Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Cuban Rules -- Mark Cuban learning a hard lesson

The Golden State Warriors may pull off the biggest playoff upset in recent NBA history if the Warriors beat the Dallas Mavericks in game six of what has become an epic first round NBA playoff series. If the Warriors do win tonight Mavericks owner Mark Cuban will learn a humbling lesson – his terrible treatment of former Mavericks coach and current Golden State coach Don Nelson will be judged as one of the key reasons the Warriors stunned the world. Cuban and Nelson parted under the worst of possible circumstances. Nelson is suing Cuban for more than $6 million. What should have been a very private matter was turned into a very public battle, driven in large part by the bombastic ownership style Cuban has become noted for in the since he bought the Mavericks early in January 2000.

The Wall Street Journal featured the Cuban vs. Nelson battle on the front page of Tuesday’s Journal. Cuban can try and spin his melee with Nelson anyway he’d like but the saga played out on the front page of The Wall Street Journal hurts Cuban’s image.

"It's like 'Desperate Housewives' in the NBA," says Wayne Winston, an Indiana University math professor who, as a private consultant, does statistical modeling for Mr. Cuban to predict which players, and referees, offer the best chance of success for his Dallas team in the Wall Street Journal report.

Then Mavericks owner Ross Perot Jr. (Perot sold the Mavericks to Cuban) in 1997. Nelson hired one of his oldest and closest friends, Del Harris, as his top assistant coach. Mr. Nelson's son Donnie was hired to handle player moves in the Mavericks' front office. Both men still work for the Mavericks.

Cuban and Nelson were a perfect match at first. The former Boston Celtic teamed with a young inexperienced owner who loved the team he owned and was prepared to do anything he could to build a winner and deliver an NBA championship to Dallas. As is so often the case in sports (and all too often in life) just when a team appears poised for greatness the wheels fall off the car.

Four years ago the Mavericks met their cross state rivals the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA's 2003 Western Conference finals. To Mark Cuban the 2003 NBA Western Conference Finals represented the opportunity he had been waiting for. He was one step away from the NBA Finals and a chance to bring an NBA title to Dallas.

The Journal offered a pretty good blow by blow of how and why Cuban's relationship with Nelson blew up in Cuban's face and is at the root of the multi-million lawsuit between the two men. What took place in the following days and months demonstrated how passion can adversely effect anyone’s judgment – and not in a positive manner.

With the Mavericks facing elimination by the San Antonio Spurs, the coach and owner exploded at each other over Mr. Nelson's refusal to fulfill his boss's wish to play an injured Dirk Nowitzki, according to Mavericks officials close to the team's owner.

Nowitzki had suffered sprained ligaments in his left knee in the third game of the best-of-seven series, but, with the Mavericks trailing three games to one, was cleared by team doctors to play again. Cuban as has been well reported confronted Nelson in the coach's office and demanded the star forward return to the court, Mavericks officials say.

Nelson refused, insisting that playing the young German with the ligament injury would jeopardize his career. Cuban kept Nelson as his coach in large part because of his ability to lead his team. Nelson was doing what leaders do, he believed in the big picture, both Nowitzki's and the Mavericks, doing what he felt was in the best interests of everyone involved. The coach also confided in friends that he had promised Nowitzki's parents, when the Mavericks signed the young man at age 19, that he would look after the seven-footer in Texas like a son.

"You're just looking for excuses to lose," fumed Mr. Cuban, according to two people who heard the blowup. Mr. Nelson threw the Mavs' owner out of his office, these people say.

The acrimony worsened after the team lost the series to San Antonio. Cuban, in negotiations to extend Mr. Nelson's contract in the summer of 2003, offered the coach what Nelson regarded as a pay cut, say people who were privy to the negotiations according to the Wall Street Journal report. As with today, their contract dispute centered on millions of dollars of compensation that Nelson had agreed to defer back in the Perot years -- money Mr. Cuban wanted to slash.

With Nelson openly threatening to quit coaching, they reached a last-minute compromise: Nelson got a three-year contract extension as the Mavericks' coach and general manager -- at $5.1 million a year -- but no pay raise, despite the team's success.

"Nellie went ahead and signed that contract but the trust was broken," says a close friend who helped broker the deal.

The relationship between Cuban and Nelson continued to head downhill. According to the Wall Street Journal report Cuban refused to authorize Nelson’s expenses for scouting trips in 2004 (Nelson was responsible for selecting future Mavericks in the NBA draft). Cuban’s crassness may have bothered Nelson but standing in the way of your general managers’ ability to build your franchise is the hallmark of a bad sports owner. Cuban was quickly turning his feelings towards Nelson into becoming the type of owner Cuban never wanted to become, an owner whose actions hurt his teams’ ability to win.

At the end of the 2004 season Steve Nash a player cut in the mold of Nelson left the Mavericks signing a free agent contract with the Phoenix Suns. Nelson had had enough of Cuban, Nash’s back-to-back MVP’s proved who was right when it came to how valuable a basketball player Steve Nash would become and was ready to leave.

As the WSJ reported in March of 2005, Mr. Nelson, moping and depressed, relinquished his coaching job to Mr. Johnson, whom he had been grooming as his assistant. Mr. Cuban agreed to keep paying Mr. Nelson, now a Dallas hero, through the end of his contract in June of 2006.

"By then, neither one of those guys could stand to be in the same room," says Frank Zaccanelli, a Dallas real-estate developer who was a minority partner and president of the Mavericks in the 1990s.

The Dallas Morning News reported in late October Nelson had filed a lawsuit against Cuban to recover the alleged $6.6 million he was owed on his contract.

"First, it's not a grudge match," Cuban offered in a series of e-mail’s to the media. "If we put on sumo outfits at halftime, then maybe."

"It's an issue Nellie's lawyer threatened he would try to resolve in the press," Cuban writes, "and he has followed through.

"I prefer to let the lawyers do their job."

"Mark Cuban has been very good to me and my family," Nelson said when news of the lawsuit became public "but he doesn't like me very much."

"We reached an agreement and I thought we were going to walk away and be friends forever, but it hasn't worked out that way," Nelson said. "It's not my doing. I wanted to take the high road the whole way out of here, and he hasn't let me do that."

"No one ever asked us permission for him to coach Golden State," Cuban said. "That's a whole other issue. If he was trying to negotiate some things knowing he had another job and us not knowing, or if he had the possibility of another job ...

"I just want to put all this to rest. I'm tired of 'Aren't I wonderful, isn't he mean to me.' I mean, come on."

At his very best Mark Cuban can be the best owner in sports. At his worst he can be the worst owner in sports. Dirk Nowitzki unquestionably the Mavericks leader on the court made it clear to the Dallas media at a Mavericks camp for kids in early July (2006), he has had enough of Cuban and his off court antics.

"We all know that Mark is 100 percent all the time," Nowitzki said while signing 350 autographs for campers at a Mavericks' basketball clinic at Grapevine High School. "He loves us and he gets fired up once in a while. Well, all the time, really.

"Do I think it's a bit much sometimes? Yeah. He's got to learn how to control himself as well as the players do. We can't lose our temper all the time on the court or off the court, and I think he's got to learn that, too. He's got to improve in that area and not yell at the officials the whole game. I don't think that helps us.

"We all know what Mark brings to the team, how he supports us. We live with who he is, and we love him that way. But do I think it's good for us always? No."

A great sports owner works within the rules established by the league and gives the team he owns the best opportunity to win a championship. Last year, SBN named George Steinbrenner, Darth Steinbrenner the best owner in all of sports. Steinbrenner used to blow the occasional gasket when his New York Yankees where going through a slump and has had several notable run-ins with players and managers (and MLB management) but the George Steinbrenner of the last ten years has made the Yankees one of the best franchises in baseball during that period.

Earlier this week New York Yankees owner Steinbrenner again showed how much he’s grown as the owner of a sports franchise when despite the Yankees having a losing record in April Steinbrenner chose not to fire Yankees manager Joe Torre. The Steinbrenner of old would have fired Torre, but Steinbrenner has evolved into is an owner who sees the big picture

When Cuban purchased the Mavericks on January 14, 2000 he was like a kid in a candy store. A dot-com billionaire, Cuban’s ownership antics have resembled a classic ‘boy with a toy’, as opposed to the image of a traditional sports owner. Cuban was one of the first owners to sit among the fans buying tickets for games. His belief was and likely still is a sincere interest in gaining a greater understanding of the ‘fan experience’.

From day one he treated the Mavericks with respect. Two decisions Cuban made just after he bought the Mavericks, arranging for the team to fly on their own plane and giving each member of the team (and the entire organization) a laptop computer with all the bells and whistles. He did what he did not because he had too, but because he believed it would make his team better, giving them a better chance to win.

It’s off the court, where Cuban has on occasion become one of the worst owners in sports. At times Cuban has embarrassed himself, the Mavericks and the National Basketball Association. All told Mark Cuban has been fined 10 times for $1.45 million by NBA commissioner David Stern:

1 June 20, 2006 -- Fined $250,000 for "several acts of misconduct" committed after a 101-100 overtime loss to the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA finals. Cuban went onto the floor to vent directly to official Joe DeRosa, then stared at and screamed toward Commissioner David Stern and a group of league officials. He later used profanity during a postgame session with the media.

2 May 10, 2006 -- Fined $200,000; $100,000 each for going on the court to complain during a loss to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 1 of a second-round series and $100,000 for critical comments in a blog entry entitled, "How to improve NBA Playoff Officiating."

3 Jan. 8, 2002 -- Fined $500,000 for comments about officiating after a 105-103 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. He said of the NBA's director of officials Ed Rush, "Ed Rush might have been a great ref, but I wouldn't hire him to manage a Dairy Queen. His interest is not in the integrity of the game or improving the officiating."

4 April 13, 2001 -- NBA fines Cuban $100,000 and suspends him from one game for making a derogatory gesture during a 111-106 loss to the Phoenix Suns. "I didn't make a derogatory gesture," he later said. "I jumped up and grabbed my throat after a missed call, and that was it."

5 Feb. 16, 2001 -- Fined $10,000 and suspended from two games after he runs onto the court to break up a fight with the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is known as the "chalupa incident" because the brawl was over the Mavericks trying to break 100 points so fans would get free chalupas.

6 Jan. 11, 2001 -- Fined $100,000 after sitting on the baseline during a road game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. "They said it wasn't fitting for an owner to sit there," Cuban said.

7 Jan. 4, 2001 -- On the first anniversary of his deal to buy the Mavericks, Cuban was fined $250,000 for criticizing referees after a loss to the Detroit Pistons. Cuban had arena officials freeze a replay of an offensive goaltending violation he thought officials missed, then had photographers take pictures of it. "The refs were pitiful tonight and I don't care if I get fined," he said.

8 Nov. 22, 2000 -- Fined $25,000 after verbally abusing and publicly criticizing officials after a loss to the Seattle SuperSonics. Cuban was angry that official Gary Benson, who wore No. 30, missed a goaltending call. Cuban waited for officials at their locker room, then said, "Am I mistaken or did No. 30 just hand them the game? Nice game, No. 30."

9 Nov. 20, 2000 -- Cuban fined $15,000 after being escorted off the court after a confrontation with an official during a game with the Utah Jazz. Told by coach Don Nelson that his actions might be hurting the team, Cuban did not attend the next two home games.

10 Nov. 14, 2000 -- Cuban fined $5,000 for criticizing an official after a win against the Los Angeles Clippers. "The policy is to fine anyone who criticizes the officiating," he said. "I knew that before I said anything. But it still doesn't address the issue."

Cuban reacted to Nowitzki’s comments with the following email in July: "Dirk and I have a great relationship," Cuban said via e-mail. "We both trust each other to speak our minds.

"I didn't want him to play international [basketball], but respect him enough to [let him] make his own call on it. He doesn't always agree with what I do, but respects me enough to let me make my own call on it."

Donnie Nelson (his father the Nelson who is suing Cuban and coaching the Warriors), team president of basketball operations, added these comments in a Dallas Morning News report at the time: "There are no perfect people in the world, and Mark would be the first to admit that," said Nelson, "Sometimes Mark's passion just gets the best of him, but I'd rather have him than some owner who sits on his hands and comes to five games a year.

"He's the best owner in professional sports, and I wouldn't trade him for anyone out there."

The issue with Cuban is he seems more often then not wanting to be the center of attention. Let’s not mistake passion for the “Billy Madison syndrome”. At times Mark Cuban behaves like a spoiled child who when he doesn’t get his way stomps and yells until someone notices him. David Stern then becomes the parent who has to discipline his misbehaving child. On every level when Mark Cuban acts like a child he’s doing a disservice to all the great decisions and moves he’s made as an owner and as a business man.

"He sits right there over by our bench, too," Nowitzki said at the time. "Sometimes I think that's a bit much, but we all told him this before. It's not rocket science.

"The game starts and he's already yelling at [the officials]. He needs to learn how to control himself a little better. If somebody's in your ear constantly...I'd be [ticked] off if I were an official."

Ironically one of the best recent examples of Cuban not being where he belonged occurred during game four of the 2006 Western Conference Finals at the US Airways Center, in Phoenix. Cuban accompanied by then Mavericks backup center D.J. Mbenga went into the stands according to various media reports to aid the wife of coach Avery Johnson. The NBA suspended Mbenga for six games, but didn’t do anything about Cuban because "his actions did not violate NBA rules and were not otherwise inappropriate."

Cuban for his part defended his actions: "This wasn't a chalupa moment," Cuban said. "It was something totally different. ... I have a responsibility to everyone who puts on a uniform and their families. Period, end of story.”

Cuban hasn’t said very much as his Mavericks have been driven to the brink of a humiliating first round elimination by the Warriors. If the Warriors hadn’t imploded at the end of Tuesday night’s game the Mavericks who where 67-15 during the regular season would have been knocked out of the playoffs by a team coached by the Mavericks former coach, a team who lost 25 more game than the Mavericks did during the regular season. If the Warriors win tonight it will represent one of the greatest upsets in NBA history. It’s important to understand the Mavericks won 67 games in the regular season and should be able to win both tonight and would certainly be the favorite for game seven back in Dallas. But if the Warriors win tonight (or lose tonight and then really shock the world and win game seven in Dallas) much of the credit for the Warriors success will go to Don Nelson. Whatever may or may not be the real story between Cuban and Nelson remains to be seen, but Nelson may have used how Cuban treated him as a motivational message he used to help get the Warriors ready to play the Mavericks.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Wall Street Journal and The Dallas Morning News

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