The son almost rises

Ross Perot Jr. is pushing 40, and still trying to slip from his father's shadow. He's built Alliance Airport, bought the Mavericks, and is trying to ramrod a new arena. But he isn't a pit bull like his old man. That's where Frank Zaccanelli comes in.

H. Ross Perot Jr. had just bought the Dallas Mavericks in May 1996 when the basketball team's top executive quit. The son of Dallas' most famous billionaire was in a bind. As he often does, Perot Jr. turned to his longtime chief lieutenant, Frank Zaccanelli, and put the fiery Italian in charge of the floundering franchise. It was a short-lived but telling choice.

As president of Perot Jr.'s real estate company, Zaccanelli had hammered out many of the company's biggest deals--including the burgeoning Alliance Airport Park, an industrial facility north of Fort Worth. Zaccanelli had also spearheaded Perot Jr.'s scheme to acquire cheap raw land in the early 1990s and transform those properties in Austin, Plano, and McKinney into lucrative housing developments with nearby golf courses.

But managing a professional basketball team? Zaccanelli had zero experience. Two decades earlier, he had played for the Division III collegiate team at Potsdam State University in upstate New York. Since then, the 41-year-old has shot plenty of hoops around town--establishing a reputation as a passionate, occasionally downright mean, man on the courts.

But Zaccanelli's zeal wasn't the cure for the beleaguered Mavericks. A sharp-tongued man with an uncanny knack of inspiring loathing, Zaccanelli needed only a few months to alienate the players, Perot Jr.'s other partners in the Mavericks, and, ultimately, the fans. Some 25 games into the season, Zaccanelli traded the Mavericks' only bona fide star, the whiner Jason Kidd, for three largely unrecognized players. By the end of the season, the Mavericks went through 27 players on their roster--breaking a National Basketball Association record that had stood since the 1940s.

The team set another dubious NBA record on April 6, 1997, by scoring only 2 points in one quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers. By the end of the season, the Mavericks had lost two more games than the previous year, posting an abysmal record of 24-58. Attendance dropped by 1,584 fans per night. Only 15,102 fans had shown up on average to fill 18,502 seats.

Today, Zaccanelli shuns responsibility for the disastrous season. "The Mavericks didn't get broken in one year," he asserts. But before the season came to a close, Zaccanelli finally had to give up the general manager's post.

In February, Zaccanelli flew to Maui and persuaded former New York Knicks coach Don Nelson, who was enjoying semi-retirement, to accept the Mavericks job. Zaccanelli wined and dined the basketball legend, and came armed with a generous offer from Perot Jr.: a five-year, $8 million contract to serve as the Mavericks' general manager with no day-to-day coaching obligations.

Before he got on the plane for Dallas, Nelson had one more request. Though Perot Jr. was hiring him, Nelson wanted to meet Perot Sr. "But I explained to him that it was Ross [Jr.] who was running the show," Zaccanelli recounts.

The Nelson episode underscores the puzzling predicament of Ross Perot Jr. His father is one of the richest, most cantankerous, and least predictable figures in the United States--known variously as a wildly successful businessman, a failed presidential candidate, creator of an entire political movement, and a nut.

In the past few years, Perot Jr. has made no small effort to distinguish himself from his father without betraying the strong family roots from which he sprang.

While venturing into his father's territory--the world of business--Perot Jr. has stayed away from computer services, the industry that made dad rich. He has chosen a corporate moniker, Hillwood Development, with no connection to the Perot family name, and has set out to carve his own fame from the North Texas landscape.

Father and son each regularly emphasize Perot Jr.'s independence when talking to reporters. "We often find out by reading in the newspaper what each other is doing," Perot Jr. told Texas Monthly in 1994. With pride, the father frequently tells writers that his son is "Big Ross" and he is "Old Ross." (Neither Perot would speak with the Dallas Observer.)

Despite all the talk, the first child and only son approaches his fortieth birthday still unable to shake the perception that he operates only in his father's shadow. Dealmakers who sit across the table from Perot Jr. say they assume Perot Sr. controls the purse strings and makes the final calls on deals.

Dad's estimated $2.6 billion wealth, however, is only part of the equation that leads observers to conclude that dealing with Junior equals dealing with Senior. The son has also begun to acquire, in small measure, the same ruthless, my-way-or-the-highway reputation that dogs his ornery father.

Recently, it is Perot Jr.'s public squabbles that have begun to make headlines.

In the town of Westlake, about 30 miles northwest of Dallas, Perot Jr. stirred up a public relations brouhaha by persuading a compliant Board of Aldermen to disannex his 2,500-acre Circle T Ranch. Perot Jr. wanted out of the town after the mayor and residents began nitpicking his plans to build a huge development.

In Dallas, Perot Jr. has so far failed to generate much public support for his proposal to develop a $220 million project including a downtown sports arena and a complex of offices, hotels, and retail outlets. It hasn't helped that Perot Jr. wants taxpayers to pick up half the tab.

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