Hope and Glory

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has reason to shout-his money and enthusiasm are resurrecting a dead team

So he bought the team, which is kind of like purchasing the Liberty Bell in that the Mavs have been damaged goods for longer than anyone can remember. It's been more than 10 years since the star-crossed hoopsters sniffed the playoffs. Longer since they've won a postseason game. They are the Bad News Bears in lime green and margarita blue. Yet he didn't hesitate once he'd made the decision, didn't think of the Mavs as impending financial peril, but rather as a fix-it job.

Since taking over officially in April, he's treated it in just that fashion. But, as with all handymen, he tends to get carried away.

Of the 16 ballers who will eventually bloat the payroll two weeks before the regular season opens--four more players than the NBA allows to be active roster--only seven were here this time last year. In will be Courtney Alexander and Howard Eisley, Donnell Harvey and Christian Laettner, Eduardo Najera and Etan Thomas. Oh, and Loy Vaught. Out will be Cedric Ceballos, Robert Pack, Sean Rooks, Erick Strickland, and Michael Finley. Oops. Nope. The last one is still here. It's hard to keep track.

Spalding-eating grin: "The newness of all this is still really cool," Cuban says. "You just can't believe it."
Spalding-eating grin: "The newness of all this is still really cool," Cuban says. "You just can't believe it."

That doesn't even count the players--like John Wallace and Dana Barros--who were in Big D for what seems like an eye-blink before being cast off. "You've got to have players to get players," the big boss man likes to say.

These are his guys, his troops. He brought them in. He hangs with them. Therein lies another of the weighty knocks against Cuban. At times, he can be too close, kicking around the locker room, traveling with the team, attending practices. He has been branded a "jock-sniffer," a "wannabe," an "armchair athlete." Even Rodman fired a shot, telling SI in a recent story that "[Cuban] doesn't need to be hanging around the players like he's a coach...That's like Jerry Jones, it's dumb."

Doesn't faze Cuban. None of it does. He continues to ignore the naysayers, to walk--or run--at his own pace, particularly concerning trades. Still, he insists it's not as sexy as it sounds. Swears it's cool, but not what you'd think. It's not like he's constantly making deals, he says.

"Everyone says they have a boring job," Cuban declares, leaning back in that leather chair, the one that knows the contours of his ass-cheeks intimately. "I really do. There's not as much action as you would think. Everyone expects the phone to be ringing off the hook. Look. It's not."

Just then the phone rings.

It's Greg Buckner's agent. Buckner is a guard entering his third season in the league. He averaged a little more than 19 minutes per game for the Mavs last year, a little less than six points per too. Essentially, he occupied, and will occupy, a bit part. But in the land of the overcompensated, a.k.a. pro sports, that hardly matters.

Buckner's a restricted free agent. He wants more money. And more playing time. Or he's bolting. And why not? Just look at those average-at-best numbers. Damn if they're not deserving of a raise. After all, shouldn't all mediocre athletes make more money than most families will see in a lifetime?

But Cuban's a softy. Doesn't put as much stock in numbers as he does in "continuity," another of his well-worn words. He's a believer in team chemistry. If a guy's makeup fits in the locker room, he's worth keeping around. Where other owners would engage in a sporting version of cloak and dagger, trying to out-maneuver the agent on the other line, he has no time for such theatrics. Cuban thinks of most player-reps as "the underbelly of society." The quicker he's done with them, the better. Plus, why hem and haw over details when you could just give them what they want, or close to it, and be finished? He does this a lot. Meaning his crazy-long bank statement can sometimes go to his head, keep him from imposing fear during negotiations.

"Listen," Cuban says into the phone, rolling his eyes to declare distaste for his counterpart, "I want Greg to be a Mav. I want him to be here. And if we can do it within the next couple of days, I'm even willing to throw in a few more dollars."

This is not what owners do usually. They're not supposed to be frank. They're supposed to be frugal pricks, too worried about a penny at their feet to see a potential pot of gold down the road.

Then again, this is not a usual owner. Which is why so many NBA higher-ups gulp hard when Cuban is mentioned. Escalating salaries for an ever-thinning talent base is a major concern for most.

This hardly bothers him.

"I'm not going to nickel and dime someone just for the hell of it," he says more than once before adding, "If I can get the guys we want and get it done right away, I don't mind [paying a little more]."

Clearly. A few days later, Buckner re-ups with Dallas for $2.3 million over two years. It's slightly less money than Vancouver was offering, but probably more than he's worth. If the Grizzlies throw cash at Buck, no one blinks because everyone overpays now and again. Cuban, on the other hand, has made a habit of it. It seems as though all of his deals have $3 million in cash tacked onto the offer (the maximum amount of cash allowed to be included in a player transaction). But it doesn't just seem that way, it is that way. In his first four trades, he sweetens the pot by including $10.3 million in cash.

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