Sunday, January 3, 2010
Updated: January 5, 12:24 PM ET
Cuban era has been anything but boring
By Tim MacMahon
DALLAS -- The waitress at the trendy new club approached Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash with a pair of drinks and pointed to the gentleman across the room who had paid for them.
The basketball-playing buddies, who had yet to reach celebrity status, didn't intend to drink that night. But they had less interest in engaging in a conversation with the man they recognized as a courtside season-ticket holder known for his rants, so they waved politely, sipped on their drinks and tried to avoid eye contact before departing.
A few weeks later, the Dallas Mavericks were informed that the team had been sold. Oh, and the new owner had mentioned something about buying drinks recently for Nash and Nowitzki.
"I'm thinking, 'Ohhhh, no! That dude!'" Nowitzki recalled a decade later. "I knew right away who it was: the guy from the front row who is always killing Steve when he was subbing in and always had words for the bench. He was like a really involved fan, so I thought, 'This is going to be an experience.'"
It didn't take long for the big German to change his mind about Mark Cuban, who won over the Mavericks with his generosity, passion and commitment to winning. But man, was Nowitzki ever right about this being an experience.
Cuban reached an agreement to pay $285 million for the Mavericks on Jan. 4, 2000. The Mavericks' rise from league laughingstock to one of the NBA's elite since then has been a wild ride, with Cuban leading the way in his uniquely brash, charismatic, energetic, occasionally obnoxious, always heavily involved manner.
"Ten years? It seems like 50," commissioner David Stern said with a chuckle.
Love Cuban or hate him -- and Stern insists that he leans toward love, regardless of Cuban's often adversarial relationship with the league office -- there's no denying that the self-made billionaire has been a revolutionary force during his decade in charge of the Dallas franchise.
Cuban has been ahead of the curve when it comes to the arena entertainment experience, ushering in an era of rah-rah public address announcers and comedic videos played on the big screens during timeouts. Stern credits him for being on the forefront of the league's technology movements.
Cuban believes he has effected change in the way games are officiated and referees are hired, trained, observed and tracked, with Stern acknowledging that the league has implemented some of Cuban's countless suggestions, although the commissioner has fined Cuban more than $1 million over the years for criticism of officials that wasn't considered constructive.
Of course, Cuban also helped the NBA become relevant in Dallas again. He decided that he wanted to buy the Mavericks while complaining about the poor product to his date during the opener of the 1999-2000 season, which ended up being the franchise's 10th consecutive losing campaign. Since then, the Mavs have won at least 50 games each season, a feat matched by only the San Antonio Spurs during that span.
And Cuban has had a blast along the way -- his primary goal in the first place, along with winning a championship.
"I saw it just as a dream come true and a way to have fun," Cuban said, "which is the way I still look at it."
Cuban, who made billions in the Internet bubble, has never treated basketball like his other businesses. It's a high-priced passion for him. It's a bonus if he makes a profit, which the Mavericks have done for only one season during his tenure.
He'd much rather lose money -- and the Mavs' financial losses are in "the low nine figures" during his watch -- than lose games.
From Cuban's first day at Reunion Arena, it was clear that he wouldn't conform to conventional wisdom. He proved that by retaining a coaching staff that was so certain it would be fired that it went out for "the last supper" the previous night in snowy Denver, discussing all the things they might have done differently.
Wearing his customary outfit of jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers, Cuban walked into coach/general manager Don Nelson's office the next day, expressed his support and explained how he planned to help.
Cuban essentially changed everything without firing anyone that season. He put an end to the "nickel and diming" of the previous ownership by renovating the run-down locker room, putting the team up in five-star hotels, providing catering after practices and games, purchasing a 757 jet for team flights, investing in advanced statistical and analytical studies to aid scouting, and beefing up the coaching staff until there was a 1-to-1 player-to-coach ratio.
"Mark came along when this franchise really needed a shot in the arm," said Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, an assistant coach under his father when Cuban bought the team. "Nellie and I had battle fatigue like you wouldn't believe. Mark was the fresh troops on the horizon, the cavalry coming to the rescue."
Cuban certainly found his way to the middle of the action, palling around with the players and making sure he was involved in or at least informed about every decision, whether it was on the business or basketball side.
In the early days, he attended almost every practice, often challenging players to H-O-R-S-E or one-on-one afterward. During games, most owners sit in their luxury boxes and monitor the bottom line. Cuban sits mere feet away from the team bench, close enough to communicate with his employees throughout the course of the game.
"The only thing they ever won in the '90s was the award for the worst professional sports franchise," Cuban said. "That just wasn't me, and I wasn't writing that big of a check just to stand around. It was a big investment, and I was going to do all I can to get the most out of it."
Asked what makes him proudest about his decade with the Mavericks, Cuban points to the franchise's loyal fan base, which was rebuilt under his watch. The month after buying the team, Cuban created a buzz by signing Dennis Rodman, which failed from a basketball perspective (he was released after 12 games) but was a genius PR move.
"Just to get the Mavericks back on the map, to have people talking about us again in this city, it was great," said Nowitzki, the only holdover from that Mavericks roster.
The Mavs have managed to stay on the map since then. They've played in front of packed houses their last 333 games at the American Airlines Center, the longest active sellout streak in the league. Cuban regularly reads and replies to e-mails from fans, occasionally incorporating their ideas into the game presentation, such as the creation of the Mavs ManiAACs, an all-overweight-male dance group. He boasts about reducing ticket prices when most other pro sports franchises keep finding reasons to raise them.
"Every group of fans wants to feel that their local team has someone who is living, eating and breathing their competitive situation, their future and their enjoyment of the environment in the arena," Stern said. "On those fronts, Mark has been a terrific leader and owner of the team."
Added Nowitzki: "It's not only basketball to him. It's a show, and he definitely fits in it. He's a showman. He loves it."
Bumps in the road
Not that the Cuban era has been pure bliss.
He's made more than his fair share of enemies. Cuban's bitter breakup with Don Nelson led to a lengthy legal battle over the former coach/general manager's compensation. Cuban also tangled with previous owner Ross Perot Jr. in the courtroom over contractual issues. He's exchanged heated words with a long list of people, including but not limited to coaches, league officials, other owners, referees, opposing players and even an opposing player's mother, as was the case during last season's playoff series against the Denver Nuggets.
To put it kindly, Cuban is an intense competitor. He could also be called a sore loser.
"He's emotional, but his emotions, however they manifest, are really directed toward one thing," Rick Carlisle, the third head coach who has worked for Cuban, said during that series with the Nuggets. "And I'm absolutely convinced of this: That is putting forth the best product for our fans. I know this.
"When he walks in that building and sees a full house, that's something that he does not take for granted. He feels as though everybody in that building is part of his family, and he feels an obligation to not only win, but provide a great experience."
Cuban has few regrets, with the exceptions being ill-advised personnel moves that didn't improve the basketball product and cost him millions of dollars.
What about the battles with referees and the league office?
"Oh, no. That was fun," Cuban said. "That was fun, because I knew I was doing the right thing that would be best for the league. I wasn't just spitting in the wind. I truly believed that it would be better for the league as a whole, and it was my job as a partner. I think it has benefited the league as a whole."
It didn't benefit the Mavericks during the 2006 Finals, the final four games of which were anything but fun for Cuban. After taking a 2-0 lead, Dallas didn't win again, ruining parade plans released by the city of Dallas before the teams departed for Miami.
In Dallas, the series will always be remembered for Heat star Dwyane Wade's parade to the free-throw line in the last four games. Cuban was fined $250,000 after Game 5 for expressing his displeasure with some controversial calls, fueling the conspiracy theories of Mavericks fans.
Cuban was so frustrated and distraught after the Finals that he seriously considered selling the team that offseason. He claims that he would have if he'd gotten a good offer. It took about a year "before I got back to trusting the NBA again," Cuban said.
Maybe Cuban has mellowed some since those Finals. After all, he's been fined only twice for a total of $50,000 in the last two-plus seasons. He picks his battles with the league more carefully and has become more patient with the bureaucratic process, having learned what to expect.
As a married father of three, he's not around the team as often as he was when he was single during his early days of ownership. ("For him to be at practice, now we've got to lose a couple of games in a row for him to actually come and watch what the hell's going on," Nowitzki said.)
However, the passion and competitive juices still flow in Cuban. He remains determined to do anything in his power to finally give Mavs fans that parade in Dallas.
"This is his baby, man," Donnie Nelson said. "He's going to give his heart, his soul, his everything to help this team be successful. He's the ultimate custodian of this community asset."
After 10 wild years, that's worth a toast.
Tim MacMahon covers the Dallas Mavericks for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.