Two bits of received wisdom are thought to apply across all sports: Defense wins championships, and meddling owners lose them. When Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones wrested full control of his franchise from head coach Jimmy Johnson, the team began its decline from dynasty to mediocrity. George Steinbrenner took over a good New York Yankees team in the late 1970s and ran it into the ground—and only when he learned to stop firing managers in the 1990s did the Yanks start winning again. The Washington Redskins’ Daniel Snyder is lambasted across the country for failing to learn the first lesson of sports ownership: Stay out of the way, sign the checks, and let the football/baseball/basketball people in the front office do their jobs.
So, what explains the Dallas Mavericks’ Mark Cuban? In less than three years, the most hands-on owner in pro basketball has turned the 1990s’ worst franchise in all of sports into the team to beat for this year’s NBA championship. And he’s done it by being involved in all aspects of its operations: Cuban sits in his team’s war room on draft day, gets on the phone to close deals with other teams’ general managers, and openly discusses personnel decisions with the media.
Before Cuban’s arrival, to call the Mavericks the Cincinnati Bengals of basketball would have been an insult to the Bengals. During the nine full seasons before Cuban bought the team for an NBA-record $280 million in January 2000, the Mavs went 199-507, a .281 clip. But in the first two full seasons after Cuban took over, the team went 110-54 with their first playoff berths in 10 years, and now you can throw in a 14-0 record to kick off this season. (They’re now 16-1.)
After buying the team, Cuban (who made his billions when he sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo!) didn’t clean house like most new owners—he kept coach and general manager Don Nelson and most of the front office. But the Mavericks’ players and coaches credit him with turning the franchise around. “Mark’s a big, big reason” for the team’s improvement, Nelson told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram a year after Cuban arrived. Center Shawn Bradley concurred: “When we go out each night, no matter who we’re playing we know we have a good shot to win. It wasn’t that way last year, or any other time I can remember before he got here.” Cuban “brought back a sense of pride to be part of the Dallas Mavericks’ organization,” All-Star forward Michael Finley told the Washington Post after a comeback win over Orlando last year. “A year ago, we would have lost that game. We wouldn’t have given the effort down the stretch.”
Getting effort out of the team is usually thought to be the job of the coach, but Cuban is starting to redefine what it means to be a sports owner. He’s a master motivator and marketer, and basketball fans respond to him as readily as players do. Cuban is a bona fide sports star, better known and more popular than most of his players. He signs autographs before games, where, clad in jeans and a T-shirt (or Mavericks jersey), he sits behind the team’s bench and hoots and hollers like a fan. He answers fan mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.He stars in TV spots for ESPN’s NBA broadcasts and for EA Sports video games. He gave an interview to Penthouse and appears on shows such as the Tonight show and Politically Incorrect. He has his own half-hour TV show in Dallas, and the Fox Sports show Beyond the Glory will devote an upcoming episode to him—making Cuban one of only two non-athletes to merit the hour-long treatment. (The other is Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, who has coached college football for 37 years. Cuban has owned a team for not quite three.)
Cuban is the Tina Brown of sports owners, perpetually whipping up buzz for himself and his team. After buying the Mavericks, he was upset that no one in Dallas talked about the Mavs on sports radio and the newspaper hardly covered them. Cuban immediately made himself accessible to the media, even firing off e-mails to the DallasMorning News’ sports editor to complain about coverage decisions. He instituted fan-friendly policies like cheaper upper-deck ticket prices (compare that to the Redskins’ Snyder, who charged fans to attend training-camp practices) and a free Taco Bell chalupa every time the Mavs scored 100 points. Cuban has even turned his run-ins with NBA Commissioner David Stern over the quality of officiating into the best press money could buy, matching his six-figure fines with donations to his favorite charities. On a lark, he refereed a Harlem Globetrotters game to show that he could do the job himself, and after saying the head of NBA officiating couldn’t “manage a Dairy Queen” (for which Stern whacked Cuban with a $500,000 fine), he agreed to manage the DQ franchise in Coppell, Texas, serving up Blizzards to more than 1,000 fans.
But Cuban doesn’t just try to market the Mavericks to fans—he’s also constantly marketing the team to opposing players (who are potential free agents) and even to his own players (ditto). Because of the NBA’s salary cap, there are limits to how much Cuban can out-pay other owners for his players. To get around that, he lavishes his team with perks, such as a $46 million Boeing 757 he bought to take the players on road trips. Cuban’s plane features a weight room, catered meals, and a facility for trainers to provide medical treatment. Cuban also makes sure the team stays in the best hotels in town, he bought the players brand-new luggage, and he sends limos to pick them up during icy weather. The tactics pay off—last year, the Mavericks boasted the league’s best road record. “Professional basketball players are no different from everyone else. They look for reasons to stay in bed and hit the snooze button,” Cuban told Time earlier this year. “I’ve got a $50 million annual payroll. I’d be a moron if I didn’t protect it.”
At home, the Mavs get the star treatment, too. Each player’s locker contains a flat-screen television, a DVD player, headphones, and a PlayStation 2. The team also has a dozen assistant coaches, the most of any team in the league, including one just for free throws and one just for defense. Cuban also had new padded chairs, with massage-chair features, installed along the home-team bench to replace the folding chairs on which the players previously sat. But the opposing team gets treated well, too, including an extravagant buffet after the game. In an ingenious bit of viral marketing, Cuban stocks both locker rooms with luxurious $20 towels featuring the team’s logo, knowing the visiting team will steal them. Now, the homes of NBA players are filled with Mavericks towels—and some of those players might remember the plush treatment when they’re looking to sign with a new team. The team’s own free agents remember, too: Cuban had an easy time re-signing Finley and Dirk Nowitski, the team’s two best players, and center Raef LaFrentz surprised a lot of people by quickly signing a contract with the Mavericks after being traded there last year.
And therein lies the real secret of Cuban’s success: standing pat. Unlike most hands-on owners, he doesn’t feel the need to overly fiddle with his team, though he has made a number of trades to improve it. In fact, Cuban’s most important task as an owner hasn’t been to make smart moves—it’s been to prevent Nelson, his general manager, from making dumb ones. Throughout his career, Nelson has been an inveterate tinkerer, making constant adjustments to his teams. Before Cuban arrived, the Mavericks were known for making quirky moves such as drafting an Australian tennis player in the first round and giving up four players for the mediocre Bradley. In Nelson, the Mavericks already had a meddler—and they needed another one to stop him. Cuban didn’t need to get out of Nellie’s way; he needed to get in it. And Mavericks fans are glad he did.