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.

Because while the Circle T battle unfolded, Zaccanelli has had his hands full with another debacle--the Dallas Mavericks.

It was June 1995 when Ross Perot Jr. first began seriously pursuing a sports franchise. For three months, he negotiated intensely with Norm Green about buying the Dallas Stars hockey team, and the two sides even roughed out a contract.

The deal was almost finalized, and Perot Jr. brought in public relations consultants to help prepare for the announcement of the ownership switch. But at the eleventh hour, it fell apart.

Frank Zaccanelli, front and center in the negotiations, says it was Perot Jr. who pulled out of the deal, ultimately realizing that it wasn't a moneymaker. "These numbers just don't work," Zaccanelli says he and Perot concluded. The Stars were too deeply in debt.

But a former Hillwood employee who was still with the company at the time remembers another scenario generally discussed around the office. This former employee says it was assumed Perot Jr. was getting the money for the Stars purchase from his dad. (Perot Sr. would later help arrange $60 million in cash so his son could buy the Mavericks.) The same employee says office workers speculated that it was Perot Sr. who balked at the last minute and scotched the Stars purchase. A lawyer who has worked closely with the Perot family for almost two decades says Perot Sr. has never liked the idea of owning a sports team, or any seasonal business for that matter. "He says he likes his people to work year-round," the lawyer recalls.

Two former Hillwood employees and a former friend of Zaccanelli's say Perot Jr.'s top lieutenant was despondent when the Stars deal fell apart. Without explanation, Zaccanelli took almost two weeks off from the office and implied that he was thinking about quitting, one former employee says.

Zaccanelli and two others who still work for him at Hillwood flatly deny that he reacted in such a fashion. Zaccanelli concedes he and several other Hillwood executives may have taken a few days off after the deal collapsed to recover from three months of intense negotiations.

The aborted Stars purchase, Zaccanelli says, ultimately led to the Mavericks. After tying up Green's assets, Zaccanelli says, Perot Jr. felt obligated to help the Stars owner find another buyer.

Perot Jr. offered to serve as an intermediary between Green and Don Carter, then the Mavericks' majority owner. Perot Jr., who is friends with Carter's son, Ron, called the Mavericks owner to see if he wanted to buy the Stars in late 1995, Zaccanelli says. Carter declined the invitation.

But Carter did call Perot Jr. back and ask if he might want to buy the Mavericks, Zaccanelli says. Carter was tired of running the hapless basketball team, which seems to get worse no matter how hard it tries. Carter had paid $14 million for the then-new NBA franchise in 1979. By 1996, the team was worth about $125 million, and Carter decided to cash in.

The way Zaccanelli tells it now reduces the role of automobile dealer David McDavid, whom late-night television viewers know all too well from his mind-numbing commercials.

But McDavid's role didn't seem that diminutive at the press conference when the Mavericks sale was announced. McDavid and Perot Jr. stood side by side to announce the sale, and explained that they were partners in the deal.

McDavid's brother-in-law, Steve Dieb, a land broker and friend of Zaccanelli's, claims the McDavid group was actually the catalyst for the purchase. Dieb says he got McDavid to talk to Carter, and then brought the idea to Perot Jr. McDavid met with Perot Jr. shortly before Christmas 1996. "We were feeling each other out," Dieb says. McDavid and Perot Jr. met again at the Circle T ranch in February.

At the time, one participant in the meeting says, Perot Jr. seemed lukewarm about a Mavericks deal. When Zaccanelli joked that he and Dieb would run the team, the participant recalls, Perot Jr. cracked: "That's what I'm worried about."

But, the same participant recalls, Zaccanelli expressed confidence. "I'll get him to buy the team," he recalls Zaccanelli telling the McDavid camp. Ultimately, former Hillwood executives and members of the McDavid camp say, Zaccanelli did persuade Perot Jr. to buy the Mavericks by arguing that purchasing the team created an entree to the biggest Dallas real estate transaction of the decade: a new downtown arena.

The down-and-dirty negotiations for the Mavericks went surprisingly fast. Zaccanelli had already schooled himself on sports-team finance when he worked through the aborted Stars purchase, he says, so the Mavericks' numbers were a breeze.

But there were some tense moments in negotiations. Zaccanelli did his own share of ruffling feathers. At one point, one participant says, Ron Carter made a mistake calculating some numbers, and the result could have cost the Carters millions of dollars. Rather than simply allow Carter to fix an honest screw-up, Zaccanelli wanted to make Carter eat the mistake. Zaccanelli says the incident is something he "would rather not comment on."

Then Carter, peeved about the incident with his son, began barring Zaccanelli from his office, the same participant recalls. (Neither Carter, his son, nor McDavid returned calls from the Observer.) Zaccanelli raged that McDavid "had thrown him in the grease and that Carter would not let him participate," the participant recalls. "Frank was pissed. He thought McDavid and Carter were good ol' boys."

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