Maybe it's the abuse he hurls at referees. Or it could be his stint serving Dilly Bars at a Dairy Queen in Coppell, Tex. But around the NBA, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has a reputation for behaving more like a fan in the nosebleed seats than the guy who owns the team.
"He's about as goofy an owner as I've been around," says Randy Galloway, veteran sports scribe for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, who counts himself among Cuban's admirers.
Cuban, the billionaire co-founder of Broadcast.com, is still shaking things up. But his antics are a mere footnote to the real basketball story out of Dallas: This season, the Mavs are arguably the NBA's best team, outshining the Allen Iverson-led Philadelphia 76ers. After opening the season with 14 straight victories, they continue to pour it on. On Dec. 3, their 16-1 record led the league.
It's a far different team from the lame club Cuban bought from Ross Perot Jr. in January, 2000, for $280 million, including an interest in the American Airlines Center. That squad hadn't posted a winning record in nine years and hadn't made the playoffs for a decade. The playoff drought ended two years ago, and now the club is red hot.
Cuban, of course, hasn't hit a free throw or drawn up a play--coach Don Nelson gets a wide berth to handle the X's and O's. And Nelson, who collaborates with Cuban on personnel, has made the most of a lineup led by dead-eye shooters including Michael Finley and international stars Dirk Nowitzki of Germany and Steve Nash of Canada.
But Cuban, 44, may be having the best season. Every time the team fattens its lead in the standings, his quirky, fix-it-now style looks a little more clever. Attendance is up 25% since Cuban bought the team, and the Mavs have had 38 straight home sellouts. On the road now, they're the NBA's No. 3 draw.
Cuban is the Mavs's cheerleader-in-chief and a swell sugar daddy. He shows up at practices, attends almost every game, and travels with the team. He foots the bill for eight assistant coaches--most teams have two--and a $46 million Boeing 757 team jet, complete with training room and medical clinic.
Cuban wants motivated office workers, too, so he spends "a few hundred bucks" a month on massages for employees and a soda machine that dispenses free drinks. "We want [employees] excited to come to work, not dreading it," he says. He keeps up with Mavs fans, too, trading notes with those who e-mail him at Mark.Cuban@DallasMavs.com. Often, Cuban steers such conversations to customer service: whether the usher was polite, whether the music was too loud in the arena.
Cuban and his fellow owners haven't always seen eye to eye, though. He has ranted against referees for purportedly lax officiating, and NBA Commissioner David J. Stern has hit him with more than $1 million in fines--but failed to shush him. Last season, Cuban sentenced himself to a morning dishing ice cream after complaining that a league official wasn't fit "to manage a Dairy Queen."
Cuban has been quieter this year because, he claims, the officials are getting it right. "The easiest way to shut me up is to do something," Cuban says.
Maybe, but even owners who applaud Cuban's energy say he can talk too much. It irks some that he takes every perceived slight public. Many could be resolved quietly, they say, if Cuban worked within channels.
That applies to Cuban's latest crusade: modifying the NBA's payroll tax. The league instituted the tax--which is likely to hit teams with payrolls above $52 million--to discourage above-average payrolls such as the Mavs's $70 million-plus. But Cuban says it has had the unintended effect of rewarding teams that share in the penalty pool when his players are injured and new ones have to be signed. Without the tax, Cuban says, the Mavs would be at breakeven. With it, they will lose $20 million this season.
Cuban, who's worth an estimated $1.8 billion, says he'll absorb the losses. "To me, success isn't about how much money I have in the bank. It's how big a smile I have when I wake up."
Around the NBA, few officials see benefits to joining Cuban in a public debate. "I like Mark a lot. His ideas are terrific. But some folks--and I am one--would be even happier if he'd keep some of his terribly useful ones inside the tent instead of airing them publicly," says Atlanta Hawks President Stan Kasten.
Fat chance. Cuban figures to be just as outspoken when the season ends in June. If the Mavs are NBA champs, you might even hear his critique of the trophy.
By Mark Hyman