Mark Cuban sat in stunned silence behind his beloved Dallas Mavericks and awaited a respite from the cold, harsh reality about to smack him. This posthaste summer vacation would make him the unhappiest billionaire on the planet. If listening to a jubilant AT&T Center crowd did not infuriate him, one glance at a devastated Dirk Nowitzki would do the trick.
As the seconds ticked to zero, Cuban’s tolerance and burned ego also waited for a final buzzer. The look said it all: Not again.
His wayward stare became an unflappable scowl. His dejected face had done what his expensive team could not: win something. This unmistakable rush of manic depression was as memorable as the fist bump Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili shared.
Peter Holt smiled the way a successful businessman should, but he didn’t gloat or attempt any somersaults.The San Antonio Spurs' owner emotes when he needs to; Cuban does it for a living.
The Spurs had just eliminated the Mavericks in the first round, Dallas’ third early exit in four years, and not even Cuban’s obese wallet could console him.
The Mavericks’ animated boss doesn’t just invest or purchase stock in his franchise’s misery business. He lets it consume him.
On this lonely Thursday night all the money in the world could not buy this man back the dignity he would later surrender. He would not pay off this debt by cutting a check, or even cashing one. Losing to the Spurs had bankrupted his soul and confirmed his desperation.
In a makeshift press conference after the game, he congratulated the Spurs on a well-played series but lobbed another of his trademark tsk-tsks at Commissioner David Stern.
“I’m proud of the Mavericks tonight,” Cuban said. “I’m not proud of the NBA.” Translation: Blame the refs, not me or this team for another embarrassing finish.
These moments confirm Cuban as one of the best owners in professional sports.
They also place him among the worst. Who else gives these pressers? Has any basketball figurehead ever represented a proverbial pendulum with a tastier combination of grace and clumsiness?
Cuban spends like the late George Steinbrenner and exudes a similar enthusiasm. He might not fire Mavs interns on tough nights, but he roams the sidelines like an impoverished seven-year-old, either pumping up American Airlines Center crowds or inflating his own rage. He belongs to that top one percent of wealthy elitists yet screams at the zebras the way a die-hard fan strapped for cash might.
He knows how and when to use his mouth as a publicity machine. As this spring’s first round series shifted to San Antonio for Game Three, Cuban proclaimed, “I hate the Spurs.” He did so in jest to get more people talking about the rivalry, and it worked. Those who took him too seriously forgot about his chief role as the Mavericks ultimate marketer and advertising executive.
Maybe Dallas Cowboys chief Jerry Jones is a better comparison. Both men will say anything to sell a few tickets.
Cuban’s parade of controversial statements continued a few weeks ago when he said, “Hell yes” the Mavericks can topple the two-time defending champion L.A. Lakers. “We have more depth, and it’s not close,” he said.
Dirk Nowitzki, Caron Butler, Jason Kidd, Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler, Rodrigue Beaubois, J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, and Shawn Marion form an interesting core. Does anyone outside of Dallas think that rotation can best one that includes Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Derek Fisher, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, Steve Blake, and Matt Barnes? Does it matter?
Cuban wanted to drum up support and some outrage, just as he did in the playoffs. Even after a non-headline-grabbing summer—the biggest news was the injury Beaubois sustained that could force him to miss a chunk of the regular season—the characterization of the Mavs as title contenders continues. It does so because Cuban keeps the flame lit.
As one of the NBA’s perennial 50-win teams prepares for training camp, the question becomes more salient: Does the league’s outspoken crown jewel inhibit the Mavs’ progress more than he fosters it? Can his abrasive ownership model produce a champion?
Cuban keeps Dallas in the conversation because he forks up whatever is necessary to carry out his experiments. He doles out money until he finds the right mix.
Last summer he secured free-agent forward Marion, just a few years removed from a top 20 appearance in every major statistical category excluding turnovers, for half price. He gambled that Marion might still have enough left to work some alley-oop and pick-and-roll magic with an aging Kidd. When he had the chance to deal away headache forward Josh Howard to net Haywood and Butler, he spared no expense.
He handed Haywood a $55 million contract in July. Some called it a bargain buy. Others deemed it an albatross.
He turned the Erick Dampier trade chip into Tyson Chandler, not the first choice of Mavs’ fans who anticipated a star-studded summer of free agency. If it works, he will be deemed a genius. If Chandler flops or suffers another season-hampering injury, Cuban will open his wallet again.
GM Donnie Nelson and his staff work the phones, but Cuban works the real magic. Has any team with only one Finals appearance in a decade ever been hailed as a continual threat to overtake the NBA throne? He sells with conviction. If the on-court product disappoints him, he airs his frustration in emails and televised interviews. Sometimes he gets results.
When the Denver Nuggets drilled the Mavericks at the Pepsi Center by 37 points just before the All-Star break, Cuban said, “We suck right now.” One week later he acquired Butler and Haywood.
When lethargy enveloped the roster a year earlier, he threatened to trade anyone he saw slacking. A few months later, his Mavs ousted the crippled Spurs in the first round.
Through it all, Nowitzki has been the only constant. The German forward acts as the Joanie to Cuban’s Chachi, and a TV show about this employer-employee relationship would not flounder the way the boyfriend-girlfriend Happy Days spin-off did. Nowitzki rarely complains or demands attention. He even suggested that his owner take a chill pill during a tense 2006 battle with the Spurs.
Nowitzki would trade his numerous All-Star and All-NBA appearances for any of Duncan’s four titles. He remains as hungry as ever, and his clutch statistics back up that sentiment. He missed two critical free throws in the 2006 NBA Finals, but what about his fall-away jumper that should have ended pivotal Game Five? Or his perfect pass to Dampier to afford the Mavs a late lead?
The simple plays count the same. Bennett Salvatore also delivered one of the worst whistle tweets in league history, and it allowed Dwyane Wade to end a dream.
Cuban yelled “Bulls***” as he stomped away from Salvatore that night, and more grade-school petulance followed. The Mavericks core players have since inflicted enough wounds on themselves to merit the dreaded “choke” label. Dallas lives in infamy as the first one and two seed to accomplish a pair of dubious feats.
Yet, Cuban’s incessant gabbing has also done plenty of damage to the team’s image. The Mavericks are expected to play into late June because his mouth and his payroll say so. An owner that committed to luxury tax payments just wants to win. How Cuban does it, though, might explain why “interesting” and “excitement” are apt training camp buzzwords.
Dallas is indeed a model of consistency. Like an elementary school cafeteria’s menu, Cuban’s 50-plus-win advertisement delivers on its promise. The ingredients contained in the food, however, remain a mystery. Mavericks fans are just as likely to suffer from food poisoning as they are to encounter a perfectly-cooked filet mignon.
Dallas left three opponents dead in its three-round assassination spree in 2006, before it became the most gruesome victim in that postseason. Why, some tortured Mavs supporters ask, should anyone see this newest group under a different microscope?
Cuban, still the headline act of his funny bunch, can tell his dissenters all about it. Sometimes, as proven this spring, the joke is on the billionaire.
Mavericks' Five Burning Questions as Training Camp Opens
1. If Coach Rick Carlisle continues to bring Jason Terry off the bench, who starts at shooting guard? J.J. Barea? Can impressive rookie Dominique Jones make a case? Will Carlisle try forward Caron Butler there again?
2. The roster boasts above-average players at the end of its bench, but are the second, third, fourth, and fifth options behind Dirk Nowitzki good enough to handle, say, the Lakers’ top five ballers?
3. Can Carlisle whip this group into proper defensive shape? Can it become of the league’s premier units on that end of the floor?
4. If explosive sophomore Rodrigue Beaubois heals in time for the season opener, can he lock up a rotation spot and live up to the hype as Jason Kidd’s heir-apparent?
5. Nowitzki, 32, remains an MVP-caliber performer, but he needs backup assistance to save some wear and tear on his well-traveled body. Which camp candidate, if any, can procure that role? Can Butler, as suggested by a few, tackle some minutes at the four?