The NBA's True Maverick

Mark Cuban
When Mavericks owner Mark Cuban bought the franchise it was one of the worst in the NBA, just six years later he has Dallas playing in the finals. (Tim Heitman - NBAE/Getty Images)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006

DALLAS, June 7 -- The day before this city hosts its first NBA Finals game, the man credited with the franchise's turnaround was seated at the scorer's table at American Airlines Center in a beat-up, sleeveless Dallas Mavericks T-shirt and shorts, fresh from a morning workout.

Just about every other NBA owner would have looked out of place at the first day of media availability, but not Mark Cuban, the self-made billionaire. He blended right in, sort of, and garnered a larger crowd of reporters than Mavericks guard Devin Harris, a possible starter for Game 1 Thursday against Miami.

Cuban's fantasy is coming true. His team is in the Finals. His city is buzzing as if the Dallas Cowboys were in the Super Bowl. And, he's right in the middle of it all.

"It's the ultimate American dream," Cuban said. "I'm living this, not only for myself or my family but for a whole lot of people who would give anything to be right here doing this. I plan on carrying the torch with a big old smile. At certain points in our lives, we all dream about what might happen when we grow up, how much fun it will be if maybe A, B and C will happen for me. And A, B and C has happened to me. And, I'm going to have fun with it."

Even without his considerable wealth (he's worth a reported $1.8 billion) and his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to business, the 47-year-old Mavericks fan turned team owner would be hard to ignore. He is irrepressible -- some might say insufferable -- and constantly marketing himself and his team. He is on television or the radio marveling at his charmed existence ("When I die, I want to come back as me," he likes to say) on the Internet blogging about his do-no-wrong Mavericks or responding to countless e-mails. He is on the sideline heckling opponents and referees, in the team huddle, or in the locker room watching film before games.

Cuban was asked on Monday if he will conduct himself in a different manner now that his team finally has arrived following a steady six-year climb to respectability. Maybe he'll replace the "MFFL" (Mavericks Fan For Life) T-shirt with a Pat Riley Armani suit and take a more behind-the-scenes approach. "Yeah, I'm going to be wearing a suit and some masking tape across my mouth. No. That is the joy of all of this. To be able to come this far with a great group of guys knowing that I had some small part to play in it and just enjoying every single second of it. It wouldn't be right to say, 'Why don't I go out there and rip it up?' " Cuban said. "It's like going to Playboy mansion with two eye patches on. It doesn't make a point."

Cuban has been at the forefront from the moment he purchased the team for $280 million in February 2000. Since then, he has transformed a laughingstock franchise into one of its most formidable and recognizable. "When I first got to Dallas, nobody really knew us and you could go out anywhere. Nobody was paying attention to the Mavericks really and then Mark took over," said Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, the only player on the team with a longer tenure than Cuban.

Cuban sought upgrades to his roster, made risky trades for the likes of Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker, allowed Steve Nash to walk in free agency in 2004, handed over coaching duties from Don Nelson to the unproven Avery Johnson and cut spiritual leader Michael Finley using the league's one-time amnesty rule. The result was that the Mavericks tied a franchise record with 60 wins and made it to the NBA Finals for the first time in the franchise's 26-year history. "He's a smart man," Mavericks forward Jerry Stackhouse said. "He didn't become a billionaire by accident."

Cuban also changed the way the team recruited free agents, equipped his locker rooms with state-of-the-art equipment and technology and energized the morbid fan base in Dallas with exciting promotions and in-game entertainment. "Sometimes, you can lose sight of how much fun you're supposed to have with these teams. We take them seriously, but you're supposed to have fun. It looks like Cuban has a lot of fun," said Sacramento Kings co-owner Joe Maloof, who is friends with Cuban. "I think at first people were a little in awe of what he does. But we all know that he's trying to help the league. Look what he's done with [what once was] a dead market -- and a very, very important market. Dallas is a huge market for the NBA. He's turned that town around. That town is going crazy for the Mavericks."

With his brash attitude and willingness to stir the pot, Cuban has rankled NBA Commissioner David Stern on numerous occasions. "It's not like we talk a lot. We've got a normal business relationship," Cuban said of Stern. "There are things we agree on, there's things we disagree on and that makes for a healthy partnership. If we agreed on everything, he wouldn't need me and . . . I wouldn't need him."

Cuban has been an open critic of the league's officiating, amassing more than $1 million in fines. His most costly rant came following a loss in 2002, when he said he wouldn't hire Ed Rush, then the league's director of officials, "to manage at a Dairy Queen." The league fined him a record $500,000. The publicity has done wonders for the Mavericks' profile, leading some to wonder if you could ever fine Cuban enough. "Not to shut me up, but sell the team, yeah," Cuban said. "You get to the point where it's ridiculous, then they can push me out if that's what they desire. It's not about getting fined. I don't try to get fined unless I have a good reason to get fined."

This postseason, Cuban ran onto the court to express his frustration with the officials' performance in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against San Antonio, then criticized the selection of playoff referees on his blog, , drawing a $200,000 fine from the NBA for both offenses. The fines appeared to pay off later in the series, as Mavericks star Nowitzki benefited from two favorable and questionable calls near the ends of Games 3 and 4 in Dallas.

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