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.

Zaccanelli says he thought he was "always on the same page" with Carter and McDavid.

Zaccanelli also played a key role in an eleventh-hour blowup involving McDavid's brother-in-law. Dieb believed that he was to be given a central role in managing the Mavericks. He says Zaccanelli led him to that belief.

But on the eve of the sale announcement, Dieb says, Zaccanelli met with him, McDavid, and his sister and told them that Perot Jr. had ruled out any role for Dieb in Mavericks management. Perot Jr.'s concern, Dieb says, was nepotism. Dieb says it was a bitter blow, and ironic that Perot Jr.--a guy who was set up in business by his father--had a problem with nepotism. Zaccanelli told him, Dieb says, that he would do everything he could to get him a job.

Zaccanelli denies promising Dieb a job. He confirms that "a really hard and fast rule" about nepotism with Perot Jr. ruled out the prospects for Dieb.

"Dieb is a friend," Zaccanelli says. "But his involvement is overemphasized."

On May 1, 1996, after plenty of leaks to the press, Perot Jr. and McDavid appeared together at the press conference announcing their purchase of the Mavericks. Perot Jr. said he would hold majority interest in the team, but McDavid would run the day-to-day operations of the franchise. McDavid told reporters he would look for "basketball people to run the team."

Zaccanelli has since revised that characterization. He says the plan was for McDavid to be "the up-and-front guy" dealing with the press, but claims "a management team was in place."

The distinction became significant. Within a few weeks of that press conference--on May 16--top Mavericks executive Norm Sonju quit. It was Zaccanelli--not McDavid--who went down to the Mavericks' office to take over the helm.

Sonju's departure came just days after the Mavericks skated perilously close to violating an NBA rule that forbids teams from trying to surreptitiously negotiate with talent from other teams. According to Zaccanelli, Sonju had been instructed to contact the Indiana Pacers to see if the team would allow the Mavericks to talk to the agent of that team's coach, Larry Brown. While Sonju handled the formalities, Brown's agent, Joe Glass, and Zaccanelli began talking about a deal. Zaccanelli insists that he didn't call Glass. And, for his part, Glass insisted the two men's conversation did not violate any NBA rules. But McDavid's brother-in-law Dieb says he was in the room with Zaccanelli when Zaccanelli talked with Brown's agent. Dieb says he heard Zaccanelli talk about Brown possibly coming to the Mavericks.

The potential NBA violation came because Sonju had not yet explicitly asked the Pacers for permission to negotiate with Brown, Dieb says. When word leaked to the Pacers that Brown was getting calls from the Mavericks, the Dallas executives had more than a little explaining to do. The NBA has a $5 million fine in place for teams that are caught tampering with coaches.

Days after the whole messy affair took place, Sonju decided to quit the Mavericks. Zaccanelli says Sonju's departure changed everything. As majority owner, Perot Jr. could no longer leave the team's management up to McDavid. "He had to make a tough decision," Zaccanelli says. "He told me, 'You've got to go down there for 90 days.'"

The 90 days came and went. Zaccanelli did promote Keith Grant to vice president of basketball, ostensibly to handle the business load that Sonju had carried. But by the end of October, Grant also quit. (Grant has since returned to the team.) Zaccanelli stayed at the helm throughout. The press reported that Zaccanelli liked his new job, and made no mention of it being temporary. Running the Mavericks apparently was fun for a basketball fanatic like Zaccanelli. He would sometimes hang around watching team practices, and shot hoops afterwards, he concedes. In a November article in D magazine, sports writer Skip Bayless wrote that "Zaccanelli will attempt to fill the Jerry Jones role for the Mavs."

Zaccanelli adamantly denies he ever envisioned such a possibility. Running the team was always just a temporary gig, he insists. "I never wanted to make a career change," he says.

Indeed, as mistakes and losses started adding up, the pressure on Zaccanelli to find a seasoned general manager grew. On February 8, he announced the hiring of Don "Nellie" Nelson. Fans greeted the news with relief. But they were upset that Nelson wasn't coaching. The same day he was hired, Nelson made it clear that he, not Zaccanelli, was now in charge. He traded a record six players.

By April, Perot Jr. had his story about the Mavericks debacle down pat. If Perot Jr. had been willing to let his chief lieutenant dabble with running a basketball team, the moment was over. In written responses to questions from The Dallas Morning News, Perot Jr. said, "Basically, Frank did his job. He did a great job managing the situation and did a super job recruiting Nellie. Frank is an owner with me in the club...he'll work...through the transition program. Then, Frank and I have other things we need to do in real estate. Frank will go back into the real estate acquisition business, which is what he did before."

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