Keeping Score

The Mavs’ Big Winner: Mark Cuban’s New Image

The brash Dallas Mavericks owner, never an easy guy to root for, is now widely admired. Here are some lessons we can learn from his (never boring) journey

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Ron T. Ennis / Fort Worth Star-Telegram / MCT / Getty Images

Dallas Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban carries the NBA championship trophy ahead of player Dirk Nowitzki on June 13, 2011

Whiner. Before this year’s NBA playoffs, that would have been one of the first words that came to mind, for many people, if someone mentioned Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. After all, this is the guy who has racked up around $1.7 million in fines over the past decade for criticizing the league and its referees. Go ahead and Google it. “Mark Cuban and whiner.” You’ll see only 533,000 results.

Another insult frequently directed at Cuban was baby. During the 2009 Western Conference semifinals, after Cuban told the mother of Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin that her son was a “punk” and “thug,” a Nuggets fan held up a poster of Cuban’s head attached to a baby holding a bottle.

(See pictures of Mark Cuban.)

After all the years of derision, Cuban has become used to the name-calling. Over the past few days, however, he’s been referred to in very different ways: winner, for instance, and even classy. Oh, and all the while, he’s been busy cradling the NBA championship trophy. Like it’s his baby.

In fact, it’s hard to think of another sports executive who’s so transformed his image, in so short a time, as Mark Cuban.

Most sports fans could always find some reason to at least grudgingly respect Cuban. In 1999 he sold his Internet-radio business to Yahoo! for $5.9 billion in stock. He injected life into a horrid basketball team. Since Cuban bought the Mavs in January 2000, the team has reached the playoffs in each of the 11 full seasons of his tenure. Prior to his arrival, Dallas had missed the playoffs nine straight years.

But he has always been hard to like and hard to root for. He’s cocky and brash and incessantly gripes, whether to the media or directly to the refs on the floor. He’s also been way overexposed. At games, you couldn’t miss him, sitting courtside in jeans and T-shirt, exhorting his players as if he were their coach or one of them. And Cuban briefly had his own reality show, called The Benefactor, in which 16 aspiring entrepreneurs competed for a $1 million prize from the Dallas owner. It flopped — worse than any NBA player Cuban has accused of faking fouls.

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Then came this year’s playoffs. After Dallas knocked off the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, Cuban decided to stay mum during Dallas’ second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was quite a departure. He had dissed Lakers forward Ron Artest back in March. “Anything that puts the ball in Ron Artest’s hands is always a good thing,” Cuban said. For years, Cuban has been publicly jawing with then Lakers coach Phil Jackson. In January, he called Jackson “Jeanie Buss’s boy toy,” referring to Jackson’s romantic relationship with Buss, the team’s vice president of business operations and daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss.

“I knew the questions everyone was going to ask,” Cuban explained to the postgame press after Dallas knocked off the Miami Heat on June 12. “They were going to ask me about my repartee with Phil Jackson and the things I said about Ron Artest. I didn’t want to get in the middle of a back-and-forth about that.”

Then a funny thing happened: while Cuban kept quiet, the Mavericks kept winning, sweeping the Lakers in commanding, shocking fashion. Next up, in the Western Conference finals, were the young, surging Oklahoma City Thunder, and Cuban knew the media wanted to inject him into the story line. Cuban had been one of only two owners who opposed the relocation of the Seattle Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, since Dallas and the Oklahoma capital are only some 200 miles apart. Cuban knew he’d receive questions about his opposition, so he shut up again. The Mavs won the series in five games.

(See 10 big stories to follow in the NBA this season.)

At this point, Cuban would have been an idiot to act the way he did during the Mavs’ 2006 finals loss to the Heat, when his rants against the refs — though understandable, since the officiating in that series was atrocious — became a sideshow. “It didn’t make sense to say anything,” Cuban says to the press. “The quieter I got, the more we won. I didn’t want to break the karma.”

Give the man credit. It wasn’t easy for a carnival barker like Cuban to remain low-key during the finals, when the world’s attention was focused on his team. (This year’s Game 6, for example, notched the highest rating for a Game 6 in 11 years.) And though Dallas may well have still beaten Miami if Cuban had been a distraction, it certainly made it easier for the Mavs that he wasn’t.

And after Dallas clinched, Cuban made the classiest (there’s that word) public move of his career. On a stage in Miami, he stepped aside to let Donald Carter, the team’s founding owner and the man most responsible for bringing an NBA franchise to the Metroplex in 1980, accept the championship trophy from NBA commissioner David Stern. “He’s become the owner I always wanted him to become because of his love for the game,” Carter said afterward. “He played it just right.”

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That doesn’t mean, however, that Cuban has suddenly become a recluse who never wants to make waves. Far from it. After the victory, he took a well-deserved shot at Miami’s fans, who allowed the hundreds of Mavs supporters to drown them out in Miami during Game 6. “Our fans just punked the s— out of Miami fans,” he said during a live ESPN interview after Dallas clinched the title. He was proud to announce that he had slept with the Larry O’Brien trophy, and a picture of him cradling it in one hand while he relieved himself at a urinal made the rounds online.

He has even talked about forgoing gaudy championship rings, the traditional signs of superiority for professional players, in favor of some other kind of celebratory token. Good riddance. Those oversized rocks were not meant for the human hand. (That may be a minority opinion, however. Some of Cuban’s players, including finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, are not too hot on this idea, so he may cave).

(See pictures of the NBA finals from Sports Illustrated.)

But Cuban’s evolution as an owner isn’t just a heartwarming sports tale; his decisions this postseason, and throughout the past few years, offer useful lessons for fellow owners — or any business leader, for that matter.

Start with how he stuck with Nowitzki. After crushing Dallas losses in the 2006 finals and then the 2007 playoffs, in which the top-seeded Mavs fell to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round, Cuban could have blown up the team. Many prognosticators called for him to do so. He did make changes, but they were gradual, with Nowitzki and streak shooter Jason Terry remaining at the core. In 2008 he traded a talented young point guard, Devin Harris, for one most people figured was fading, Jason Kidd. The move bucked convention and initially seemed to backfire, but it was Kidd who nailed several of the clutch threes in the finals.

After last season and another early-round Mavs playoff exit, he could have let Nowitzki walk and made a more serious run at LeBron James. Instead, he re-signed Dirk for four more years, at a total of $80 million, thus avoiding LeBron’s summer spectacle and his fourth-quarter failures and media mishaps. (James, who suggested in a post-finals press conference the he didn’t care what his critics said about him because they still had their miserable middle-class lives to go back to, could take some tips on holding his tongue from Cuban.)

In 2008 Cuban, maybe the most player-friendly owner in the league — everything in Dallas, from the locker rooms to the practice facilities to the charter flights, is first-class — hired a coach, Rick Carlisle, with a reputation for wearing down players. To many observers, it seemed an odd match. But Cuban looked at Carlisle’s data, saw his reputation for improving struggling teams and made a decidedly unsexy coaching hire.

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And speaking of data, Cuban was one of the early adopters of the advanced analytics that truly quantified the trends of the game. He’s the first owner to let a pure stat geek, Roland Beech, sit within earshot of the bench during the game.

Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson, who has been with the team 13 years, gives Cuban credit for knowing when to loosen the managerial leash. When Cuban first took over the team, Nelson says, the owner was at every meeting, every practice, learning the business and evaluating his employees. If he still micromanaged like that a decade leader, it would be suffocating. “As soon as you earn Mark’s trust, you earn the freedom card,” says Nelson.

Not surprisingly, some of the old guard are not entirely convinced that guys like Cuban are good for pro sports. Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, for example, said this week that he would be “on guard” if Cuban were to take over a baseball franchise. (Cuban put in unsuccessful bids for the Texas Rangers last year and the Chicago Cubs in 2009. Reportedly, some baseball owners weren’t keen on the idea of Cuban shaking things up).

“I mean, winning is not everything, and I’m afraid for some of these owners,” Vincent said during a June 15 radio interview. “They get so carried away with winning, they believe that’s the objective.”

And what, exactly, is wrong with winning? Or, put another way, for fans of downtrodden franchises, the question is simple.

Would you want Mark Cuban owning your team?

See “Dallas Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban.”