Hope and Glory

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.

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."

There's a lot of that going on around here. The excitement, that is.

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 has balls. No doubt. Always has, that's what everyone says. No one can remember a time when he wasn't taking a chance on some venture or another. No one recalls when Mark Cuban was without a brash new idea.

"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."

That savvy, that symbiotic left- and right-brained relationship, has served him well. He's talked about in the same breath as the elite, lumped with the excessively moneyed. When the big names are mentioned, so too is Mark Cuban. He's grouped with Phil Knight and Bill Gates, Donald Newhouse and Rupert Murdoch, Paul Allen and Ted Turner. He's near the bottom of that list, topping out at $1.9 billion in total worth--enough money to finance a fleet of those private jets, or an endless lap dance--according to the latest Forbes 400 rankings, but at least he's on the list. He's nouveau riche: Two years ago, Forbes didn't have him listed at all. Probably didn't know who he was, and, if it did, probably didn't care. Broadcast.com changed all that.

It's not like he was lying in a grimy ditch somewhere, or pimped out on a corner with a piece of cardboard that read, "Will work with complicated computer applications for food." No, he could have led a very chic lifestyle if he so chose, living off the millions he'd amassed from the 1990 sale of his consulting firm, MicroSolutions. He retired soon after; spent his days, at the advanced age of 31, lounging on gritty Cali beaches and chasing beautiful, scantily clad women. Or maybe they chased him. Who can remember? Did some acting too. Oh, and traded stocks. Lived the good life.

"Back when we still partied, in the early '90s, when I first got The Bone and a bunch of us were still running around hitting the night scene," Balestri remembers, "he would buy shots for everyone at the bar. He'd just take it out of his own pocket. He was great to go out with."

He's toned it down considerably, he says. Spends most of his free time working out instead of raging--he's a fit 6-foot-2, 200 pounds--or maybe playing a little Wiffle ball in a cavernous room in his regal house. Every few weeks, though, the boys will "drag" him out to make sure he's not slipping into middle-aged monotony. Make sure he enjoys himself as he did back in the day, when he partied.

Back then, he got around because he had time. That was when Todd Wagner reappeared. They had gone to college together--Indiana University. Cuban was running a bar, even though no one was positive he was old enough for such a proprietorship. (Balestri says he's still not sure what his friend's age is, that Cubes was never forthright about it for some reason. Cuban is 42.) Wagner pitched the Broadcast idea. Cuban loved it. He and Wagner created the first online multimedia conduit to everything from sports broadcasts to breaking news. Within a few years, half a million people hit the site each day, looking to access worldwide transmissions of the more than 400 radio stations and 30 TV stations that Broadcast carried. In 1999, they sold their creation to Yahoo! for $5.7 billion.

Contrary to some reports, though, Broadcast wasn't an immediate success. Being innovative doesn't necessarily guarantee achievement. Initially, the fledgling company struggled, fought to jump from red to black.

"The thing that we knew--we knew how to make money," says Steve Leeke, a partner in 2M Companies, Inc., a group with its hands in everything from technology to real estate. Leeke was previously a vice president and director of business development with Motorola and served as its representative on the Broadcast.com board of directors. "We could raise money rapidly enough to break even and then get to profitability and an IPO. But that took time. This was not business as usual. Entrepreneurs in general are not--what's the right word?--they're not reasonable people, right? Reasonable people don't do these things, right? Everyone was all excited about selling to Yahoo!, but it took a lot of courage to get to that point. Mark demonstrated that he was willing to jump and jump hard. Meaning, not giving it too much thought. The saying is that 'days count.' Well, if you're smart enough to have a great idea, you're probably one of 10, seven of which aren't bold enough to do anything about it. It's who acts quickest among the other three that determines levels of success."

Eventually, Broadcast started rolling and went public in July of '98, making countless employees remarkably wealthy. Made Cuban a billionaire, but that didn't curb his ambition. He continued jetting around the country, pushing the company. Selling is what he did best. For all his technological comprehension, he remains a young Willy Loman with bigger muscles.

"Selling was never a problem with Broadcast," Balestri adds. "He took care of that right away. You really want to know what a good salesman he is? I'm an avid--I don't want to say sports-hater--but atheist. It was never my thing. But I have season tickets to the Mavericks. And I don't give them away. I go. But not because I know Mark, because he sold me on it."

After Yahoo! took over, Cuban searched for another challenge, another conquest to add to the do-it-yourself, rich-guy legacy he was fostering. Turned out his next venture, and perhaps his most difficult undertaking, was only a few miles from his Preston Hollow palace.

It's August. It's hot. The mercury creeps higher, looking to explode from the thermometer's glass casing. Not yet noon, the lack of a breeze makes it sticky, grafting clothing to the body like a second skin. You could melt a small child on the sidewalk.

Thankfully, the air conditioning is cranking in Cuban's palatial digs, lending a reprieve from the triple-digit reality outside. Must take an entire power plant to cool his place. That, or a small fortune.

The 24,000-square-foot pad, which he picked up for a mere $15 mil, sits on seven acres of neatly groomed, carefully nurtured land. Robert, his gardener, is a busy man. In front, where a crescent-shaped driveway wraps neatly around a beautiful fountain, there are scores of flowers--begonias and impatiens and caladiums. They are salmon-colored and burgundy, cloud white and deep orange, lipstick red and purple velvet.

From the street, where two wrought-iron gates and a wall reminiscent of the big one in China shoot skyward, the grounds look like a botanical garden. Cuban could charge admission. It's that aesthetically pleasing.

The back yard is just as stunning. A large, opulent pool divides the land, and the sun reflects majestically off the water toward the "guest house." This is where Dennis Rodman stayed last year for a pittance.

That was a gaffe, the Rodman experiment. A big one. If Cuban's energy is his biggest asset, then his propensity to leap forward without looking can be, at times, his chief detriment--at least in the NBA. It was a crazy idea, bringing in such an eccentric, a guy who would have been a better Clairol Color Girl than he was a basketball player. Because for all his skill, for all the desire and uncanny knack for rebounding, Rodman's traveling freak show always overshadowed his on-court performance. It was a lesson in brief for Cuban. Taking chances is good. Taking them with a proven problem, one who didn't fit the style of a team that is building from the ground up, is less than good.

Not far from the Rodman memorial, there's also a tennis court. And a basketball court. A playground too, which came with the house. Cuban has a serious girlfriend, Tiffany Stewart, but no children. Although he's guarded about his relationship, he'll share some details if you prod. When they're together, it's not some extravagant affair, he says. They'd rather go for a casual lunch, enjoy each other's company, maybe shoot over to Gilbert's on Sunday mornings or stop by Chaya on Royal for sushi. The movies are a frequent haunt too, and the Pocket Sandwich Theatre on Mockingbird is a favorite. "Nice, simple places," Cuban says.

Well, when you're living in Shangri-La and you have to get away every now and again, you may as well go peasant, right? There's enough open space here to throw around a football. Or land a rescue chopper.

Inside, past large, heavy doors and a foyer replete with marble and crystal and fragile delicates, Cuban is tucked away in a cluttered office. Five computers suck up space. On the floor, wires crisscross more wires that weave toward electrical outlets and over still more wires. A window sheds natural light into an otherwise dark room, a room with more wood than most forests. This is his nerve center, where he goes to work most days. Sometimes, lots of times, he likes to do his business here, sans clothing, just as God created him. Trots downstairs, butt-ass naked and plops down in the leather chair near all those computers. Says he's more productive that way.

Thankfully, he's dressed. For the moment.

Cuban estimates 90 to 95 percent of his work is done right here, by computer. This is the nerdy side to the complex, intelligent neophyte owner of the Mavericks. He researches basketball trades via the Internet. If he finds one to his liking, he determines the financial feasibility of a deal through an Excel spreadsheet program he "whipped together in a few minutes."

This is his function, primarily. He has less to do with the actual approval process than you might think. Likes to think of himself, rather, as an initiator and a finalizer. He'll get an idea for a trade, see a player with whom he's enamored, and run it by Nellie. If Nellie's good with it, that's when Cuban goes to work, manipulating numbers to the best of his ability, trying to pull off a coup where possible--like the Laettner trade. Originally, reports had Laettner slated to be shipped to the Lakers in a four-team extravaganza. But Cuban liked the idea of making the ex-Piston a Maverick. So did Nellie. And here he is.

It's been nearly a year since Cuban ventured to last season's Mavericks opener. Ross Perot Jr. owned them then. Or mismanaged them. Whatever, most of the seats at Reunion were empty that night. It was quiet. And embarrassing. A Dallas fan and routinely hysterical when lending support, Cuban surveyed the situation from courtside seats and shook his head uneasily.

"I was sitting there thinking how much I love this team and how nobody else cares," Cuban says, recalling that fateful evening. "That was the first time I literally thought about buying the team. I just couldn't believe no one was there and no one was into it."

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.

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.

Before Cuban, these types of add-ins were restricted to Portland owner Paul Allen--one of the only owners with as much juice as Cubes.

"It's not about money," Cuban says slowly. "It's about getting people to want to work for you. I want people to come here. I tried to do the same thing at Broadcast. We're trying to create an environment where people want to work.

"I've said this before. In the dot-com world, you see examples of people getting $100 million...Amazon gave somebody a billion dollars worth of [stock] options. A billion dollars worth of options to come work for them. That's the world I come from. So, like, you have to compete in a huge way to get the talent and the people you want. So, for me, it's not about the money."

Maybe. But if you're an NBA owner hard up for extra income, you could tap an ATM--or Cuban. Not that any of them would ever admit to such a strategy. In their minds, they're dignified, reserved. They don't need him. Besides, who does this punk think he is, anyway, coming into their league and making such a mess? In a little less than a year, he's managed to change the NBA's thought process, shaking up a previously stable emulsion to its dismay. Leapt into his new passion with the fervor of a man who is making a rival's wife his personal concubine.

Naturally, this never sits well with the rival. From jump, the old guard thumbed its nose at Cuban, so much so that, during the approval process, he shot his mouth off in retaliation.

"When I was going through that, they gave me a lot of shit," he says, curling his lip slightly, perhaps with contempt. "It was like being a pledge in Hell Week. I told [NBA Commissioner David] Stern, 'I'm not 18. This is not a fraternity I'm trying to pledge.' Then I asked if they were going to turn me over and paddle me. [Stern] just looked at me."

It's that attitude, that brazen style and his willingness, his ability to add millions to trades when needed, that has only furthered the league's disdain. Jealousy and envy are old chums in this world, always lurking. Recently, the Chicago Tribune reported that Cuban's jabs at LA owner Jerry Buss were stirring an already volatile pot. The story quoted an unnamed Western Conference owner as saying, "That's crossing the line. We're going to have to have some people talk with [Cuban]."

"You know, if they would just look at what I'm doing, they would know I'm not just going off like a crazy man," Cuban retorts. "I'm not just throwing money at people. But that's not the point. If you're ready to respond and your hands are tied, for us, the response that we give makes us look like bad guys for throwing money around.

"The reality is, if you do the math, we've already sold more tickets than we did all of last year, so any money that I've given out has pretty much paid for itself. And we've got a far better team in the meantime.

"But they'll never tell you straight up [what they think of you]. No one calls you and says, 'What the fuck are you doing?' You always read about it in the press more than you hear it. It's more of a venting process. Like the Phil Jackson comments."

Right. Phil Jackson, Lakers coach. He has seven NBA Championship rings--six from his days with the Chicago Bulls. Cuban has none. Jackson is widely regarded as one of the best basketball minds around. His antagonist, frankly, is not. You'd think Jackson couldn't care less about a seat-of-your-pants owner in a hick town in a hick state. That would be beneath him, at least as far as dealing with the hoops community is concerned. You'd think, his being into Zen and self-control, he'd let it go. You'd think.

Jackson, for some reason, doesn't think. At least not when discussing Cuban. Instead, he's preferred to jaw first, evaluate second. At times, he's referred to Cuban as "having his head up his ass." When Cuban fired back--calling him "Zen Phil" to get a dig in--Jackson snapped that he had better "keep his mouth shut." The battle continues. Reporters act as liaisons, hoping to start the next salvo and then ducking the fusillades when it does.

There is a purpose to all this snickering, though. At least for Cuban. He may be new to the NBA, but that doesn't mean he's ignorant of its intricacies, of the importance of good public relations.

"It just lets people know...I mean, all I can say to Phil Jackson is, 'Thank you.'" Cuban beams like a prep-school kid with a secret. "'Thank you.' Because it's telling the rest of the league you're looking over your shoulder. You're concerned about the Dallas Mavericks, where 10 months ago you never would have known what my name was. He's helping me market. Shit, if Phil Jackson is worried, something must be going on here; we must be doing something right. He mentioned the Mavericks in the same breath as the Portland Trailblazers? You know? And Phil Jackson is the one saying it. So, on that side, I thank him."

Then, just to make sure you don't think he's trying to negotiate peace, he adds, "But, on the other hand, I think he's a complete hypocrite."

He's not afraid. That's for sure. Hasn't backed down yet. Not to Zen Phil. Not to the media, either. Peter Vescey, who covers the NBA for the New York Post in addition to serving as an analyst for TNT and NBC, is the best example of the anti-Cuban movement. The scribe-turned-TV-figure regularly mocks Cuban, calling him "Easy Mark" and lambasting him for his free-spending, off-the-hook methods. And Cuban? Well, he doesn't exactly see Vescey as worthy of verbal sparring, doesn't quite have the same respect for him as he does Jackson.

"There's no rivalry there," Cuban replies via e-mail, probably laughing, likely naked, "because he never says anything worth a damn. It's like warring with a third-grader."

Calls to Vescey at the Post were unreturned. Similarly, the Lakers, the Suns, and the Pistons were all contacted to discuss Cuban and his audacious approach. All declined comment, choosing to avoid controversy. At least in print.

"People snipe at me now, but, like I said, they don't usually tell you straight out," Cuban admits. "I get a lot more national criticism. It doesn't bother me. The way I look at it, I can't imagine feeling any worse than I did when Broadcast.com's stock price was down $60 and I was getting calls from little old ladies--literally, little old ladies--asking me what they were going to do now that they put their life savings in my stock yesterday. That's pressure. People with jobs on the line, that's pressure. The beauty of the NBA is, you get a do-over. Every season you get a do-over. Every season you have hope."

This is his world now. Pentium processors and IPOs take a back seat to pick-and-rolls and salary-cap restraints. He couldn't be happier. Despite the enemies he's made. Regardless of all the eyes boring tiny holes in his back.

"You know how you and your buddies will sit around and talk about sports or check out ESPN.com and say, 'This is what I would do?'" he asks, glowing as usual. "I get to do that for real. It's a dream."

The night before, Dallas won its first preseason game by one point. Big deal. Preseason b-ball is as important in the grand scheme of things as choosing a printing manufacturer for tickets. To Cuban, it was more. It was hope. And so there he was, caught on local TV, gleaming into your living room, arms raised in exultation, looking like a drunken college boy in a pair of ratty jeans and a T-shirt.

This is his world. He comes as is, if it so suits him. And it usually does. The team? In their eyes, he can do no wrong--probably, no, definitely, because he constantly lavishes them with the finest amenities. Recently, the Mavericks contracted Hifi.com to create "a high-tech locker room." Each player is furnished with his own state-of-the-art audio and video equipment, flatscreen monitor, DVD/CD player, VCR, digital receiver, and Sony PlayStation, along with a pair of Sennheiser headphones. Last year, during an ice storm, Cuban sent limos to pick up his charges so they'd be safe. Then there's the postpractice/postgame buffets, spreads that are catered by area bistros with the finest fare.

With the previous owners, the players were lucky they got uniforms instead of burlap sacks.

"He's a lot different than [the last owners]," says German import Dirk Nowitzki. At close to 7 feet, with messed blond hair, he looks like the world's largest dust mop. Someone should notify the Guinness Book of World Records. "He gives us the little things players look for. We have food in the locker room, and he comes to hang out with us. That's what makes the difference these days. Anyone can throw money at you, but not everyone is willing to pay attention to the details. I think that's the most important thing in the NBA now. That's what separates you. It makes players talk or want to go to a place."

He's still feeling his way, Cuban is, but for a newbie, he's impressed nearly everyone. This is his world, fresh as it may be, dark and strange as it looks every now and again. Sometimes, he admits, he can't find the light switch. Stubs his foot from time to time. No matter, it's part of the process.

"If I mess up, it's back to the drawing board," he says, typically confident. He raises one of two bushy, black eyebrows slightly before continuing, "People ask, 'Well, what's your plan?' I don't have a plan. I call it organic management. It's not something I came up with or really invented. It's just, you know, when the light turns green, you go; when it's red, you stop. You don't plan, 'Well, OK, I'm going to go through two stop signs and three lights.' You deal with the variables thrown at you and respond to them the best way you can. You make it up as you go."

This is Cuban, this abstract methodology. This is what has given the Mavs and the city hope--what makes them all expectant even if their new leader doesn't always connect the dots the way you'd expect. Even if he bends, breaks, balks at the rules.

But this is his world, and since when did the rules apply?


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