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The coach gestures like an overcaffeinated child, frantically pointing here and there. He runs across finished hardwood--part of the pristine workout facility at the Baylor-Tom Landry Center--warm-up pants swooshing, directing players like a traffic cop at a broken light. Basketballs thump in a kind of asymmetrical chorus, and the air is heavy and smells of sickly sweet perspiration. Reporters, front-office types, and more assistant coaches than Uganda has citizens watch from off to the side.
For an often cantankerous soul, a man who stands 6-foot-6 and uses his bearlike girth as a kind of rampart, Don Nelson looks content on Day Four of Dallas Mavericks Camp 2000. For the first time in four years at the helm, he has players. Not walking, talking, unused coat hangers. Players. At last, Hope is here, and maybe that makes him more pleasant. If nothing else, it makes him laugh.
In these parts, Hope is tangible--it blinks and breathes, cracks jokes, sits in on meetings, flips for the postgame spread. While some players run through drills, moving in and out of cuts like a blue-and-white amoeba, Hope--known to most as Mavericks patriarch Mark Cuban, to a select group of friends as "Cubes"--takes note from the uncomfortable seat of a stationary bike. His is the best view in the house, inches from the court. Well, the best seat if you're a masochist, anyway. He churns along, peddling as though it's the last leg of the Tour de France and he's just now turned onto the Champs Elysées. His thigh muscles, wrapped beneath a pair of white spandex sack-huggers and royal blue shorts, are strained. His biceps, peeking from a sleeveless white T-shirt with the words "Hardcore Dallas Basketball" scrawled across the front, are pumped. Sweat streams down his pasty white forehead. It is an impressive workout, if not altogether exhausting.
From a distance, he looks a little like a player putting in some extra time, molding an almost chiseled body, or perhaps rehabbing a nagging injury. But he is not a player. He is the boss. He is Hope.
It's curious why Mark Cuban, a billionaire--a man who has a $40 million Gulfstream V jet, a fleet of costly toys that could bankroll a small revolution, and a house that would have made Xanadu look dilapidated--is physically exerting himself. Don't all these high-society types simply sit around drinking Manhattans, reading The Wall Street Journal, and beckoning for a manicure? For that matter, why is he throwing himself in with this lot--an organization so pathetic in recent seasons it makes Pauly Shore look accomplished?
"When I'm talking to the guys," he'll say later, dabbing his forehead with a crumpled towel, "I need to know what they're going through. In this particular case, I've never been through a training camp, so I can't understand a player's experience, when he's talking about the pluses and minuses, unless I've seen it. Unless I've watched him go through it and worked out too. So why not?"
"Why not?" In Cuban's world, it's rhetorical, a dismissive question to which he's never paid much attention. He rarely asks why he can't do something but rather how he's going to do it. The answer, often, is innovative and confusing--which jibes, considering the source.
He's a paradox, a computer geek who got rich from numbing his fingers for endless hours at a keyboard. He's a sports fanatic, an engaging personality, an extrovert. He's affluent, off on a whim to whatever country tickles his bank account at the moment. He's accessible, down-to-earth, the guy you chat up at the barbershop or slug an icy brew with before last call.
He is at once a "shot of adrenaline," as Nellie calls him, and an owner. Yes, he's also one of them, part of an exclusive sect predisposed to stuffy suits and grimaces. At least that used to be the common perception.
In a little less than a year as Chief Nuts of the Mavericks, he's managed to distort all notions of owners, nerds, and the ridiculously prosperous. You can catch him on television, cheering and screaming for his club like a teenage girl at a pop concert. You can hear him on sports talk-radio, disparaging Belo and The Dallas Morning News for the lax coverage of his squad. You can read about him in national publications such as Esquire and Worth and Sports Illustrated. He's everywhere. He's alive, larger than life, always in color, always having a better time--it would seem--than should be legally possible.
With Cuban, up is left, down is right, and straight is, if you're lucky, only slightly skewed. The rules tend not to apply. It's a style that has his players, his coaches, his GM, not to mention every local hoops enthusiast, jazzed about the Mavericks' chances this year and beyond. It's also a style that hasn't exactly endeared him to his comrades around the league--the NBA blue bloods, most of whom are out of touch enough to believe that being "bad" is still good. No, his approach hasn't made many friends with that contingent, or, for that matter, with any crew outside the metroplex. It's a style that is fresh, one that has turned a joke of a franchise into--shudder--something credible. A style that likely promises, before too long, a cool, overdue drink from the NBA's Holy Grail--a venture into the postseason.
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