Whiner. Before this year's NBA playoffs, that would have been one of the first words that came to mind, for many people, if someone mentioned Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. After all, this is the guy who has racked up around $1.7 million in fines over the past decade for criticizing the league and its referees. Go ahead and Google it. "Mark Cuban and whiner." You'll see only 533,000 results.
Another insult frequently directed at Cuban was baby. During the 2009 Western Conference semifinals, after Cuban told the mother of Denver Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin that her son was a "punk" and "thug," a Nuggets fan held up a poster of Cuban's head attached to a baby holding a bottle.
After all the years of derision, Cuban has become used to the name-calling. Over the past few days, however, he's been referred to in very different ways: winner, for instance, and even classy. Oh, and all the while, he's been busy cradling the NBA championship trophy. Like it's his baby.
In fact, it's hard to think of another sports executive who's so transformed his image, in so short a time, as Mark Cuban.
Most sports fans could always find some reason to at least grudgingly respect Cuban. In 1999 he sold his Internet-radio business to Yahoo! for $5.9 billion in stock. He injected life into a horrid basketball team. Since Cuban bought the Mavs in January 2000, the team has reached the playoffs in each of the 11 full seasons of his tenure. Prior to his arrival, Dallas had missed the playoffs nine straight years.
But he has always been hard to like and hard to root for. He's cocky and brash and incessantly gripes, whether to the media or directly to the refs on the floor. He's also been way overexposed. At games, you couldn't miss him, sitting courtside in jeans and T-shirt, exhorting his players as if he were their coach or one of them. And Cuban briefly had his own reality show, called The Benefactor, in which 16 aspiring entrepreneurs competed for a $1 million prize from the Dallas owner. It flopped worse than any NBA player Cuban has accused of faking fouls.
Then came this year's playoffs. After Dallas knocked off the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, Cuban decided to stay mum during Dallas' second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was quite a departure. He had dissed Lakers forward Ron Artest back in March. "Anything that puts the ball in Ron Artest's hands is always a good thing," Cuban said. For years, Cuban has been publicly jawing with then Lakers coach Phil Jackson. In January, he called Jackson "Jeanie Buss's boy toy," referring to Jackson's romantic relationship with Buss, the team's vice president of business operations and daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss.
"I knew the questions everyone was going to ask," Cuban explained to the postgame press after Dallas knocked off the Miami Heat on June 12. "They were going to ask me about my repartee with Phil Jackson and the things I said about Ron Artest. I didn't want to get in the middle of a back-and-forth about that."
Then a funny thing happened: while Cuban kept quiet, the Mavericks kept winning, sweeping the Lakers in commanding, shocking fashion. Next up, in the Western Conference finals, were the young, surging Oklahoma City Thunder, and Cuban knew the media wanted to inject him into the story line. Cuban had been one of only two owners who opposed the relocation of the Seattle Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, since Dallas and the Oklahoma capital are only some 200 miles apart. Cuban knew he'd receive questions about his opposition, so he shut up again. The Mavs won the series in five games.
At this point, Cuban would have been an idiot to act the way he did during the Mavs' 2006 finals loss to the Heat, when his rants against the refs though understandable, since the officiating in that series was atrocious became a sideshow. "It didn't make sense to say anything," Cuban says to the press. "The quieter I got, the more we won. I didn't want to break the karma."
Give the man credit. It wasn't easy for a carnival barker like Cuban to remain low-key during the finals, when the world's attention was focused on his team. (This year's Game 6, for example, notched the highest rating for a Game 6 in 11 years.) And though Dallas may well have still beaten Miami if Cuban had been a distraction, it certainly made it easier for the Mavs that he wasn't.
And after Dallas clinched, Cuban made the classiest (there's that word) public move of his career. On a stage in Miami, he stepped aside to let Donald Carter, the team's founding owner and the man most responsible for bringing an NBA franchise to the Metroplex in 1980, accept the championship trophy from NBA commissioner David Stern. "He's become the owner I always wanted him to become because of his love for the game," Carter said afterward. "He played it just right."