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Maverick

Talking with Dallas owner Mark Cuban about the playoffs, the Rockets rivalry, Rajon Rondo, Tim Donaghy, and his 15 outspoken, wild, and successful years in the NBA

It’s a Friday morning in early April, and Mark Cuban is limping through the underbelly of American Airlines Center in Dallas. He’s sore for two reasons: His surgically replaced hip aches after a pickup basketball game, and the Mavericks, which he owns, had lost a home game to their bitter rivals from Houston 12 hours earlier. Cuban hates losing, but he especially hates losing to the Rockets. As we arrive at his office, he keys in a security code on a number pad, and extends his busted-up hand for me to shake; one of his fingers is currently broken, and his pinkie is forever crooked from an old sports injury.

“I learned my lesson from not getting shit fixed. If you look at the AT&T commercial I did, it’s me shaking hands, right? But I can’t straighten out my pinkie finger, and people are like, ‘Are you giving a Vulcan sign or something?’ When I go to shake a hand, my finger is always going to be there like that. It’s pretty funny.”

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Cuban’s basement lair is 80 percent man cave, 20 percent office. There’s a bar on one side, a huge TV in the middle, a leather living-room set, and an endless amount of memorabilia. Then there’s a small corner, glassed in, where he can work at a desk. When we enter, the only light in the dark room comes from CNBC, and there are children’s blankets all over the couch.

“You can tell my kids were here last night,” he says as he flips the lights on, resets the room, settles into a leather chair, and cracks open a diet soda. He’s still pissed about the Rockets loss. James Harden was just too much. To hear Cuban tell it, both teams — each on the second night of back-to-backs — were tired and the product wasn’t great. “You saw an ugly game.”

Cuban became a billionaire by understanding and investing in streaming media, long before almost anybody else. He foresaw the world of Spotify and YouTube years before those platforms changed how we listen to and watch music and video. In the summer of 1999, he and his partners sold their company Broadcast.com to Yahoo for over $5 billion. Sixteen years later, he’s become the quintessential tycoon of our time — a tech-loving, reality-television superstar who doubles as one of the most visible owners in pro sports. On the street, he’s known as “the Shark Tank guy,” but he still self-identifies as the Mavericks guy. He loves sports, and he believes their communal power in some ways usurps the value of capital or celebrity.

“The best way to describe it is … pick a company — in Austin, Dell Computers; in Dallas, AT&T or American Airlines,” he says. “They can have the best quarter in the history of quarters — Apple is on track to have a trillion-dollar market cap … a trillion-dollar market cap! Ain’t nobody throwing a parade in Cupertino.”

There was a parade for Cuban’s Mavericks in the summer of 2011, after they shocked the basketball world by upsetting the Miami Heat in the Finals. That celebration took place just over 11 years after he bought the franchise for $285 million.

Some believed Cuban had foolishly overpaid for one of the laughingstock franchises in pro sports. “People saw me and said, ‘This guy, he’s all talk,’” he remembers. “There were articles being written where people were like, The Mavs making the playoffs? There’s no chance — no chance! This franchise sucks and it always will, and we don’t care who this kid is.”

Fifteen years later, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would call him a fool. Professional sports ownership has undergone a sea change, and perhaps no one person symbolizes the NBA’s recent financial and analytical awakening more than Cuban. He’s helped steer the boom, and he’s benefited from it. Cuban loves to talk about his arc as an owner, beginning with the awkward state of the league that he bought into, back in January 2000.

Back then, the league was looking for its next Jordan, mired in a pre-LeBron down cycle. But even if it wasn’t the glory days, from an investment perspective it was the perfect time to buy a piece of the pie. Cuban lights up as he recalls his first few months as a bull in the NBA china shop, disrupting a beleaguered hive mind. “Literally my first meeting, I remember it was basically in silence where it was just boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, rubber-stamped,” says Cuban. “I asked David [Stern] and I asked Jerry [Buss], ‘Are we allowed to talk?’ And David’s like, ‘Yeah!’ And that was it. The minute that door was opened, it was over.”

Whether the owners wanted it or not, those meetings were about to change; there was a new, loud voice in the room. Perhaps some of the animosity stemmed from the perception, among owners, that Cuban was nouveau riche.

“The big discrepancy with owners back then was: ‘Did you inherit it? Did you buy it for $10 million in 1975?’ And in 1975, $10 million is whatever it translates to now, $100 [million] or whatever. But you looked at things differently if you had paid $285 million. And that was the dichotomy in a lot of respects. I didn’t care so much about making a lot of money, but I wanted to run it like a business. Not a lot of teams did.”

In 2000, Cuban stood out, not just because of his age — 41 — but also because he was one of the first owners in American sports to emerge from the tech economy.1 He brought a start-up mentality to his new gig, claiming the league needed to wake up, revitalize the brand, and realize that pro sports were selling more than just sports.

“It was heresy to sit in a meeting to say, ‘We don’t sell basketball. Basketball’s not our product. We sell fun. We sell good times.’”

Cuban wanted to prove that smarter marketing could help the league fill its gyms with more fans. “It’s not about the sound of sneakers,” he says. “The hardcore fan is not who fills our arena, not even close. The people that listen to sports talk radio aren’t the people paying our bills. It’s the signal versus the noise. They’re the noise, they’re not the signal.”

He wanted to prove to himself, and to the rest of the league, that pro hoops was a hot ticket, even in places like Dallas. He sensed that a lot of his fellow owners were apathetic about ticket sales. They “didn’t care if there were 6,000 people in the stands.”

Cuban set out to reimagine the NBA fan experience. His first project was selling out his arena by getting people in the cheap seats. “I wanted to fill [our arena] up because (a) I wanted to see if I could do it, and (b) when you have a full arena, your team plays better. It was part of winning.”

He recalls appealing to fans’ frugality. “I remember the first pitch when I came in was like, ‘Look, we have $8 tickets. It’s cheaper to go to a Mavs game than it is to go to dinner or a movie.’ You tell me you can’t get somebody out there to pay $8? I don’t care if we have nobody in the lower seats.”

It worked. Soon the Mavs were filling the top rung of the arena, but that wasn’t all — Cuban started to generate more revenue from the courtside seats, as well.

“I just jacked up the price so high, and in Dallas my center court seats immediately went from $200 to $2,000. Boom, like that,” he remembers. “Because those were the TV seats. You got free food, and you got to walk across the court.”

Go to a Mavericks game now, and you see Cuban’s imprint everywhere. The nosebleeds are packed, the courtside seats are filled with Dallas bigwigs, and the rims are miked up so that when Dirk hits a 19-footer, you can hear the sound of the swish, no matter how much you paid for your seat.

Those fans who hate the constant JumboTronning and everybody-clap-your-hands-ing that have become part and parcel of the live NBA experience have Cuban — at least partially — to blame. Eighteen months after he purchased the franchise, the team moved into the brand-new American Airlines Center. This was Cuban’s canvas.

“I didn’t design the arena, but when I bought the team, I immediately made changes. They didn’t want to have any video boards; it was all old school. I was like, Fuck that,” he recalls, colorfully. “In 2009, we had our JumboTron specially designed and made for us. At the time, it was the largest indoor screen in the world, the highest-resolution screen in the world. And that wasn’t because the first one broke. It was because we wanted to stay ahead, and the video was how we wanted to entertain people.”

The state of the fan experience wasn’t the only thing that Cuban fought to change. The players’ experience needed a makeover, too.

“I remember my first meeting with the players, we had stayed in [a] Holiday Inn. I remember Gary Trent [saying to me], ‘Mark, we get into Oakland, California, four in the morning, at the back end of a back-to-back, and we don’t have room service in the hotel. How do you think we get food? What do you think we do?’ So we immediately upgraded the hotels and got a better plane.”

While Cuban was working on the off-court issues, he also had to set about improving the on-court product. He had purchased an NBA franchise that had been a perennial loser for the previous decade — finishing below .500 every year in the 1990s. Dallas burned through six coaches between 1988-89 and 1997-98. One of the first things the new owner did was retain the old coach, Don Nelson.

Knicks v MavericksGlenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

The next decade would see vastly different results. Cuban’s takeover came one season after the arrivals of a young point guard named Steve Nash and a young German stretch-4 named Dirk Nowitzki. It’s hard to change the culture of an entire pro sports organization, but that’s exactly what the quartet of Cuban, Nash, Nowitzki, and Nelson did.

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The Mavericks made the 2001 playoffs, and have gone all but one year since then. They’ve been to the Finals twice in the Cuban era, including once in 2006, when the Miami Heat beat them in six games. This isn’t one of Cuban’s favorite topics. When I asked him about his memories of that series, he said, simply: “We got fucked!” When I asked him if I could print that, he responded: “Yes. We. Got. Fucked.”

The fucking he was alluding to was official in nature. Along with marketing, officiating is another one of Cuban’s obsessions. The refereeing of the 2006 Finals was controversial, to put it mildly. The series will be remembered for Dwyane Wade careening through the paint and ending up at the charity stripe. You can almost imagine a young James Harden, watching, dreaming of his own future journeys to an NBA foul line. After winning the first two games, the Mavs dropped the next four, but not without a fight. Cuban got fined $250,000 after the Game 5 loss, and Nowitzki kicked the ball into the stands. It was neither guy’s finest moment — that would come about five years later.

In his 15 years as an owner, Cuban and the Mavs have seen it all — from upset wins to upset losses, Finals wins to Finals losses. The year after its bitter Finals defeat to Miami, the team rebounded by posting its best record ever, winning 67 games, only to get upset by the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors.2 The coach of that Dubs team just happened to be Don Nelson.

To most fans, that upset is one for the ages, but Cuban argues that Golden State should never even have had the chance to pull it off. Never one to shy away from controversy, he maintains that without the help of the league’s most infamous former official, the Warriors might never have made the playoffs that year. I’ll let him take it from here.

“So here’s how [Tim] Donaghy impacted my world. It’s the 2006-07 season, and the Warriors are playing the Bulls. It is February. It’s a tie game — 10, 15 seconds left. Whatever. Ben Gordon of the Bulls is dribbling the ball for the last shot. Andris Biedrins is just sitting in the paint, just standing still for the Warriors. But he’s in the paint! Four seconds, five seconds, six seconds, seven seconds. Tim Donaghy, instead of calling defensive three seconds, literally steps onto the court and pushes him out of the paint.”

“When it happened, I was watching the game, and I sent an email to the NBA saying, ‘Did you see this shit?’ Now, I had no idea at the time about the big [Donaghy] issue, although I had hints of it. After he pushed him out of the way, Ben Gordon misses the shot, and then the Warriors win in overtime. Had he sent Ben Gordon to the line, there’s an 85 percent chance he makes the free throw, the Bulls get the ball, and the Warriors have to foul. The Warriors made the playoffs by how many games?”3

Cuban is obsessed with the league’s rules and its officials, and his distrust of the NBA’s regulatory oversight is a core component of his public basketball persona. While many of us know that refereeing can and does steer the outcome of plenty of NBA contests, perhaps nobody in league history has made more noise about it than Cuban. He is perpetually monitoring referee performances and constantly pestering the league office about how its rules and whistles affect his team’s fate. At times it looks unseemly, and costs Cuban money, but his agitating has effected changes that have benefited the league as a whole. And lest you believe this regulatory obsession is only about basketball, don’t forget that Cuban has also repeatedly sparred with the U.S. government about how it officiates the financial world.

Whether it’s lobbying the NBA to smarten up its clear-path foul, or filing briefs designed to affect how the United States federal government defines insider trading, Cuban is not afraid to challenge bureaucratic authority and received wisdom, and that is an admirable trait. If he sees what he thinks is a dumb rule or bad enforcement harming his team or his bottom line, you can be sure he won’t be quiet about it.

However, Cuban can only change the future, not the past. That shocking loss in the 2007 Golden State series is still in the books, and eight years later it’s an instructive reminder that the playoffs present us with a different form of professional basketball; seeds are worthless, strategy is king. The Mavericks ran into a hot team coached by one of the few men who knew how to slow down Nowitzki.

“We weren’t playing great basketball at the end of the season, and they were playing their best basketball of the season,” Cuban says. “They took away Dirk, and we didn’t have a countermove.”

Those Mavs were on the wrong end of a historic upset, but a few years later, they would get on the right side, combining fantastic coaching and execution and countless analytical countermoves to make arguably the most improbable championship run in recent memory. And while teams like the Rockets and guys like Daryl Morey get lots of love for their analytical thinking, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks were one of the first teams to successfully bridge the massive gap between wonky numbers and on-court success.

Yes, they had Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, and head coach Rick Carlisle. But thanks to a forward-thinking front office, they also had Roland Beech, a true pioneer in basketball analytics and someone with the ability to quickly identify which of Dallas’s lineups were most and least successful. J.J. Barea, a starter? Peja Stojakovic playing fewer minutes than Brian Cardinal? Those lineup moves seemed ballsy at the time, but through the lens of history, they not only look wise, they also reveal that the organization put faith in analytics way before most.

Obama Welcomes NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks To White HouseMark Wilson/Getty Images

If Cuban’s 2011 experience taught him anything, it’s that a team with a smart coach, or a hot player, can suddenly outthink or outplay a team with a much higher seed. Playing against the same opponent over and over again, with less travel and no back-to-backs, favors certain kinds of tacticians and certain kinds of players.

When coaches like Carlisle and Gregg Popovich have time to hone their game plans against a single opponent, suddenly that corner 3 that was there all year dries up, or that basic defensive rotation that was rock-solid all season is coming a second too late. In the playoffs, teams with limited game plans get exposed. Conveniently, Cuban believes that Houston, his team’s first-round opponent in this season’s playoffs, is one of the most one-dimensional teams in the playoffs.

“[The biggest difference is] practice time. There’s no more predictable team than the Rockets. You know exactly what they’re gonna do,” he says. “But James Harden is so good. That’s what analytics have begot. Right? Predictability. If you know what the percentages are, in the playoffs, you have time to counter them. Whether you’re good enough to do it is another question. Because they are very talented, and James Harden, I think, is the MVP. Because that’s not a very good team over there.”

In the NBA playoffs, checkers turns into chess. Last season, the Spurs swept the Mavs during the regular season, but that had absolutely no bearing when the teams met in the first round. Carlisle actually had time to implement an opponent-specific strategy, and the Mavs almost pulled off a shocking upset. It took the eventual champs seven games to oust Dallas — by far their biggest scare on the road to glory. Cuban credits San Antonio’s flexibility as the eventual difference in that series.

“We changed things up, but we didn’t have the manpower when they adjusted. They went through a whole season of doing it one way, and then they went to pick-and-roll with Tiago Splitter as their go-to bread and butter,” he says. “Those are the types of things where you have to have balance. They had somewhere else to go.”

Cuban’s current team has a lot of talent, but has yet to really jell into anything more than a collection of respectable NBA parts. Still, he thinks the team could make some noise over the next few weeks. To do so, the Mavericks will need a big performance from one of their newest faces.

Houston Rockets v Dallas MavericksRonald Martinez/Getty Images

The night before we met, when the Rockets beat the Mavs, Dallas handed out Rajon Rondo bobbleheads at the gates. The Mavs acquired the mercurial point guard in midseason, and while many observers are quick to say that he hasn’t worked out, Cuban remains optimistic that, with some practice time, there’s still a chance things could pan out in the playoffs.

“He hasn’t been as good of a fit as we would’ve liked,” says Cuban. “And Rajon would tell you the same. I think that he is a guy that is built for the playoffs, and we haven’t had a lot of practice time together. He’s been here for maybe five or six practice days.”

The playoffs will not only allow Carlisle’s staff to engineer more thorough game plans, they will also enable Rondo to get into the practice gym with his teammates, something the regular season simply does not afford. Rondo is a huge X factor this spring. Although it may not look likely right now, if he can somehow channel “playoff Rondo” or “national-TV Rondo,” the Mavericks would immediately become scary. If he can’t, then the Mavericks will surely struggle to compete with their old familiar rivals from Houston.

When Mark Cuban bought the Dallas Mavericks in 2000, the NBA was a 20th-century league. He was a T-shirt-wearing billionaire trying to find new ways to win games and make money while doing it. These days, it seems like all the wannabe celebrity billionaires and venture capitalists see sports teams as a way to freshen up their personal brands and apply what they learned in their other businesses to pro sports. Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers; Vivek Ranadive bought the Kings; Joe Lacob bought the Warriors. Whether they want to admit it or not, Cuban helped blaze this trail.

A funny thing happened on the way to being an NBA trailblazer, though. With this new influx of analytical general managers, arenas as entertainment venues, and owners from the world of tech, Cuban — the man who pushed the NBA into the 21st century — looks almost old school. As much as he presaged the arrival of the Ballmers and Marc Lasrys of the world, he may have more in common with icons like Al Davis, George Steinbrenner, and Jerry Buss.

At 56, Cuban can remember his early days as part of the league, and how, at his first meetings, only a few of his fellow owners really welcomed him with open arms. One of those guys was Buss, the iconic former owner of the Lakers. “Everything he tried was new and everybody was suspicious of it,” Cuban recalls. Sounds familiar. It makes sense that Cuban would lionize this lion of NBA ownership. Buss was the ultimate owner-as-showman. And like Buss, when Cuban arrived on the scene, he looked at the product on the floor, at the game being played, and thought, out loud: That’s entertainment. 

Filed Under: NBA, Mark Cuban, 2015 NBA Playoffs, Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki, Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets, Rajon Rondo, Don Nelson, Tim Donaghy, James Harden, Tyson Chandler, Rick Carlisle, David Stern, Jerry Buss

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Kirk Goldsberry is a professor and Grantland staff writer.

Archive @ kirkgoldsberry