DALLAS — If the Los Angeles Clippers seek a hands-on owner to succeed Donald Sterling, their blueprint was clad in a blue T-shirt and jeans, seated as usual only a few yards from the Dallas Mavericks’ bench area on Friday night.
That’s standard game garb for Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who occupies Section 114, Row 1, Seat 13 on the baseline. But “occupy” is an ephemeral term. The frenetic Cuban, 55, is up and about much of the game, putting the hands in hands-on.
He lined up amid Dallas’ reserve players and support staffers to slap hands with the starters as they were announced to the amped-up, sellout crowd at American Airlines Center before the Mavericks’ first-round Game 6 playoff meeting with the San Antonio Spurs.
He hugged backup center DeJuan Blair when the blue-collar favorite left the game in the final seconds of the 113-111 Mavs victory, having contributed to the Mavericks’ late rally that forced the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed into a deciding Game 7.
There was another hug minutes later on the opposite side of the court for Mavs guard Monta Ellis after the star of the game finished a live ESPN interview.
There hasn't seemed to be a similar climate between Sterling and his Clippers. Former player Baron Davis, for one, used the words "barriers" and "buffers" to describe his dealings with the owner during his stint with the Clippers. Not to mention being "heckled" by Sterling and called "bastard" and "devil."
Now, with revelations over the past week depicting Sterling as a racist, tone-deaf NBA owner, the relationship between NBA owners and players, coaches and fans has come into question.
If Donald Sterling represents all that's awful and piteous in the NBA old boys' ownership club, Cuban represents the new, progressive guard of NBA ownership.
Cuban is famously involved in the daily operations of the club on both the business and basketball sides. Donnie Nelson, the team’s president of basketball operations, was on staff when Cuban took over the team a few days into Y2K. He admitted to being “unnerved” when the high-tech billionaire immediately explained he’d be heavily involved in all decisions, both business and basketball.
“It was like being a teacher and having the principal, who you saw twice a year, come into your classroom every day, every class,” Nelson said. “But it didn’t take us long to realize he took us 10 notches up.”
Here are the notches.
When Cuban signed on, Dallas was rolling toward its 10th consecutive season of not qualifying for the playoffs. One finish of 13-69 represented a two-game improvement.
In Cuban’s 14 full seasons, the Mavericks have qualified for the postseason 13 times, reached the finals twice and won the only championship in the club’s 34-year history.
On the business side, the Mavericks list sellouts for 514 consecutive regular-season home games since December 2001, plus 63 straight playoff games. Forbes lists the Mavericks eighth in NBA team valuations at $765 million.
Mavericks players receive their share of Cuban love. Each player’s locker at American Airlines Center contains a flat-screen TV and a PlayStation. When Mavericks forward Shawn Marion needed to get to Chicago between Games 2 and 3 of the Spurs series for the birth of his first child, he hopped a ride on Cuban’s private plane.
There’s also constant virtual interaction with fans (and critics) via email and Twitter. Plus his Blog Maverick site on which he discourses on sports and business.
Guard Devin Harris returned to Dallas this season in free agency and said Cuban’s presence was a factor. He noted the Mavericks provide more extensive medical attention than any of the other clubs that he has played for.
Cuban is also the most media-available owner in the league, but he declined on Friday morning to discuss his ownership. His standard pre-game media briefing—conducted during home games in the team’s workout area with Cuban on a stair-stepper—lasted only a few minutes instead of the usual 20 to 30.
Nelson said Cuban made it clear from the beginning that “everyone sells at all times to all people.” That includes the No. 10 career scorer in league history:
And if Dirk Nowitzki is willing to do the following for an in-game video, what Mavericks teammate wouldn’t join him?:
Much of Cuban’s high media profile could be classified as playful, part of selling the game. He has called San Antonio’s downtown River Walk “ugly ass.” Phil Jackson was a frequent target—“Jeanie Buss’ boy-toy”—when coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, and Jackson was more than happy to play along.
But Cuban has also directed frequent and pointed criticisms at the NBA office, particularly at its officiating. He has racked up at least $2 million in fines for comments made through media, his online avenues or confrontations on the court. David Stern, the recently retired commissioner, said Cuban “is high maintenance but he's a plus for the league.”
Cuban was particularly vexed by the officiating in the 2006 NBA Finals, which Dallas lost to the Miami Heat. Weeks later, Nowitzki was quoted by The Dallas Morning News (via Deadspin) saying Cuban needed to show more restraint: “He’s got to improve in that area and not yell at officials the whole game. I don’t think that helps us.”
While Cuban is involved in personnel decisions, he leaves the coaching to the coaches—Rick Carlisle for the past six seasons.
"Everything but X's and O's," Nelson said, via ESPN's The Herd.
Cuban was occasionally piqued by calls on Friday night, jawing only from his seat area, but ultimately had a huge victory to celebrate.
Most of the crowd had taken its jubilation into the Dallas night when one of the remaining arena workers grinned and noted, “Should be another good week for season-ticket renewals.”