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Since taking over the team from Ross Perot Jr. last January, Cuban, still boyish-looking at 42, has been indulging every kid's dream, wheeling and dealing—"Like guys flipping for cards, right?" he says—and generally behaving like a fan who won an Owner for a Day contest. So far, his exuberance has disguised his ambition for the team, and the early news out of Dallas has hinted at a new kind of amateur owner, well-meaning and clueless.
That he paid $280 million for an outfit—"This close to being the Clippers," he admits—that had been founded with an initial investment of only $13 million in 1980 (and valued at $125 million when Perot bought it in 1996) does not suggest a man much interested in remaining a billionaire. That his first big move as owner, taking over the team in midseason, was to hire Dennis Rodman, inspired more ridicule than confidence. That he installed Rodman in his guesthouse (until the NBA got wind of the scheme and ruled it a salary-cap violation) painted an unflattering picture of the billionaire as jock-sniffer, a portrait to which an ungrateful Rodman added a few brush strokes, saying, "He doesn't need to be hanging around the players like he's a coach.... That's like Jerry Jones, and it's dumb."
All of a sudden, the guy all the Internet geeks appreciated as someone who could see around corners was thought to have gone around the bend. He was sitting behind the bench, razzing the refs ("I'd have no problem being the first owner thrown out of a game," he says), running up and down the aisles of Reunion Arena, raising the roof. He put his e-mail address on the scoreboard, urging fans to give him their input (to the tune of 400 messages a day, all answered personally).
Then came reports that his players, already members of the most pampered class of society in all of human history, couldn't be pampered enough. Cuban was upgrading their luggage and their hotel accommodations, sending limos to their homes during an ice storm, offering special meals, ordering special courtside chairs for the team (home team only), equipping each locker-room cubicle with a personal stereo, flat-screen monitor, DVD player and Sony PlayStation. Cuban's first draft trio got rides home from Minneapolis in his $40 million jet; all the other saps waited to board in the Northwest terminal. ("We will now board all rookies, rows nine through 15....")
You could say there is skepticism about the man's effectiveness. One NBA higher-up told a Dallas newspaper in February that the Mavs' new owner was a "loose cannon." Other higher-ups, mindful of Cuban's enthusiasm, have been more forgiving but cautious all the same. Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh says, "The problem with Mark is, he might force us to go out and do those things [for our players]. But, in the meantime, my one comment to him is, I don't think there are any stupid people in this league."
Jerry Reynolds, director of player personnel for the Sacramento Kings, takes a similar patronizing approach to Cuban: "I am impressed and think that, with his passion, he'll be good for the league. And I do think some things will happen in Dallas that will be pretty good ideas. Also, my guess, there'll be some 'Oops!' "
Cuban gets mixed reviews, too, for his newcomer's bravado. The number of people whose asses he has vowed to whip might be in double figures by now. Most of them (like his pal Jordan) react with amusement. Last February, Philadelphia 76ers owner (and martial arts expert) Pat Croce got word through the newspapers that he was next in line, so at their first meeting, he asked Cuban to set a date. Cuban backed off, and the two have become good friends. "He'll make outrageous statements for effect," says Croce. "He doesn't care. Maybe it's all those commas."
He probably goes too far sometimes, such as this summer when he took Phil Jackson's bait and got into a little brawl with the Lakers. The L.A. coach, who figures it's never too early in the year to get into somebody's head, included Cuban in some off-season criticism of big-spending owners who "don't want to play by the rules of the game." Cuban bit, accusing the Lakers (in an equally unsupportable broadside, considering Shaquille O'Neal's subsequent three-year, $88.4 million contract extension) of "putting their profits in their pockets while complaining about how other teams spend their money."
Said Jackson, upping the level of discourse, "Cuban has his head up his ass again." It went from there, until each side seemed to agree to let the whole thing dissolve into proper silliness, almost good fun. Jackson admitted, "We're basically venting hot air." However, it had to encourage Cuban that the mighty Lakers were impressed enough with his efforts to lay the groundwork for future feuds. How nice to be considered a rival again!
Sometimes, maybe because of all those commas, the criticism is just mean-spirited. The New York Post's Peter Vecsey established himself as a thorn in Cuban's side in July, accusing Easy Mark of saving money on his wardrobe—"dressing like a slob"—so he could buy a championship. Vecsey has kept it up, taking regular potshots at Cuban.