobby Knight.

The abundance of advice-givers is typical of Cuban's overall strategy of going the extra mile to try wooing players to Dallas.

With all teams offering virtually the same salaries, players want to go somewhere they can win big or be treated like kings. Considering the Mavs haven't won a playoff game since '88, Cuban's best chance to build a winner is to offer the best perks.

He started slowly, improving postgame meals for the home and visiting locker rooms and upgrading hotels on the road. He showed a classy touch by sending limousines to chauffeur players to and from Reunion Arena on an icy night.

His latest luxurious move was replacing the thinly padded fold-up chairs on the Dallas bench with high-back, cushioned seats that he designed. They even have some massage-chair features.

Before a recent exhibition game, Miami's Tim Hardaway broke away from layup drills, plopped down and was quite impressed. So was Dallas guard Steve Nash.

"I'd like to have one for my house," Nash said.

Cuban had to make court-side comfy or he'd never get players to leave their lockers.

Each cubicle has a 14-inch flat-screen television, a satellite hookup, a DVD player, a VCR, video games and top-of-the-line headphones.

Cuban and Nelson also have upgraded the talent in the locker room. Dallas made a flurry of off-season trades, especially on draft day, with Cuban often tossing in as much as the league-maximum $3 million to help seal deals.

The most interesting--and most revealing--move brought Christian Laettner to Dallas from Detroit. He almost ended up in Los Angeles, but the Mavs persuaded the Pistons to pull out of a blockbuster deal that also involved Patrick Ewing and Vin Baker.

Any player who ends up a Maverick instead of a Laker might have a right to grumble. Considering Laettner's surly reputation, it could've been a disaster. But he's been all smiles.

"I'm very interested in playing for Mark and for the coaches that he brings to the team," Laettner said. "You don't want to go to work thinking that you're going on a sinking ship. You want to go there thinking that this is something that is going to be good and will hopefully be great someday. Everything that Mark's doing is only going to help."

Not everyone loves his style.

After Cuban taunted the Lakers for a miserly offseason, Jackson said Cuban "should keep his mouth shut." The coach of the NBA champs added that the Dallas owner didn't know what he was doing, but used a more colorful expression.

Cuban, who also has an ongoing feud with NBA commentator Peter Vecsey, has been attacked for being too outspoken and too close to his players.

Cuban couldn't care less. He works out with the team and he travels with them, too. He hated missing a game in Denver last week but had a good excuse--he spoke at a forum of motivational speakers that also featured former President Bush and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

With the season tipping off Tuesday, Cuban is trying to put off any more gatherings with heads of state.

"Like our signs say, the playoffs start now, it's payback time and we're coming ready to play," Cuban said. "It's incredibly exciting."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°