The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bob Voulgaris made millions betting on the NBA. The Mavs are gambling on him.

Mark Cuban's team is getting a fresh set of eyes. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will seek out any innovation if he thinks it will help his team win, whether it’s building the NBA’s most scientifically advanced locker room or partnering with a company that makes personalized pillows for his players in the hopes that it would help them sleep better. He’s also never hidden the fact that he thinks legalized sports gambling will be a godsend for both his team and pro sports in general.

And when you combine those two trains of thought, you get the news that came down Thursday from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe, who report that Cuban has hired former sports gambler Bob Voulgaris to be his director of quantitative research and development.

Cuban “is expected to utilize Voulgaris as a strategic thinker who will help examine on-court strategy in big-picture ways,” the ESPN scribes report.

Voulgaris has long been a minor celebrity among a certain subset of NBA fans, amassing 143,000 Twitter followers and making numerous appearances on Bill Simmons’s podcasts. He hit his first jackpot in 2000, when he bet his life savings — somewhere around $80,000 — on the Los Angeles Lakers to win the NBA title at 6.5-to-1 odds. That win bankrolled his early sports-gambling career, and he continued to win after picking up on a flaw in the bookmakers' thinking, as Scott Eden explained in a 2013 ESPN the Magazine story:

It all had to do with how most bookmakers set their halftime totals, the predicted number of points scored in each half of the game. Each half, of course, is its own discrete period of play, and the fourth quarters of close games can end in elongated foul-clogged stretches of free throws, timeouts, fast play and, hence, a burst of scoring. But incredibly, bookmakers at the time didn’t account for this fact; they simply arrived at a total for the full game and cut that figure roughly down the middle, assigning some 50 percent of the points to the first half and 50 percent to the second.

For years, Voulgaris exploited this edge, playing both sides of it repeatedly. It is possible to say that it alone made him millions, combined with some keen observations regarding the game-management tendencies of three head coaches: Eddie Jordan, Jerry Sloan and Byron Scott. “Those were three coaches I had nailed perfectly,” Voulgaris, now 37, says. “I knew exactly what they were going to do. I mean, it was a joke, it was so easy.”

From there, his gambling career ebbed and flowed as the linemakers got smarter at thwarting such thinking. Voulgaris and a partner also developed Ewing, a computer model that simulated games based on the data the forward-thinking NBA unleashed on the world earlier this century. But gambling on games was one thing; having a stake in the game is something entirely different, and the thought enticed Voulgaris to the point where, during the 2009-10 NBA season, he signed a contract with an unnamed co-owner of an NBA franchise to consult on the team’s roster construction. The job lasted five months.

Voulgaris, a Canadian by birth, got the gambling bug from his father, whom he fondly described as a “borderline degenerate” in a Business Insider story from 2011. But even though his dad never got rich by betting on horses and the like — he was, however, a successful commercial real estate developer — Vougaris said the lessons gained from his formative years were crucial.

“I learned a lot from my father, but most of the stuff I learned was what didn’t work,” he told Business Insider. “I learned that if you didn’t have an edge on something you weren’t going to win. I learned that if you didn’t moderate your temperament and think rationally, no matter how big your edge was you probably aren’t going to win long term. And also I learned that in life you have to be willing to take risks because quite often the biggest gamble of all is just sitting around waiting for the perfect opportunity that may not ever come.”

All of this — except maybe the temperament-moderation part — has to be catnip to Cuban and his jones for innovation. As does Voulgaris’s brashness about his ability to help an NBA team.

“This is going to sound really arrogant, but the whole process has led me to believe that I’d be able to put together a better team than almost any general manager in the league,” he told Eden in 2013. “If not maybe all.”

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