Mark Cuban hits self-mute button

DALLAS -- Mark Cuban grabbed something to nibble on from the postgame buffet, across the room from the StairMaster on which he's conducted hundreds of impromptu pregame news conferences, and warmly greeted the only media straggler in the Dallas Mavericks' locker room.

The wait wasn't worthwhile. Cuban, wearing a Western Conference championship hat and T-shirt about an hour after the Mavs earned a return trip to the NBA Finals, politely but profanely declined an interview request.

In doing so, the normally (formerly?) outspoken owner asked why he would screw things up now. (Well, except that Cuban used a four-letter synonym as a verb.)

Enough said.

That actually might be the smartest thing Cuban has said in his 11 years as the Mavs' owner. And that's saying a lot, considering that Cuban is a self-made billionaire whose ideas about marketing, technology and statistics among other things have had a revolutionary impact on the NBA.

The Mavs are in the midst of a magical playoff run with Cuban being uncharacteristically quiet. With the way his team is cooking, Cuban obviously recognizes it'd be ridiculous to stir the pot, so he's opted to say little or nothing at all.

"Mark's a smart guy, one of the smartest I've ever been around," said coach Rick Carlisle, whose Mavs lost only three games while marching through the West bracket. "Like all of us, he has great humility and respect for the position that we're in right now. We're all doing everything we can to put ourselves in the best possible position to do well."

Added Dirk Nowitzki, speaking after the Mavs' first practice to prepare to face the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals again: "It's fine with me. It should be all about the players."

That's quite a stark contrast to the Mavs' Finals run five years ago. Cuban's colorful antics drew a lot of attention then, as has been the case throughout most of his ownership tenure.

He offended the fine folks of San Antonio and fanned the flames of an intense interstate rivalry with the Spurs by referring to one of the Alamo City's most popular tourist attractions as "that ugly-ass, muddy-watered thing they call a River Walk." That could be chalked up as being in good fun.

Cuban's anti-referee rant during the 2006 Finals definitely wasn't good-natured. The NBA fined Cuban $250,000 for his on-court tirade and angry postgame comments after the controversial ending of the Heat's Game 5 overtime win, when Dwyane Wade matched the Mavs' total of 25 free throws, including the game winner after a questionable call by Bennett Salvatore with 1.9 seconds left in overtime. (Cuban has since said several times he'll never change his opinion about that game or series but won't discuss it further, noting he has already been fined for his thoughts.)

A few days after Dallas' Finals flop was over, Nowitzki strongly suggested that Cuban tone it down, saying that the owner creating controversy often works against the Mavs. Those were especially strong words, considering the close relationship between owner and superstar.

Maybe it took five years for those words to sink into Cuban's thick head.

That's not to suggest Cuban, whose ties to the Mavericks began as a nosebleed-sitting fan at Reunion Arena, has been bad for the franchise. That'd be foolish. The NBA's most passionate, dedicated owner has been a driving force in turning Dallas from the league's laughingstock into one of three franchises with at least 11 consecutive seasons with 50 or more wins.

"Mark's been nothing but positive, really," Carlisle said, adding that Cuban's commitment to winning sends a strong message to the Mavs.

It's more accurate to say that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to Cuban.

On a lot of occasions, Cuban's antics have been counterproductive. That's especially true if you buy the conspiracy theory, fueled by disgraced former referee/ex-con Tim Donaghy, that some officials reacted to Cuban's constant, public criticism by making calls against the Mavs. Even if that isn't true, Cuban created distractions and an atmosphere with built-in excuses for his team.

Cuban, who has mellowed while becoming a family man in recent years, made a conscious decision to stay out of the media spotlight before the Mavericks' conference semifinal series against the Los Angeles Lakers. That was especially disappointing to the media horde, which fully anticipated Cuban to continue his verbal feuds with Phil Jackson and Ron Artest and peppered him with questions courtside before the Mavs' two games at Staples Center.

The brash billionaire bit his tongue and offered bland responses to every inquiry that had even a hint of controversy. On several occasions, Cuban borrowed Rasheed Wallace's famous line from the 2003 Dallas-Portland playoff series: "Both teams played hard."

After the series shifted to Dallas, Cuban simply stopped talking on the record to reporters. He even finished his workout before the media pack made it to the StairMaster, although he found a sarcastic way to self-promote by putting ABC's "Shark Tank" on the nearby television.

When the Mavs finished the stunning sweep, Cuban didn't gloat. When two media members twisted his arm for some sort of reaction, he offered only two words: "We believe."

That was his last public comment until the Western Conference trophy presentation, when Cuban kept it short and sweet in front of a packed American Airlines Center and ESPN national television audience.

"All I can say is there's 20-some thousand people in this building who believed in us when nobody else did," Cuban said. "There's all the guys in this organization and on the court who believed in us and in coach and fought every game, every minute of the way.

"And all I can tell everybody is, we ain't done yet!"

It seems that Cuban is done being the center of attention, at least for the rest of the playoffs. Of course, the true test would come if the Mavs trail in a series for the first time this postseason.

It would be in the Mavericks' best interests, if not the media's, if Cuban keeps quiet for a couple more weeks.

Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.