Meddling Maverick

Just when you think Mark Cuban has mellowed, he shows a pulse.

And just when you think he has tired of his tribulations, he shows some heart.

The Dallas Mavericks' owner—hip-deep in stock controversy and baseball snubbing and a fresh fine from the NBA—struggles these days to give his basketball fans a gem.

So, can he interest you in a gym?

In between trading DeSagana Diop and getting fined $25,000 for his verbal affront toward the Denver Nuggets' J.R. Smith, Cuban last Friday afternoon aimed his deep resolve and boundless budget at Dallas' woebegone southern sector. Thanks to Cuban and the Heroes Foundation, what once was a dilapidated haven for drugs and gangs will soon be transformed into a sparkling, $2 million basketball gymnasium complete with weight room, locker rooms and educational center.

The Mark Cuban Heroes Basketball Center will also come equipped with the most precious amenity of all. Hope.

"This is what they mean by putting your money where your mouth is," Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway says of Cuban. "This is a community in need. The kids around here are going to get something they desperately need. They're going to get a chance at life."

Since its inception eight years ago, Cuban has given his time and money to the Heroes Foundation, which provides Dallas inner-city youths with sports, educational and cultural programs. Now, after almost a decade of pleading, he's also lending his name.

"I've been after him forever to let us attach his name to one of our programs," says Charlie McKinney, the foundation's founder and president. "I'm honored he finally relented. This is going to be a special place, even more so with 'Mark Cuban' on the building."

For all his bluster and billions, Cuban's charitable causes are, for the most part, discreet endeavors.

"I'll give money, but only for the right reasons," Cuban says. "There can't be a hint of a public relations' agenda or I just won't do it. The general rule is that if I give you money, you can't publicize it."

Of the millions he's donated, only a handful of organizations can boast Cuban's name. He established The Mark Cuban Foundation and founded the Fallen Patriot Fund, a foundation that gives $1 million to select families who lost a loved one in the Iraq war. And now this.

"I'm a little uncomfortable with my name on it, honestly," Cuban says. "I tried to name it after my dad, but he said 'Hell, no. I'm not dead yet.' So I finally gave in."

The new Cuban Center is smack dab in the middle of trouble.

It's a lob wedge from fabled Cedar Crest Golf Course, near the hardscrabble intersection where Caraway's District 4 violently merges with Dallas City Councilmember Carolyn Davis' District 7. Just down the road are boarded-up apartments, liquor and auto parts stores marked by hand-scrawled signs and miles of scrap-metal junkyards, each topped with circular razor wire littered with plastic trash bags caught weeks, perhaps even years ago.

"The Mavericks have a passion for South Dallas," says Mavs' general manager Donnie Nelson. "This is one of its most challenged areas."

Inside the 15,000-square-foot center on this 30-degree day, you're immediately struck by the graffiti. The building—once the Maria Morgan YWCA facility—has long been stripped of its valuables, usefulness and dignity. Once a place for fun and games, it deteriorated into a magnet for fear and gangs.

In black spray paint, the word: "Bloods."

Cuban and Caraway and Nelson and Davis and McKinney slapping a coat of Mavericks' blue paint over the eyesore artwork is just the first step.

"This building was falling apart," Cuban says. "We're going to bring it back to life. It's going to be sweet. I'll probably be an 80-year-old man coming here trying to get into a pick-up game."

When finished, the renovation—which commenced in November and will be complete in the late spring—will sport a regulation NBA court accessorized by eight baskets. There will be state-of-the-art weight rooms and locker rooms, and an educational center equipped with computers and programs designed to help students prepare for the SAT.

"Athletic facilities will draw kids in, but it's the programs that will keep them on the right path," Cuban says. "Before they can be stars, we've got to find a way to keep them from being victims."

The Heroes' plan, of course, doesn't stop with bricks and mortar. With the foundation's baseball field near the American Airlines Center already hosting 25,000 players per year and with its inner-city basketball teams already gaining national accolades, Heroes is eyeing a charity golf tournament at Cedar Crest, the possible construction of a Mavericks' practice facility on the 200 acres adjacent to the Cuban Center, and a prominent role in the upcoming NBA All-Star Game festivities in 2010.

If only the future looked as bright for Cuban's basketball team.

Just last week I was wondering aloud whether Cuban had mellowed. Maybe marriage, two daughters and turning 50 had dulled his edge. Maybe insider trading charges levied by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the shunning of his bid to buy Major League Baseball's Chicago Cubs had stunted his ambition and aggression. Maybe the Mavericks' recent four-game losing streak and steady decline into NBA mediocrity had sapped his enthusiasm for competition.

"He has mellowed, no doubt," Nelson says. "When you first come into the league there's that certain splash element and boy did he ever perfect that. But now he's been around the block a time or two. He's still making an impact on our league; just goes about it in a different way."

Added Mavs' coach Rick Carlisle, "He's been great, better than I expected. There's been games where he wasn't around, and I really missed him."

Um, scratch that. Cuban hasn't changed.

The most unique owner in sports still has his team's back. And, apparently, its front.

After Smith threw an elbow toward Mavs' guard Antoine Wright's noggin' last Tuesday night in Denver, Cuban went onto the court in the general direction of the Nuggets' guard. Cameras caught Cuban shouting "That's bullshit!" Which, of course, it was.

Smith should've received a technical foul, an ejection and a five-game suspension. Just because the intentional elbow didn't connect shouldn't absolve him of malice. Alas, the NBA reviewed tapes of the incident and didn't punish Smith, but instead fined Cuban.

In typical Cuban fashion, he paid his fine and later offered to send a matching amount to a National Hockey League foundation in the names of Todd Bertuzzi and Steve Moore. Why? Because it was Bertuzzi's intentional slashing of Moore in 2004 that resulted in Moore suffering three fractured neck vertebrae that sent him to the hospital and ended his career.

Mellow? It's refreshing that Cuban, upon further review, is as belligerent, stubborn and passionate as ever. On the court. And off.

"Dallas has given me a lot of opportunities and I give back when I can," Cuban says. "I know we're not going to change the world overnight, but at least we'll give some kids an opportunity."

For my money, Mark Cuban remains the best owner in professional sports.

Any arguments, Rangers' fans?

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Richie Whitt
Contact: Richie Whitt

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