NBA Preview, Part I

MSG: Dysfunction junction

Curious Guy: Mark Cuban

Curious Guy: Mark Cuban

My latest exchange of e-mails was with Mark Cuban, the iconoclastic owner of the Dallas Mavericks, as well as one of the few people who cashed out of the original Internet boom in time. The impetus was USA Today’s recent report that Cuban had banned his TV and radio broadcasters from discussing player salaries during Maverick games, explaining that salaries are “no one’s business but the player’s and the team’s. … Using salary as a reference is a sign that [a] media person can’t say anything of substance.” Needless to say, I don’t agree. Here’s what transpired:

What’s Your Opinion
Quiz: How much do they make?
Vote: Is Cuban’s embargo wrong?

Simmons: Ever since you bought the Mavs, I always thought it was like a real-life science experiment for the “NBA fan makes a ton of money and buys an NBA team” scenario — every fan’s dream, obviously — so I was stunned to read about your new policy regarding banning your announcers from discussing NBA salaries. It’s one of the few times when I feel you’re thinking like an owner and not a fan.

For one thing, this information is relevant if you’re trying to follow your favorite team — since there’s a salary cap, some teams have room each summer to pursue premium free agents, other teams don’t have any room at all, and that is totally dependent on the current salaries of that team’s group of players. The teams that spend prudently have a major advantage every summer, like when the Suns lured Steve Nash away from your Mavs because they had created enough room under their cap. From what I read, you allowed Nash to leave for three reasons: Because you were worried about his body holding up for the duration of that $60 million-plus contract, because of the luxury tax, and because you were scaling back from some admittedly reckless spending that defined your first four years with the Mavs.

Now, if I were a Mavs fan — and I didn’t know about my team’s exorbitant payroll, or some of the killer contracts we were carrying, or exactly what Nash had been offered by the Suns — I would have gone ballistic if (A) our second-best player just randomly signed with Phoenix, and (B) there was no real explanation because fans weren’t allowed to know about salaries. In fact, in your candid blog (which I enjoy reading, by the way), you wrote a heartfelt post after Nash’s departure in which you relied on the salaries involved, as well as the potential luxury tax ramifications, as the crux of your argument for why Nash was allowed to leave. So how can you suddenly say that salaries are “no one’s business but the player’s and the team’s?” And doesn’t it seem a little self-serving for you to take this angle, when you’re the same guy who took so much heat for overpaying guys like Raef LaFrentz, Shawn Bradley, Michael Finley, Eduardo Najera, Evan Eschmeyer and Erick Dampier (who ended up getting more money than Nash that same summer)?

Mark Cuban, Steve NashCuban: On the reasons we didn’t match Steve’s contract: You got one out of three right. We made Steve a great offer. It was his choice to walk away. The other factors didn’t apply at that time.

I’m not saying fans shouldn’t discuss salaries and cap and the strategies for signing players. Go for it. There are plenty of resources that enable any and all fans to do just that. And like you said, rather than letting our fans “go ballistic,” I explained everything that happened with Nash in my blog. Salaries can’t be all that important if the World Wide Leader in Sports, for all its coverage of the NBA, doesn’t list salaries anywhere. Can they? Did I miss them Sports Guy? Or did the big boss at decide that your Web sites shouldn’t document salaries?

And why doesn’t ESPN disclose salaries of their SportsCenter anchors? Several of my favorites have left over what appears to be money. Don’t I as customer and viewer have the right to know what the guy made and what he was offered? Obviously ESPN has some level of self-imposed salary cap. I was pissed when my favorite anchor left a few years ago. If Dan Patrick has a bad night, I want to be able to say that the “highest-paid anchor in all of sports television” had an off-night. Or “DP didn’t earn his money tonight. For someone getting paid a max out anchor contract, he has to be able to come up with better quips than that.”

As a consumer, Dan’s salary impacts my cable or satellite bill. Don’t I have the right to know what he is paid so I can say, “That’s an insult to working families everywhere that a guy gets paid that much money to read from a teleprompter,” or “Because of him, my family can’t afford to buy cable,” or “Is there really an anchor worth that much money?”

I’m not picking on Dan. Just using him as an example for all the arguments I hear about players. None of which are fair. Dan, like every player, is doing the best job he can and it really shouldn’t be any of our business how much money he makes. More important, and my reason for telling our broadcasters not to mention salary during a game is because it has nothing to do with the game being played. I want them discussing what is happening and how guys are doing. I want fans as involved with the game and the players as possible. Talking about salaries doesn’t enhance any of the above. If anything, it only opens the door for negative connotations. Even the guys who are considered bargains create discussion about what they are going to ask for when their current contract is up.

When broadcasters discuss a player’s salary during a game, it’s almost always a crutch because they can’t or won’t talk about something of substance. We want our broadcasters talking about the game. We can give them far more interesting things to talk about then a data point that is available multiple places on the net … but not on ESPN.COM.

Simmons: I don’t understand the parallel with the ESPN anchors at all. Who cares what broadcasters make? There’s no evidence to suggest that the salaries of announcers would affect my monthly cable bill, and I couldn’t care less what John Anderson makes compared to Stu Scott. But if I’m a Blazers fan and my team spends $86 million on Zack Randolph’s extension when they could easily just wait nine months, make sure his head is on straight, then outbid anyone else for him in free agency, that decision affects me as a Blazers fan for the next six years — especially if it turned out that we overpaid for Zack by $30-35 million and he was pretty much untradeable before the new contract even kicked in (which is pretty much what happened). If ESPN overpays for Jim Nantz, it doesn’t affect me in any way other than that I would miss his crazy, somewhat creepy grin as he introduces Hootie Johnson at the end of the Masters every April. Seriously, what’s the difference between 95 percent of these guys? I’m watching highlight shows for the highlights. I’m watching games to see the game. I don’t watch any sports-related programming for the announcers/personalities except for Kornheiser and Wilbon on “PTI,” Kenny and Barkley on TNT, Collinsworth on “Inside the NFL” and Mario Lopez on “ESPN Hollywood.” All right, I made that last one up. But that’s my list.

With the NBA, talking about salaries enhances the experience of following the league — many NBA fans are frustrated GMs who feel like they can do a better job running their team than the people actually running the team. It’s the same dynamic that drives people to own fantasy teams and read 7,000-word Chad Ford articles in the days leading up to the NBA Draft — fans like forming opinions, proclaiming who teams should draft/trade/sign, then complaining when they don’t draft/trade/sign those people. The salaries are a huge part of that, whether you like it or not. When the Celtics spent more than half their free agent exemption on Brian Scalabrine, I went crazy. Did it really matter in the big scheme of things? Of course not — they overpaid for a glorified 12th man, big deal. But that signing got me discussing the league and talking hoops to my friends, and none of that would have happened had I not known what Scalabrine signed for. Also, I wouldn’t have thrown up in my mouth.

I do agree with you that announcers use salaries as a crutch, but that’s a different topic — as a longtime subscriber of NBA League Pass, I’m constantly startled by how incompetent most of the local announcers are. Either guys are cheerleading for their teams and complaining about every call, or they just don’t know what they’re talking about. Local announcers are like NBA referees — you can count the good ones on one hand. With that said, if I were announcing a Mavs-Spurs game, and Michael Finley scored 35 points to beat your boys, do you really expect me not to mention the irony that you overpaid for him with the $102 million contract, had to spend $55 million buying him out to save luxury tax money, then basically paid him to beat you on another team? That shouldn’t come up?

As for not running NBA salaries, you’re correct — it’s a mistake. We should absolutely run them on our Web site. (Every winter, USA Today runs the team-by-team salaries and I have to bookmark that page so I remember where it is. Shouldn’t have to be that way.) You seem ticked off about it though and I’m not sure why — haven’t you been treated relatively fairly by the Worldwide Leader? I’m guessing you feel like there’s too much made about NBA salaries compared to other sports, or even other professions, because casual fans can’t afford decent tickets.

Cuban: Ticked off by not showing the salaries on ESPN? Hell no. Just pointing out the irony and humor in the fact that you think it’s a big deal that I don’t think our announcers should talk about salaries, but its not a big enough deal for you to deal with your own company about it.

And the casual fans/ticket prices thing is one of those misconceptions that come from people who only get tickets for free. (I’m curious, when was the last time you paid for a seat in the upper deck?) The Mavs and every NBA team [have] $10 tickets. They get cheaper if you come in a group. They are good, fun seats, and yes, I have sat in them. Many times. I sat there when I moved to Dallas and they were all I could afford. I sat there in other arenas in other cities growing up. I make sure I sit in the very top row, in the cheapest seats every year. It’s a blast. You get to see the game. You get to stand up and yell. There are great people sitting around you. The people who sit there go all the time. You might want to try it sometime, or come to a game and sit up there with me. But don’t say casual fans can’t afford decent seats.

Simmons: You’re going after the wrong person on this one — I never use media passes for games and always sit in the stands, if only because I like to cheer and scream and yell at the referees. (Just ask the Clippers, who have received my checks for season tickets for the past two years.) I guess this depends on your concept of “decent seats.” In basketball, if you’re stuck in the corners, or far away in the nosebleeds, or way behind the basket, I don’t think those qualify for “decent seats.” I know this because those are the tickets that scalpers are selling for half-price outside every NBA arena. Yeah, you’re right, you can make the most of it with any seat — but isn’t that true for anything? I could go to a WNBA game and stand up and yell and all that stuff from 5,000 feet away. The big difference is that the people in the cheaper seats are there because they love basketball and they want to be there, not because it’s a chic thing to do that night, or because they’re schmoozing a client, or because someone at work gave them tickets. That’s why it’s fun to sit up there, because you’re with real fans. But given their druthers, I guarantee just about all of those real fans would rather be closer to the court so they can hear the players, see their facial expressions and everything else. They just can’t afford it.

Cuban: While we’re on the subject, easily the most idiotic, ridiculous information that ESPN and other media prints are the average seat prices from Team Marketing Report. Has anyone in the media ever taken a math class? What is the point of showing an average price? Every team has expensive celebrity seats at center court that we never discount, and we all have discountable $10 seats. You figure out the average, weighted average or mean and tell me how much value that has as an indication of affordability. None. Why do you guys print this stuff?

Simmons: You’re asking the wrong guy — I’m on your side here. My guess would be that most reporters are too busy stuffing their faces with free food in the press room to pull out a calculator and figure this out.

Cuban: And as I said, I don’t care if anyone knows about the salaries and you and everyone can talk all you want about it. But if you are an announcer and are talking about whether Mike [Finley] scored to beat us or not, [I] would rather have you talk about why and how it happened rather than repeating what every sportswriter in America referenced in the days leading up to the game. One is new and could be interesting. The other is old news. Call me crazy, but repeating the obvious isn’t newsworthy. I would rather push for new.

As far as the “SportsCenter” anchors, why not put up a poll? Would you be curious to know how much “SportsCenter” anchors make? And let’s see if you are right. I know I would love to know. Maybe if we did, in addition to wanting to be GMs, they could also play fantasy “SportsCenter.” And if it doesn’t matter who anchors “SportsCenter,” tell George [Bodenheimer] to hold open auditions for people who will work for free and have him send the money to charity. I’m OK with that, although I do like the job Dan, Stuart and the guys on “SportsCenter” do. The NBA guys, that’s another story.

Simmons: To clarify, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal that you told your announcers not to mention the salaries. This was pitched to me as a chance to exchange e-mails with you, with that topic being the main reason my editors were excited about this. The only thing that intrigued me there was that you usually think like a fan, and I didn’t feel like you did in this case. So that’s why I brought it up.

I also didn’t say that it doesn’t matter who hosts “SportsCenter,” as you implied — in the wrong hands of the wrong hosts, it can be somewhat unwatchable, and I always appreciate when someone does the show professionally and steers the ship well. I just feel like most people watch the show for the highlights, features and production value over the actual personalities behind the desk. (Note: My favorite ESPN anchor is Brian Kenny, who’s one of the more straitlaced guys we have.) Do you really think someone turns on “SportsCenter” saying to themselves, “I can’t wait to see how Stu Scott dressed tonight, I love his suits!” Or do they turn on “SportsCenter” to see if T.O. killed one of his teammates, or to check their fantasy guys, see how their favorite team did, see if Gammons or John Clayton had a piece, or whatever? You tell me. As for your “SportsCenter” poll, I’m sure people would be interested to see what the anchors made. But you know what? I’m interested to know how much the baristas at my local Starbucks make, how much porn stars make, people who work at a bookstore, WNBA announcers, Page 2 columnists … you name it. Isn’t it natural to be interested in the salaries of pretty much anyone? The difference with the NBA is that those salaries affect the competitive environment and how it unfolds from season to season.

Cuban: Booyah baby. I’m good with it.

Simmons: Switching gears, when the dress code was announced last month, you were critical of the timing, since it overshadowed the announcement of the expansive NBA Cares charity initiative. Actually, overshadowed is the wrong word — it completely blew the NBA Cares announcement out of the water. Clearly, the timing was meant to get people talking about the league. And it worked. After all, this could have been announced in July or August, right? Instead, they timed it to steal headlines away from the NFL, baseball playoffs and everything else.

So here’s my question: Why does the NBA — a league that’s predominantly African-American — keep trying to run away from those roots?

Cuban: Our roots? You mean a bunch of white, Jewish New Yorkers that made up the lion’s share of players during the first years of the NBA ?

Simmons: Yeah, but you couldn’t have sold your team for $700 million back then. You know what I mean — this is a predominantly black league and has been for 30 years. And yet, during the 2005 playoffs, ABC’s theme song for every Finals game was that crappy Rob Thomas song, and during the 2005 All-Star game, the halftime show featured LeAnn Rimes, Big & Rich and a dwarf in a cowboy hat. There’s an age limit that clearly seems biased against black athletes; after all, nobody cares about Michelle Wie’s well-being, or any of the countless tennis players who turned pro before the age of 18, or all the baseball players who play professionally right out of high school … but somehow young basketball players are the only ones who can’t handle the stress of turning pro.

Cuban: Come on now. There is a huge difference between golfers, tennis players and others that start young — the difference is that their money isn’t guaranteed and they all can still live at home with their moms. Worse yet, there isn’t a union for them trying to push to make sure 18-year-old kids are treated the same as 35-year-old veterans. That’s a scenario that prevents the league from accommodating 18 year olds with the support 18-year-old rookies need. The individual sports don’t have those ridiculous rule sets. There are a ton of things I can’t even ask rookies to do. The one-year push back doesn’t solve it, but it does push the problem to colleges or the NBDL for a year. Hopefully some of the issues kids have coming out of high school will be solved there. Something that I WOULD LOVE TO SEE HAPPEN, is for colleges to prevent freshmen from playing varsity basketball. Now that would make things interesting.

Simmons: See, I think that’s a cop-out by the league — instead of coming up with a legitimate way to solve this problem, they’re shoving off responsibility to the colleges and boarding schools for a year or two. They’re like parents in an affluent suburb choosing to send their kid away for high school instead of trying to parent them. You can’t tell me that players like Dwight Howard, KG and LeBron needed a year to develop in college — hell, I watched Al Jefferson go from Mississippi high school ball to Boston’s only legitimate low-post threat in last year’s playoffs in the span of 12 months. There’s no way he would have been better off in college playing against inferior talent and going through the charade of being a student for one year. Gimme a break. If you’re old enough to serve your country, you’re old enough to play in the NBA. And if the league doesn’t like it, they should figure out how to make it work — assign special coaches to each team with a high schooler, supply them with complimentary Xbox games, give them an 11:30 curfew, make them wear a condom for 24 hours a day … whatever works. This is the smartest professional league in any country, we should be able to make this work.

As for the aforementioned dress code, the implication seems to be, “We’re too black, white people can’t identify with us, we need to get this league under control and expand our fan base.” Well, why fix something that wasn’t broken? Wasn’t the league doing fine? I can understand telling injured players to dress up during games, but who gives a rat’s ass what they’re wearing when they’re walking to the bus after a game? Where do you stand on this whole thing?

Cuban: Personally, I don’t care what they wear, either. I’m a believer that the clothes don’t make the man. That said, unfortunately there are cameras right there when guys get off the bus. Often enough, there are media guys who would rather talk about what they are wearing, sometimes in a derogatory manner, rather than about the player or game. If there is any level of racism involved here, it’s not against the players, it’s in assuming that some part of the audience that isn’t currently viewing just might have a racist bone in their bodies, but we still want their viewership and money.

From a business perspective, there is no good reason not to preempt the problem and just prevent it from occurring. I would rather that we just not let cameras where the guys come of the bus and to the locker room. There isn’t any value there. Like I have said, I would have separated the announcements so we could have gotten press for NBA Cares, then picked up all the noise on the dress code. But I have no problem with the dress code. No more so than I have a problem with the NFL making their guys wear sponsor wear on the sidelines or at court appearances. For such a small nonevent, it got people talking NBA going into the season and it gave me a reason to funk up an old V2 sports coat I hadn’t worn in 15 years and have fun with it. So I guess I’m good with it.

Simmons: This seems like a good time to mention that I enjoyed the hell out of that sports coat, although I wish you would start dressing for home games like the various characters from “Boogie Nights.”

Cuban: You provide Heather Graham, I will provide the roller skates.

Simmons: Out of any NBA owner, you throw yourself into your team to the point that it’s hard to separate you FROM the team. During games, you’re sitting near the bench and high-fiving guys during timeouts. Off the court, you’re the front man for every major personnel decision; you’re extraordinarily candid in your blog; you have spoken up fearlessly about some of the league’s recent problems (abysmal officiating, the curious timing of the dress code announcement, the age limit and so on); and you have been unusually forthcoming about the process of running an NBA team. While watching the Cuban Era unfold, maybe my favorite part has been imagining David Stern sitting in his palatial office in Manhattan, happily going about his day and talking on the telephone, and then his assistant opens the door with a terrified look on her face and says, “Um, David, you might want to read this magazine article, there are some Mark Cuban quotes in here that, um, you need to see,” followed by her handing Stern the article and scurrying out at warp-speed while all the blood rushes to his head.

Here’s the point: This was a pretty stiff league when you arrived. The owners, for the most part, kept to themselves and stayed in the background. Nobody was really thinking outside the box with stuff like, “If we built state-of-the-art locker rooms, flew everyone around on a luxury charter and treated these guys first-class in every respect, would that lure more free agents here?” and “Who says we only need to have two assistants, what if we have eight, wouldn’t that make us more competitive?” I don’t agree with some of the personnel decisions that you’ve made — and I’ve written as much — but it’s been impressive to watch you turn the demeanor of that franchise around in Dallas. Guys want to play there, which is a complete 180 from the way it was 10 years ago. And it’s also been interesting to see the ripple effects on the rest of the league, as a new breed of owner seems to be coming aboard — younger, more hands-on, more visible and personable, more accessible and accountable, willing to spend extra money on and off the court — to the point that we now have owners dunking off trampolines during timeouts and answering questions from random blogs on the Internet.

Of course, you took a ton of heat from people along the way, and schmuck columnists like myself were delighted to poke fun at you for incidents like when you ran out on the court during a fight, how it seemed like you were far too eager to be buddy-buddy with your players, how you overpaid for guys like LaFrentz and Bradley, and so on. (By the way, thank you for all those things.) And yet, you came up with a new way to operate a professional basketball team, never stopped plugging away, always took the time to justify your decisions, turned the Mavs into a first-class operation off the court, made serious strides with the evaluations of statistics and officiating, did a ton of charity-related stuff, spent insane amounts of money … so why doesn’t anyone mention this stuff when they discuss your merits as an owner? (And yes, I’m including myself.)

Cuban: Don’t know, don’t care. As long as our customers and fans like what we are doing, I’m happy. I do have to admit that it’s fun to see guys in the Board of Governors meeting who are young and energetic and looking to introduce change rather than comatose and refusing to ask questions. At my first Board of Governors meeting, not a single question was asked. Things have changed, and I think even the Commish realizes it’s for the better.

Simmons: Well, how do YOU think you have affected the NBA over these past five years? Other than with that V2 sportscoat?

Cuban: I think the Mavs have had an impact on how games are evaluated using statistical analysis. How players are developed. We were ripped for having more coaches than players, but common sense said that spending $50,000 for a mentor and coach for a player we are invested in is a cheap investment. Last summer, I showed the league how the Pistons got a huge advantage vs. the Lakers because the officials were calling advantage based on player vs. player rather than team. So when Kobe got bumped on the perimeter, he had the advantage on his defender, but it was enough time for help to come and contest shots. That led to the removal of contact on the perimeter and the increase in scoring. We started tracking statistics about officials and how they were managed and that led to the league tracking and bringing in management changes for officials.

We helped spearhead changes in our TV contract, how revenue is shared, the medical evaluation of players, how in-game operations are now geared more towards being an entertainment experience, how teams sell tickets. We certainly weren’t alone. There were other organizations that for various issues shared our passion for the changes, but I think people around the league paid attention to the turn around in the business side of the Mavs and responded to it.

Simmons: Plus, you proved that an NBA team could sell-out games even when its franchise player was a German guy with bad hair.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available right now on and in bookstores everywhere.

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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