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Doing his own thing

Times Staff Writer

It’s coming like a tidal wave. Mark Cuban is going on and on about -- whatever: the stock market, the digital revolution, NBA referees.

The Dallas Mavericks owner doesn’t just talk, Cuban wages never-ending campaigns with vast scenarios and supporting data. It’s like Jack Nicholson’s description of being launched into space in “Terms of Endearment,” playing astronaut Garrett Breedlove:

“There were countdowns when I had my doubts. I said to myself, ‘You agreed to do it, you’re strapped in and you’re in the hands of something bigger and more powerful than yourself. So why not just lay back and enjoy the ride?’ ”

Nor is Cuban much interested in what anyone else thinks since he knows he’s right, even if the world doesn’t always capitulate right away.

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Take his Mavericks, who have yet to win a title, although he knows why. Unfortunately, his suggestions about improving NBA officiating have cost him $1.45 million to date in fines levied by Commissioner David Stern.

It culminated in Cuban’s $250,000 blowup as the Mavericks melted down in last spring’s Finals. Stern has since captured his attention, getting his fellow owners to sign onto a code of conduct that could be known as the Cuban Rules.

Cuban has yet to be fined a penny this season, although Phoenix’s Robert Sarver was hit for $25,000 for yelling at referees from his courtside seat.

Cuban insists he has seen the light, sounding like a defendant confessing in a show trial.

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“I’m a disciple of David now,” he says. “WWDD. What would David do? I ask myself before I do anything -- anything -- what would David do?”

Cuban used to say he could lose $20 million a season for a long time before using up his $2 billion. Now he says he’s a graduate of David Stern University, where “they tell me in finance class that being in the black is very important....

“Being under the luxury tax level is important because of the impact on your partners, and I didn’t realize that, but I was wrong and now I’ve learned.”

He and Stern haven’t talked since last spring, but Cuban says, “We don’t have to. We have that connection now.

“You’ve heard of wifi? This is David-fi.”

If it often seems Cuban lives in an alternative reality, there’s no escaping the fact that his is the one with the fortune estimated at $1.8 billion; his NBA team; his cable network with Dan Rather running the news division; his production company that made George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck,” and “Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room,” and his Boeing 757 with the weight room and the HD TVs that he lent Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes for their wedding in Italy.

Whatever Cuban is -- brilliant, obsessive, charming, blustering -- he’s not going away.

In an age of manufactured stars with bland personalities, he’s bigger than life, the NBA’s Al Davis or George Steinbrenner, whose mere presence creates excitement that makes up for the furor bubbling in his wake.

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Anyone who doesn’t like it had better get earplugs, from Stern to the media to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson (whom Cuban called “my bucket boy”) and people Cuban hasn’t even gotten to yet.

Revenge of the Nerd

“Think about how many industries there are where people hate my guts. Basketball, movies, the sports media? I mean, hey, that’s a pretty good scorecard!”

-- Cuban,

New York Magazine

Aug. 7, 2006

Before Cuban bought the Mavericks, no one looked at him as if he were crazy, for long anyway.

“Not till I got to the NBA,” he says. “Never. I mean, I’ve been pretty successful in all the business things I’ve done.”

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The self-described “short, fat kid” from Pittsburgh, “one of the Jewish kids who hang out in the library,” was a millionaire at 31 and a billionaire at 40 after selling Broadcast.com to Yahoo.

“People think Broadcast.com was my first successful business,” he said. “Not even close. I was retired before we even started Broadcast.com. People don’t realize that.

“I moved to L.A., lived on the beach and took acting classes to meet good-looking women and just had fun. I kicked ass in the stock market. I mean, I was just making money hand over foot. They took my trading numbers, a bunch of guys at Goldman Sachs, and started a hedge fund that we wound up selling to a bigger hedge fund....

“So no one ever said, ‘Don’t do what you do.’ They were like, ‘What are you going to do next?’ ”

Securing his place as a business legend, he cashed out his Yahoo stock before it peaked above $100. It closed Tuesday at $26.75.

Ready for bigger toys, Cuban bought the moribund Mavericks, arriving late in the 1999-2000 season like a bolt of lightning.

Showing his daring, he signed Dennis Rodman, who was fresh off wrecking the Lakers the season before. Rodman promptly torpedoed the Mavericks’ late drive to make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, lasting 13 games, of which they lost nine.

It was an inauspicious start to something big. The Mavericks have won at least 50 games every season since.

Cuban and Coach Don Nelson co-existed until Nelson could take it no longer, whereupon Cuban transitioned seamlessly to Avery Johnson.

Nelson is now suing Cuban for deferred pay. Cuban, who smolders at every call against his team, shrugs it off, saying, “With Nellie, there’s always drama.”

With Cuban, the drama never ended. Utah Coach Jerry Sloan once said he wished “Cuban could buy another team so he can get the best players off two teams and win a championship so we don’t have to listen to him anymore.”

Cuban’s long-sought championship seemed at hand last spring when the Mavericks went ahead two games to none in the Finals against Miami. Cuban joked about wearing Speedos to the victory celebration.

“I’ll be happy if he’s clothed,” Stern said.

Big ‘D’ as in ‘Downcast’

Cuban was an institution by then. If other owners were aghast at his lavish spending on high-salaried castoffs (Antoine Walker, Raef LaFrentz), Cuban was the people’s owner, reachable at his e-mail address listed on the team’s website. He barely ever blew up, saying fatherhood had changed him.

It was also the first time the Mavericks made the Finals. The dark side beckoned anew, placing Cuban on a collision course with Stern.

Stern is now waging his own campaign against the notion that his referees intentionally influence outcomes. Unfortunately, unlike baseball and the NFL, his league is the one in which players and team officials had grown used to questioning the integrity of their own system.

Small markets say Stern doesn’t want them in the Finals. Glamour teams say he draws out their series. Teams with Shaquille O’Neal say O’Neal is fouled on every play; everyone else says O’Neal runs their defenders over on every play.

With Cuban, it’s not a suspicion but a lifestyle. To a man, his players are convinced they never get the benefit of the doubt because the referees hate their owner.

Cuban’s zeal flows through the fans, who revel in living up to the team’s slogan, “rowdy, loud and proud.” In sleek Big D, which prides itself on its urbanity, fans booed an old favorite like the Spurs’ Michael Finley, after which both local papers advised them to boo another, Steve Nash of the Suns.

Actually, Cuban’s rage may cut both ways. In any case, it was back.

Last spring in the second round of the playoffs, he stormed onto the floor after Game 1 in San Antonio and was fined $200,000. The Mavericks then won Game 3 with a 50-32 edge in free throws; Game 4 on Dirk Nowitzki’s free throws after a little bump by Bruce Bowen, and Game 7 after Nowitzki got away with hacking Tim Duncan to prevent the winning layup.

In the Finals, Cuban managed to stay on his best behavior, even as the Mavericks blew an 89-76 lead with 6:34 left in Game 3, then as the Heat tied the series in Game 4.

The era of good feeling ended abruptly in Game 5. Leading, 100-99, at the end of overtime, the Mavericks watched in horror as Dwyane Wade weaved through their entire team as if they were traffic cones, got the call with :01 left and won the game, 101-100, with two free throws.

“I was kind of right there with him [Cuban], going at the referees,” says Darrell Armstrong, then a Maverick, now an Indiana Pacer. “Wade hopped into the backcourt. Pushed JT [Jason Terry] off. And then took some steps. And then got fouled. I think that would make anybody go crazy.”

Cuban yelled at referee Joe DeRosa, glared at Stern and railed about the officials in the dressing room.

Stern fined Cuban another $250,000, but it may have been nothing compared with the damage to the Mavericks’ psyche.

They were already feeling the pressure, changing hotels in Miami as Johnson uncharacteristically bristled at the media. Back in Dallas for Game 6, the Mavericks sank with barely a ripple, blowing a 14-point lead and falling, 105-102.

Suggesting that Cuban’s anger had been a problem, Nowitzki dared to ask him to tone it down publicly.

“He loves us and he gets fired up once in a while,” Nowitzki said two weeks later at a team clinic. “Well, all the time, really....

“Do I think it’s a bit much sometimes? Yeah. He’s got to learn how to control himself as well as the players do.... He’s got to improve in that area and not yell at the officials the whole game....

“We live with who he is and we love him that way. But do I think it’s good for us always? No.”

Cuban, asked about it months later, says, “At David Stern University, we don’t reflect on the past. We learn from it and pay attention to the future.”

Stern is back to talking about Cuban’s good points.

“Mark remains engaged in league activities as a member of the planning committee and a provider of ideas in digital matters,” Stern said from New York.

“With respect to his sense of humor, to each his own. But we think he does a great job for the Mavericks and their fans.”

Cuban isn’t quite as engaged these days, routinely turning down media requests, saying he won’t publicize the NBA outside Dallas. Home games feature a comedy routine with a buffoonish fan who says he’s running for NBA commissioner.

The big question is, if he puts his team at a disadvantage, why doesn’t Cuban just play the game like the other owners?

“That suggests the referees would cheat!” he says. “I don’t believe the referees would ever cheat!”

Good night and good luck.

*

mark.heisler@latimes.com

*

Begin text of infobox

Cuban effect

Since Mark Cuban took over as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks in 1999, the Mavericks have won more than 50 games six times (twice winning 60) and reached the NBA Finals last season.

SEVEN SEASONS WITH CUBAN

* Regular-season record...380-194

* Playoff appearances...6

SEVEN SEASONS BEFORE CUBAN

* Regular-season record...149-393

* Playoff appearances...0

Source: basketball-reference.com


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