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ESPN The Magazine: Stark Raving Mav
ESPN The Magazine

Are we havin' enough fun yet?!

The Dallas Mavericks PA voice echoes deep within the bowels of the American Airlines Center, and the game hasn't even started. The place is empty. No fans, no players, no coaches, no refs, no vendors. In fact, there's no voice either. But step inside Mark Cuban's "bunker suite" -- a richly appointed living room/monster bar/wall-to-wall entertainment center/state-of-the-art work space -- and you can hear it. The refrain always lingers in this little corner of the world. The hyped-up, dressed-down Cubes, 43 going on 14, is now in his third year as the proud owner of pro hoops' suddenly hippest and happiest team. Damn straight he's having fun.

In the week leading up to the Mavs' playoff opener against the Timberwolves, Cuban crisscrossed the country fastbreak-style: Did the corporate speech in Orlando, the NBA owners' group and Costas gig in New York, his brother's bachelor party in Vegas, Jay Mohr's new show in LA, a copyright protection powwow with Senator Hatch in D.C. He also picked up those cool shades, the ones everybody's ripping him for -- never mind that he's just trying to see the stupid ball. "They're f--ing prescription!" he laughs.

Turns out the glasses he ordered aren't in yet, but that didn't stop him from finishing his TV sketch with the ref-baiting midgets. (Don't ask.)

As always, there were countless encounters online, where Cubes basically lives and breathes 24/7, e-mailing his rock-and-rollicking days to infinity; where he bombards his nemesis, NBA commissioner David ("Digital Dave") Stern, with all manner of suggestions, some even friendly; where all of this -- the weekly TV show, the halftime locker room visits, the courtside schmoozing with Angie Harmon -- became possible when his little venture called went public in July 1999 and was then bought by Yahoo! in a stock trade worth about $6 billion. Phil Jackson might think Cuban "has his head up his ass," but where he really has it is throbbing madly back and forth between all those computer screens in his bunker, mansion, plane and Lexus. Cubes absolutely hates meetings, and he won't talk on the phone. But if you're willing to go online at 4 a.m., he's all over that.

I'm happy we are playing the T-Wolves ... Playing good teams is better than playing softer teams. Just grab me before the game. --MFFL

Dawn has barely broken on his team's playoff season when MFFL (Mavs Fan For Life) e-mails the sports editor of The Dallas Morning News, complimenting him on "a helluva balancing act" in previewing the Mavs, blanketing the NFL draft, covering the Rangers and the (MLS) Burn and everything else. "I've criticized the paper in the past for coverage of our team," Cubes explains. "It was cursory -- three quotes and out. But today I thought they did a great job, and I told them so."

Killing time before the Mavs' Sunday afternoon tip, he's watching the Sixers-Celtics opener in his bunker when he fires off another e-mail, this time to league exec Stu Jackson about the egregiously unfair technical that's just been slapped on the C's (and ex-Mav) Erick Strickland. "Exactly what I've been talking about!" Cuban shouts. "Look at this replay. The guy just bounced up and walked away angry -- and he gets nailed with a T. That's just wrong. An official should not impact a game like that. It should be in the refs' handbook: 'Sticks and stones can break my bones ... '"

It was Cubes' broadside at Ed Rush, the NBA's director of officiating ("I wouldn't hire him to manage a Dairy Queen"), that earned him the largest individual fine in league history ($500,000) and led to his comical appearance as "Tony," the manager of a local DQ. But during the Mavs' 101-94 opening win over the T-Wolves, Cubes more closely resembles his college handle, "Smiley." His game-day dishevelment normally consists of old sneaks, ratty jeans and a T-shirt with some clever saying like "He Fine Me." On this day, though, he does a surprising switch right before tip-off, trading "Filthy, Nasty And Dirty" for "Love It Live," this year's official NBA playoff slogan. Then he takes his seat smack on the baseline within a pick-and-roll of his team -- the better "to understand the culture and the organizational dynamics" (i.e., to see who's paying attention) and to bathe in the freneticism of the contest. During a road game a few weeks ago, Cubes screamed so ardently for the Mavs to foul an opposing player, Dallas assistant Del Harris finally screamed back: "Go foul him yourself!" Of course, Harris laughed it off later. "Mark's my friend," he says. "The relationships around here are great enough that we can all kid each other."

And anyway, Cubes is now otherwise engaged. During Game 1, he leaves his seat at the quarter break and heads for the bunker, where he e-mails his marketing people to complain that "Mavs Man," the masked acrobatic mascot, wasn't on the court enough. He's also fretting over the debut of another of his pet projects: the "Mavs ManiAACs," a new dance troupe consisting of severely heavyset fellows who, while whirling away to the old hit "It's Raining Men," suddenly strip off their yellow raincoats and bump and grind half-clad to another traditional favorite, "2 Much Booty (In Da Pants)." Needless to say, the AACs are granted the loudest ovation of the afternoon.

Cubes spends Monday sweating on the exercise bike alongside his team, then invading the Wolves' closed practice. "If I'd seen him, I'd have kicked his butt out," Minnesota's Flip Saunders semi-snarls. But the supposedly miffed coach later exchanges friendly e-mails with the billionaire. "Flip knows how to play the media as well as I do," Cuban says.

As for Saunders' counterpart, Don Nelson? The mad professor of the hardwood is pretty sure he's died and gone to hoops heaven. "I didn't want to coach anymore," Nellie says -- not until Cubes came along and made the game fun again. Gave him hope. Got him the cash to do things right. Provided all those player perks: five-star hotels, TVs and DVDs in their lockers, individual showers, robes, for godsakes. And what a wild-and-woolly bunch they are, with the seven-foot German three-baller (Dirk Nowitzki), the scrawny Canadian gym ferret (Steve Nash) and the Chinese left-hander (Wang Zhizhi) who charges off the bench to the delight of fans holdings posters that beg, "Show Us Some Wang."

Cuban's been called a lot of things, but you don't hear the Mavs complaining. "The guy knows the game," Nellie says. "He e-mails me half a dozen ideas a day, and they're all pretty good." Adds Avery Johnson: "He's a kid and we're his toys. But everything is so positive. This is the way a pro team is supposed to feel." Adrian Griffin: "I'd stay here the rest of my career -- for the minimum." Michael Finley: "We understand what Mark's all about. Behind closed doors, he lets us deal with team issues. But out here, this is his time to shine. He needs to let people know: 'I'm in the house.'"

Didn't think to introduce you to Angie Harmon. Sorry. I won't be there 'til right before the game. Have meetings in NY and DC. -- FFL

Sorry? Easy for him to say; Cubes is too busy relishing the playoffs for the same reason he gets so geeked about technology. (His latest business, HDNet, is a high-definition satellite TV service.) Back in Big D before Wednesday's Game 2, he draws a unique parallel between the postseason and the software industry: "You can't really plan long-term. You have to evaluate in real time and act -- be ready to move, be mobile, fill gaps and leverage opportunities. We had the closest season races in history. But did you hear about it outside church [NBA telecasts]? No, you did not. I just can't get the league to understand that marketing's got to be like coaching. Gotta reevaluate after every game. Change, adapt, adjust. Gotta mesh. Gotta kick it in."

The night before the Mavs kick in the Wolves a second time, 122110, Cuban takes a break from his own business to serve as a presenter at the Sports Emmys in New York. "I got to give out the big ones to Tim McCarver and Terry Bradshaw," he says with childlike awe. The next morning (April 24), he addresses "some FCC guys" in Washington, then jets back to his bunker and tapes a video welcome for his friend Jimmy Buffett, who'll appear in Dallas the following night. "You are my hero," Cubes says into the camera. "As hard as I've worked to get kicked out of a game, you pulled it off just like that. [The singer was ejected from a Miami Heat contest in February 2001.] So go parrotheads. And remember, the only thing better than a world championship is a cheeseburger in paradise."

Pretty ironic, considering that most NBA types had Cubes pegged as fresh meat when he arrived in The Association -- before the smartest man in the room proved he could differentiate between a backcut and a megabyte. He scoffs at critics of the Mavs defense and their reliance on three-point bombs. "Trivia item A," Cubes says. "How many threes do the Mavs take? How about the Lakers? There's a delta -- old mathematics term -- of about three, and that's not much. [Dallas averaged 20.1 treys a game for the regular season; LA took 17.6.] Trivia item B. Detroit's Bad Boys, Chicago's first title team, this year's Mavs -- who had the best field-goals-against average? Right, the Mavs. Jeez, one of the old Laker title teams had a .488 percentage; ours is .452. So don't tell me we can't keep winning."

While the Mavs are doing just that, Cubes keeps groovin' all game. He clutches a videotape of Kevin Garnett's supposedly constant traveling violations. ("I'm trying to decide whether to give this to the media, put it up on our JumboTron or just pay the fines anyway," he laughs.) He hugs former Mav Juwan Howard, whom he exiled to Denver earlier this year. ("The longer we last, the more money you make," Cubes says, having already agreed to give Howard playoff shares.) He kisses girlfriend Tiffany Stewart at the half and again after the final horn. (Though the two plan to marry in September, Cubes still sits alone: "Never mix romance with business.") After Nash hurls in a backward no-look scoop shot; after Finley throws down an outrageous tomahawk slam; after the ManiACCs make another entrance, this time to the theme from Rocky, Cubes is fairly bounding in place -- in thrall to the moment, to the basketball, to his very existence.

I guess the best way to put it is that we go to school, dream of our futures, go to work and hope that some part of our dreams come true. Every now and then, all the work pays off and the lightning bolt strikes and gives you a chance to do something you never dreamed you'd be doing. That's what the Mavs are to me, and why I will never take it for granted or let up, because I want to savor every minute of it. --MFFL

Before the Mavs head to Minnesota, where they will finish off the three-game sweep on Sunday, 115-102, a husband and wife in identical "Hoops Hardcore" black T's (identical to Cubes', too) corral the owner in the hallway for a postgame photo that will no doubt show they haven't missed any of the cocktail hour. "Let me tell you shomethin', man," hubby slurs. "I own a bishness jusht like yours, and I dresh jusht like thish." (He's wearing cutoffs and sandals.) At this point, the missus pipes in with a complaint. "I have asthma," she says, reaching for her purse to show Cuban her pills. "And your ushers make me walk too far to the bathshroom."

"Let me take your name," Cubes says. "My people will take care of this." And the thing is, they probably will. Because somebody isn't having enough fun just yet.

This article appears in the May 13 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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