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In the '80s, when computer users were still carrying floppy discs from machine to machine, Cuban bet on computer networking and founded a company called MicroSolutions in Dallas. At 31, he sold out to CompuServe for his first million bucks in 1990. In the late '90s, he started streaming radio broadcasts of Indiana basketball games live on the Internet--at first for just five friends. People laughed about the kid who turned $3,000 computers into $5 radios, but he and an Indiana buddy, Todd Wagner, turned Broadcast.com into a multimedia company and made 300 of their 330 employees millionaires.
Not all of them cashed out as cleanly as Cuban (who bought apartments in New York, Los Angeles and Miami as well as a $41 million Gulfstream jet). For the past two years, Cuban has lectured about the perils of stocks. "Don't trust the stock market. It's a scam. Enron proved that," says Cuban. "Today the stock market is closer to a Ponzi scheme than an investor's paradise." He takes a breath and asks, "Do I sound crazy?"
Cuban is perhaps best known as the wild-eyed team owner who keeps lambasting basketball referees and getting fined. In January the NBA assessed Cuban the largest fine in its history--$500,000--for saying of the head of NBA officiating: "I wouldn't hire him to manage a Dairy Queen." Challenged by the company to manage a DQ for a day, Cuban gamely showed up at 6 a.m. to learn how to curl soft ice cream, then hustled to serve the 1,000 fans in line. Cuban briefly recruited basketball bad boy Dennis Rodman, inviting him to live in the guesthouse of the $15 million Cuban mansion. Rodman didn't last, either at the mansion or with the Mavericks, but Cuban calls the courtship an "experiment" worth trying.
These antics would not seem to recommend Cuban as a boss or business partner. But people who work with him seem mostly bemused by Mad Mark. He doesn't keep office hours. He constantly fires off ideas and instructions by e-mail--one passing along a fan's complaint about the hot dogs at Mavs games, the next negotiating an expansion of HDNet. Says Terdema Ussery, CEO of the Mavericks and HDNet: "When he first came, Mark used to say people have to decide if they can stay on this train because it moves very fast." Phil Garvin, COO of HDNet, says he enjoys working for Cuban because "he never fails to take the risky course." Stephanie Campbell, senior vice president for programming at DirecTV, came away respecting Cuban after negotiating the HDNet deal. "If there's a bit of hyperbole there, it's healthy," she says. "Mark is one of the most interesting people I've met--and you can trust him to do what he says."
When Cuban bought the money-losing Mavericks and an interest in the team's new arena for an NBA record price of $280 million two years ago, he was ridiculed for paying too much and trying to "buy" a championship with player perks. At the American Airlines Center, each player's locker is outfitted with a flat-screen TV, DVD player, vcr and stereo receiver. Cuban's embellishments to the arena, including a private underground court for pregame practices, added $2.5 million to construction costs. Aboard the team's 757, there is a weight room and a medical facility. Most teams have a head coach and two assistants. The Mavericks have 12 assistants, most of whom work at nurturing young talent. "Professional basketball players are no different from everyone else. They look for reasons to stay in bed and hit the snooze button," says Cuban. "I've got a $50 million annual payroll. I'd be a moron if I didn't protect it."
The payoff has come quickly. After the longest dry spell in NBA play-off history, the Mavs are in the championship running for the second year in a row. The team's revenue is a closely guarded secret, but Cuban and his lieutenants claim that it has doubled in two years, and the Mavs have sold out 30 straight home games.