For the next couple of weeks, Dallas is once again home to America’s Team. Not those guys with the stars on their helmets who can’t seem to get out of their own way once the playoffs start. This time, it’s the guys sporting the horsey logos who are earning everyone’s support – so long as they can find a way to take down the Miami Heat.
Indeed, it’s a marriage of convenience for many basketball fans. The lesser of two evils. Which makes it so much more intriguing to realize that sometime during the next fortnight, there is a very real chance that David Stern could be forced to hand the Larry O’Brien Trophy over to Mark Cuban.
It would be the equivalent of Pete Rozelle giving the Super Bowl trophy to Al Davis. Arnold Palmer putting the green jacket on Jack Nicklaus. Lando Calrissian handing Han Solo and company over to Darth Vader. Maybe not that last one, but you see where I’m headed with this.
During his time as owner of the Mavericks, Cuban has been fined, fined and fined some more by the league. He’s been criticized by the media and vilified by fans. And he’s one of the best things that’s happened to the NBA in a long time.
For as much as Stern seems to have enjoyed penalizing Cuban (he’s reportedly paid more than $1.6 million in fines during his time as Mavs’ owner), the Commish should be embracing him. Cuban made basketball relevant in Texas, where football isn’t a religion…it’s much more important than that. He took over a team that had spent the previous decade needing a stepladder to climb up to mediocrity.
In every full season since he bought the club from Ross Perot in 2000, Dallas has made the playoffs. That means a whole lot of eyeballs in the country’s fifth-largest television market have been glued to what Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and company have been up to for the the past month. I generally don’t give a damn about television ratings. They don’t put a dime in my pocket, but they mean a lot for Stern and the bean counters in the league office. And until this season, there weren’t a whole lot of champagne wishes and championship dreams to be found in top-ten TV markets. You had the Lakers, the Celtics and…
Chalk it up to Cuban’s intense desire to be a winner. He’s like George Steinbrenner, minus the championships of course. But there’s no mistaking Cuban’s fervor to hang a banner in Dallas. That can’t be overlooked. It’s not a character trait shared uniformly around The Association. For every dollar Jerry Buss spends to keep the Lakers near the top of the standings, his “roommate” Donald Sterling is just as happy to put those same dollars in his silk lined pocket. Until Joe Lacob and Peter Guber took over the Golden State Warriors, Chris Cohan spent his time spending no quality time with the franchise.
You can’t make any such accusations of Mark Cuban Dallas Mavericks owner. The Mavericks began the season with the NBA’s second-highest payroll and they’ve done it intelligently. For all of Cuban’s drive to win, he has been smart enough to let actual basketball people build the roster. That has meant not paying franchise-crippling max contracts to guys like Joe Johnson or Rashard Lewis. It’s also meant not tying the team down to a lot of longterm deals. The Mavericks only have four players signed beyond the 2011-12 season. In short, Dallas has a plan and the stability to carry it out.
Oh, if only James Dolan had learned that instead of handing Isaiah Thomas the checkbook and the keys to Madison Square Garden. If only Paul Allen would figure it out and exhibit just an ounce of patience in Portland. If only Ted Leonsis would do something, anything in Washington besides complain about a salary cap he’s barely reaching.
Cuban has undeniably built a winner in Dallas. The Mavericks have won 50 games or more every year since 2000. And he’s done it with all the passion of a fan. That’s probably the best part. For all of the dumb sports movies that involve “regular” people ending up in a position of influence with their favorite teams, none of them measure up to the experience of Being Mark Cuban.
Sure, Jerry Buss or the Maloofs might travel to see their teams play on the road, but would they ever sit in the stands and interact with opposing fans? I have no doubt that Dan Gilbert would have had it in him to say Ed T. Rush “wouldn’t be able to manage a Dairy Queen”. But I can’t imagine any scenario in this universe that would involve Gilbert following that up by serving up Blizzards the next day.
That’s why Mark Cuban is the breath of oxygen in the carbon dioxide saturated room of NBA owners. In an era when the expanding economics of professional sports continues to widen the chasm between fans and their favorite franchises, Cuban has found a way to connect with fans. Because he is one. At least he is one in the way that most of us can recognize.
Does Michael Jordan want to see the Bobcats win? Definitely. Is it because he truly loves Bobcats basketball? That’s debatable. It could be about proving to people that he can be a successful executive. It could be the constant thrill of competing that drives him to run the team, but it’s the same thrill that he gets from winning at golf, poker or Rock, Paper, Scissors.
On the other hand, Cuban wears his fanship on his sleeve. It’s the reason he cussed out Bruce Bowen during the 2006 playoffs. Or why he rushed the court in ’09 to yell at J.R. Smith. Or told Kenyon Martin’s mom that her son was a thug. These are the conversations fans have amongst themselves. These are the things that force us to turn off a television in disgust and avoid all forms of sports media after tough losses. It’s why the fans in Dallas love him and why his players love playing for him.
That and renting out his guest house to players. I’m looking at you, Dennis Rodman.
But it’s the reason that if the Mavericks win the NBA Finals, David Stern should follow the lead of Howard Johnson in Blazing Saddles and present a laurel and hearty handshake to his new champion and owner of America’s New Team.