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There is a satisfying dishevelment to him, as if to confirm the happenstance of success. As if to say: He's no more groomed for moguldom than you. Which is really to say, since the wearing of hard-soled shoes no longer contributes materially to empire building in this age of serendipitous financial markets: You could be a billionaire too.
Probably you couldn't, or there'd be more than 300 billionaires in the U.S., but watching Mark Cuban operate, looking rumpled and a little disorganized, offers hope. He doesn't usually keep notes on Post-it pads, he says, looking at the butterscotch checkerboard that just developed on his desk, but things got a little fast and furious for a couple of minutes, with a three-team deal turning into a four-team deal, all to bring a backup guard named Howard Eisley to the Dallas Mavericks. Plus, MJ had just called, and, well, let's see you keep your composure with MJ on the phone.
But forgive him that little failure of office management—"I usually use this tablet," he says—and you still have the kind of mess that looks reassuringly familiar to us thousandaires. Sitting in his office, the only fully (or even partially) furnished room in his 24,000-square-foot Dallas mansion, he seems awash in his disorder. At ease with it, really. A computer is in a corner, cracked open when he became curious about its innards. A lucky jersey—DALLAS 1—is draped over his chair. There are pictures on his desk from a recent weekend barbecue at his home (which, admittedly, featured John Mellencamp as the entertainment), fellow 40-year-olds mugging like frat brothers. His (soft-soled) feet are up on one of the five computers (un-cracked) that blink around him. Yahoo! Broadcast, the source of his improbable wealth, his baby (which ought to be surrounding him with his favored rap music), is, more to his consternation than embarrassment (he sold it; it's not his anymore), crackling with static. "That's Yahoo's problem," he says, almost smugly. "Not mine."
The overall effect is a dorm-room ambience that is more adolescent than businesslike. If it weren't for his portfolio, a list of stocks that fills several screens, winking away in green and red, the entire scene could be dismissed as standard teen fantasy, a boy's room with a little more broadband access than is typical.
Then suddenly MJ is back on tire phone. Mark Cuban, who spent his formative years behind Coke-bottle eyeglasses and silver-capped teeth, who was part of a clique in his Pittsburgh high school ("Jewish kids who hang out in the library," he says), who sold powdered milk door-to-door ("the next great growth business, so I thought"), who still gets e-mails from high school chums addressed to Boris ("You know how nicknames stick?")—Mark Cuban straightens in his chair, his soft-soled shoes hitting the deck, his hands grabbing for the Post-it notes. "MJ!" he exclaims.
Who is to say that, given some stroke of luck or extraordinary effort, this couldn't happen to you, that you couldn't be sitting at your desk, overseeing the rehabilitation of a floundering NBA franchise that you recently bought for $280 million, and Michael Jordan is on the horn? "Thanks for calling back," Cuban says, living about three versions of the American Dream all at once. "Here's what I'd like to do...."
At some point you have to wonder if he hasn't affected this normalcy as some kind of protective coloration, if he hasn't cluttered his desk, gotten theatrically tense on the phone with MJ, dressed down so as to bridge the gap between him and the rest of the world, a gap created by his $1.2 billion of cyberspace cash. But Cuban doesn't have that sort of guile or, in any case, that sort of guilt about his money. He is unapologetic about his wealth, utterly undefensive. And yet—what makes him interesting—he is exactly like the rest of us. "Do I have a butler?" he asks, incredulous. "A cook?"
He marches you through an empty ballroom, a vast and vaulted space that is used mainly for Wiffle ball, into his kitchen (vast and vaulted too) and begins opening doors and drawers. Inside the refrigerator are packages of salad mix and precooked chicken breasts. Drawers roll out to reveal Dr Pepper and bottled water. "There's no cook," he says.
The normalcy is not adopted; it's just been impossible to shed. Yes, he cashed out of the Internet craze with an alltime winning lottery ticket, but he remains true to himself—to ourselves, really. The same '96 Lexus SUV remains parked outside Cuban's house, same one he drove before Broad-cast.com went public, before Yahoo! bought it for $5.7 billion. It remains outside a quite different kind of single-family residence, we'll give you that, but Cuban cannot be persuaded by any kind of windfall that he can drive more than one automobile at once, any more than money can convince him there is a better meal than a skinless chicken breast washed down by Dr Pepper.
What is it he did with his money, anyway (forgetting, for the moment, the most famous house in Dallas since Southfork)? Well, he bought the jet, but right after that? What was the most sophisticated investment he could think of? The Mavericks, a pretty bad basketball team but a pro sports franchise all the same. All around him the Internet winners were transferring their money and arrogance to new frontiers, the New New Thing, in hopes of multiplying their wealth and importance. Cuban bought the Mavs. He shrugs at the apparent failure of imagination. "I'm a kid at heart," he says.