Mavs held hostage

Did Ross Perot Jr. strike out when Tom Hicks bought the Rangers?

On January 6, the Dallas Mavericks ended a 15-game losing streak in front of a crowd team officials said hovered around the 9,000 mark--though, in truth, no more than half that number bothered to show up at Reunion Arena for this clash of last-place titans, the Mavs versus the Denver Nuggets. The weather was bad; the basketball, worse. The game had all the excitement of a junior-high playoff tournament. It was so quiet in Reunion, you could hear a player think.

Among those hearty souls in attendance was Mavericks' owner Ross Perot Jr., wearing a "Yes! Let's build it" button on his dark suit and a grim look on his tight face. Perot sat courtside about 30 seats away from Mayor Ron Kirk, with whom he exchanged not a single word, at least in public.

Junior watched the game with blank passion: His team had won, but it was a hollow victory. Even assistant coach Donnie Nelson, son of coach-general manager Don Nelson, said after the game that "it meant nothing." Two days later, the Mavs would begin yet another losing streak, the kind that drowned the senior Nelson's fall playoff talk in cold winter rain.

On January 6, Junior's team had won its insignificant battle on the Reunion Arena hardwood. But earlier that day, the Mavericks owner had come a step closer to losing a much bigger war--the one that was supposed to end with his being awarded a new downtown Dallas arena on the abandoned TU Electric site off Stemmons Freeway. The papers had reported that Dallas Stars owner and media mogul Tom Hicks was buying the Texas Rangers, the lease to the Ballpark in Arlington, and--oh, yeah--270 acres of prime Arlington real estate. Just the kind of fertile land where any self-respecting billionaire would be proud to plant a new arena.

The press conference confirming this came the next day. Rangers president Tom Schieffer passed the baton--in the form of Juan Gonzalez's bat--to Hicks, and the new owner spun cheery World Series promises to a room filled with adoring colleagues and reporters, who wrote how Hicks had turned the Stars into a winner in two short years.

After the Nuggets game, Perot stuck around to shake a few hands and finagle a few votes for the arena, but he seemed to wear the news like a mask. Perhaps he realized that the moment Hicks bought the Rangers and all that beautiful land, he might as well have buried Perot's arena fantasy.

Once upon a time, Tom Hicks thought he would own the Dallas Mavericks--until Junior stole the team not behind his back, but right in front of his face. Once upon a time, Tom Hicks offered to pay for a new arena himself (well, with his and Perot's money)--until Junior demanded the city pay for more than half, forcing Saturday's vote that could demolish Dallas' new-arena future. Once upon a time, Tom Hicks looked like a very good guy--until Junior got greedy.

Now, Tom Hicks gets his revenge.
If, come Saturday, Dallas residents vote not to increase car-rental and hotel taxes, providing the $125 million in bond money that would go toward financing the arena, it seems more than likely that Hicks will build the new arena in Arlington, a home run away from the Ballpark. And if that happens, Perot's dream of building a real estate paradise around his pitiful Mavericks

Hicks and his people keep denying they want to move to Arlington. Instead, they talk about how difficult the arena negotiations were with Dallas and Perot--Hicks' and Perot's people didn't speak for eight months in 1997--and how dedicated Hicks is to keeping the Dallas in Dallas Stars for the next 30 years.

But just a few days ago, David Deniger--the president and CEO of Hicks' Olympus Realty, a minority owner in the Stars, and one of the brains behind the arena negotiations among the Stars, the Mavericks, and the city--told the Dallas Observer it's very possible that if the vote fails, an arena will be built near the Ballpark.

"It's not unreasonable to assume the teams are going to go elsewhere," Deniger said. "That will be the case. But we haven't threatened anybody. We're not pointing a gun to anyone's head. If this thing is turned down, it's a new ball game. That's an important piece of property [near the Ballpark], and it'd be natural to build an arena there."

Hicks repeatedly said last week that negotiations between himself and the Rangers have been going on for months; Deniger said he thinks the news leak came from someone inside the Rangers, though he isn't sure. Nonetheless, the timing was bad. Last week, a Mavericks employee told the Observer that the teams had done research indicating that voters will make up their minds about the arena between January 6 and voting day.

Hicks must have known there would be a tremendous backlash among voters when they found out this billionaire was paying $250 million for a baseball team--and asking those minimum-wage taxpayers whose votes Perot and Kirk so desperately need to fork over $125-plus million for an arena to house his hockey team.

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