Mark Kreidler

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Wednesday, January 16
 
Cuban might be a goof, but he might be right

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

And now the words that ought to send a chill down what's left of David Stern's spine: Mark Cuban, in the end, has much more to do with what could be right about the NBA than he does with what's currently wrong about it.

Mark Cuban
Mark Cuban loves the spotlight, make no mistake. But listen closely and you'll hear that it's not only about the publicity.
Mind you, you'll have no trouble finding someone who'll dismiss the Mavericks' owner as a court jester. The man puts it up on a tee for anyone so inclined. Cuban stands there behind the DQ counter, wearing a shirt that he personally requests be embroidered with the name "Tony," serving up soft-swirls to the Brazier-scarfing masses, this goofy grin stretched from Cuban ear to Cuban ear.

Geez, why not just stitch "Geeker" on the shirt and be done with it?

But, as is often the case with Cuban, the precisely wrong reaction is to dismiss the message on the basis of style. Cuban never wins style points, and in today's corporate-cloaked, button-downed-stodgy NBA, he doesn't stand a chance.

Other owners see Cuban tilting at his windmills and feel the need to tell him to take it inside. Stern, a commissioner who actually made his name as a man intent on changing the way the NBA was marketed and thus perceived, has devolved his position on the paradigm-challenging Cuban from "I disagree with your theories" to "Did somebody just say something? Send that man a $500,000 invoice."

And that's the subtext here, the essence of what is happening a few dozen stories above street level. Up there, Mark Cuban isn't getting much of hearing. Looks like he'll have to stay down here and continue shouting.

The easy way out with Cuban is to go the Howard Schultz route. Schultz, the Starbucks establishment svengali who owns the Seattle Sonics on the side, verbally spanks Cuban for going so public with his complaints about the NBA's lousy state of officiating, about its marketing strategies, its customer service -- pick a Cuban hot-point, and the chances are he has barked about it in a newspaper or on a website.

Schultz wants these issues discussed safely behind the closed doors of NBA Inc., and in that he certainly is not alone. The last thing the company wants, apparently, is for Mark Cuban to exercise free speech quite so freely and quite so speechily. But Cuban is bright enough to understand that as long as he stays out in the open, the league won't have much choice but to deal with him sooner or later -- and he is willing to play the fool in order to make that happen, which separates him from virtually everyone else in the league.

None of this is to suggest that Cuban's ideas are sacrosanct or that the NBA owes it to itself to follow the product strategies of a dot-com billionaire. The league is required to do no such thing.

Still, ask yourself this: When Cuban starts going off on, say, the ridiculously erratic quality of NBA officiating, don't you find yourself nodding in silent agreement, even if you think the messenger a boob?

If Stern doesn't wish to address the problem publicly, it's no small wonder. Stern for years wanted to bring the officials' union to heel, and he got his wish; and whether by direct affect or the NBA trickle-down equivalent of second-hand smoke, what the commissioner awakens to today is a league peppered by inexperienced referees who command shockingly little respect -- not all the officials, of course, but enough that it's an issue worth debating.

Cuban, naturally, will be dismissed as the obnoxious kid in the corner, which is what happens when you whine so often that people's ears stop registering your pitch. And there's the real shame, because if you listen to Cuban long enough you will discover a person energetically committed to making the NBA experience a better one; and who doesn't stand wholly in favor of that?

He often is waved off as an egocentric kook, yet Cuban has argued consistently for an independent third party to come into the proceedings, to offer advice and strategies to the NBA on everything from its officiating morass to its national and global marketing plans. It isn't all about Cuban all the time. On the subject of the referees, furthermore, Cuban has offered to accept whatever set of suggestions the third party might offer.

You think David Stern is having any of that? Stern is having none of it, and he's got two conferences full of owners willing to back him up. All of which would be fine were it not for the feeling that the NBA, despite the infusion of young talents like the Vince Carters and Tracy McGradys and Kobe Bryants and Allen Iversons, is becoming a bloated old beast that has trouble getting out of its own way.

It isn't fatal; it's just not altogether wonderful. Mark Cuban, love him or hate him, is a man doing nothing else these days but owning the Dallas Mavericks. Theoretically, he's got as much to lose as anybody if the enterprise goes in the tank.

He scattershoots, which means that Cuban will miss the mark plenty, including the part about insulting a decent guy like Ed Rush when what he really means to do is indict the league's officiating system as a whole. It's the sort of public misfire that causes the whole NBA establishment to first cringe and then seek a head on a stick, its ultimate goal to keep the entire affair private, as though the subject under discussion were mid-range missile production rather than how to figure out what constitutes a foul on Shaquille O'Neal.

And that is how a person like Cuban winds up behind a DQ counter and paying a half-million dollars per burst of honest, unchecked thought. It makes him the scariest owner in the NBA to his fellow franchise-holders. What it ought to represent to the rest of the sports world, besides consistent entertainment, is a small, hopeful gesture. And we'll take fries with that.

Mark Kreidler of the Sacramento Bee is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.







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