By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Cuban pops off the bike, takes a long pull from a warm, half-empty water bottle, and motions in your direction. He's ready. For questions. For the season. For whatever. His crooked grin is charming, inviting. His mop of black hair, which looks like he cut it himself with a Flowbee, is disarming, hanging awkwardly over his skull.
"This is nuts," he says to his inquisitor as he looks around wildly. "The newness of all this is still really cool. The anticipation of what could happen, it's like getting a date with the prettiest girl you know. You just can't believe it. Am I excited?"
He smiles mischievously before continuing.
"Dude, I've got a fucking hard-on."
Draped on off-white walls, high above each corner of the practice court, are banners--in team colors, what else?--that indicate as much.
There's "Mavericks attitude...get some."
And "Payback time."
And "Mavericks intensity...Just bring it."
And, for the frantically optimistic or deluded, "Playoffs start now!!"
Note the double exclamation point, just to get the idea across in case you're not paying attention. Or you're just a moron. The only things missing are a few 15-year-old blondes with pom-poms, a pimple-faced pep band, and a bonfire made from the field house's old, decaying bleachers.
These are professionals, grown men, guys who passed the rah-rah stage years ago. But the propaganda doesn't seem misplaced. They buy in. They all do. There's an aura, a shine to these Mavericks. It's belief in the organization. Faith in its main man--however hokey his enthusiasm may seem to outsiders. Brainwashing or no, it has made believers out of a rag-tag group that, before Cuban's arrival, couldn't have scaled its way to postseason heights with a topographical map and a couple of Sherpas.
"Before, you always thought you could come in [to Dallas] and leave with a win," says newly acquired, often-discontented forward/center Christian Laettner. The Duke grad has played with three teams in his eight-year career. He shouldn't be this agog. "That's what people around the league thought. But that's changing now. The way people view the Mavs is changing. You heard about the last two months they had [last season, when Dallas went 16-10] and how well they played. So that causes enthusiasm.
"A lot of that has to do with Cuban. He brings excitement to the organization. It's this enthusiasm that a lot of owners, a lot of people in the league, really, just don't have. Sometimes that's the biggest battle an organization has, getting everyone together. In the last few months, I've really noticed that.
"I think the city is dying for the Mavs to do well. And a lot of that stems from him. They can see how he's changed things. He's around practice a lot. He shows how excited he his, and that he's excited about where we're going. And that makes us excited too. It's infectious."
Obviously. You need only watch Cuban's interaction with Nellie to realize his personality is contagious. Criticized for his gruff character at other stops, the Mavs' general manager/coach seems more at ease these days, particularly when his new buddy is around.
It's easy to understand why Nellie is falling for Cuban's style of management, why they get along so well. Every day could be Christmas for the big man. Every day could bring Nellie more presents in the form of better basketball players. This is not something to which he's accustomed.
You might even say that Cuban is radically different from the flock under which Nellie flew in New York, and Golden State, and Milwaukee before that. You mention this to Nellie. He ponders it, stares at you blankly for a second from above, then lapses into a hearty laugh.
"He's 160 degrees different."
"He's extremely creative," says friend Ray Balestri, whom Cuban helped make a multimillionaire by getting him to invest early in Broadcast.com, the company that made Cuban obscenely wealthy when it was sold to Yahoo! for almost $6 billion. Balestri, who owns The Bone in Deep Ellum, works as the chief operating officer at Service911.com. He also teaches an MBA class at SMU. "There's the strict, logical, mathematician intelligence he has. Then there's the creative intelligence. He has this incredible ability to look at a situation, bring together all the elements, and find a solution no one's ever thought of before. That's the way he was at Broadcast. Every situation had an angle, and he could always recognize it and exploit it.
"See, there are the conventional ways of doing things, and they don't always make sense. Those are the methods that Mark questions. He never felt bound, I don't think, by the rules if they didn't make sense. He'd just rewrite the rules, at least as they pertained to him. I mean, if he had listened to the analysts back then, instead of doing it his way, he wouldn't be a billionaire. He wouldn't have done what he's done."