There’s this guy who grew up a middle-class Average Joe and wound up owning a pro sports team. He has more money than Oprah — and better people skills, too.
The team was a loser for years, so the guy came in knowing he’d have to open his wallet for flashy players and a new arena. Plus, he’s in a football-mad town, so he has to persuade folks to tune out the NFL for a minute and give his team a look.
Is this mystery man Jim Balsillieâ¢ Kevin McClatchy?
The hero of this riches-to-even bigger riches story is Mark Cuban, the Pittsburgh-born owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
On Wednesday night, the Mavs will play a preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Mellon Arena.
In January 2000, Cuban bought the Mavericks for $285 million from Ross Perot Jr. Until the sale went down, the Mavs had about as much chance of snatching the NBA title as Perot’s dad did of winning the White House.
Since then, the team has won 70 percent of its regular-season games, moved into a glitzy, high-tech arena, and made it to the NBA Finals for the first time.
Forbes magazine estimates the franchise’s value at $403 million, fifth-highest in the NBA.
“I didn’t have specific goals,” Cuban said. “I went in hoping I could apply what had worked for me in other businesses to the Mavs. I guess my only preconceived notion was that I wouldn’t care if I got criticized for my approach.”
Talk of the town
Cuban pampers his players, outfitting every locker with a PlayStation 2, DVD player and big, fluffy towels. He energizes fans by sitting among them, pumping his fists and cheering wildly.
Sometimes, Cuban’s cheers go a bit over the top. He has fattened the NBA’s coffers by ripping referees and paying nearly $1.5 million in fines — an amount he has matched with charitable donations.
“Mark Cuban supports the team like no other owner you see in the NBA — and in professional sports, for that matter,” Mavericks forward Doug Christie said.
The Cowboys still rule the sports market in Dallas, and they always will, but Cuban has made the Mavericks a strong second.
“When Mark came in, his enthusiasm became infectious,” said Mavericks president and CEO Terdema Ussery. “You could feel a palpable change in the attitude of the team, the coaches and the city. All of the sudden, people were talking about us.”
The mop-topped billionaire and his surging team are a hot topic at the office water cooler, on call-in radio shows and, especially, on the Internet.
Cuban’s online blog (blogmaverick.com) is a free-flowing mix of tech news and pro-Mavs bravado, and it gets about 2 million hits a month. He is the first, and only, pro sports owner with such an interactive Web site.
“I don’t hear much about it from other owners, but the league reads it,” Cuban said. “I know because they have fined me over it. My little blog threatens them, I guess.”
Through his blog, Cuban gets more than a thousand e-mails a day (not including spam), everything from media queries to fans complaining about cold hot dogs at American Airlines Center.
He replies personally to as much e-mail as he can. And if the angry fan has a legit gripe, Cuban will forward the e-mail to another front-office employee with a “fix this” memo.
“The passion you see from him (at the games) is the same passion he applies to business,” Ussery said. “He pushes us hard. It’s a 24/7 mission.”
Cuban sweats the small stuff, right down to the in-game entertainment. He often comes up with ideas for skits flashed on the video scoreboard, such as one last season that used Mavs guard Avery Johnson in a spoof of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“I look for anything that makes the game more fun and a better value for fans,” Cuban said. “Not every game will be great, but every game can be a blast to go to.”
When the NBA switched to a new, synthetic basketball this year and players began complaining, Cuban took notice. He fired a late-night e-mail to Ussery, telling him to ask two University of Texas physicists to examine the differences between the composite and old-style leather balls.
Road to riches
“Mark was always the type of guy who was never afraid to take risks or do something different,” said Todd Reidbord, president of Shadyside-based Walnut Capital and one of Cuban’s friends from Mt. Lebanon High School.
“It was never ‘conventional wisdom’ with Mark. He never worried about what other people thought about what he was doing. We always said he would either be very, very successful or, well, you know.”
Before he even reached his teenage years, Cuban was cooking up ways to make money. He hawked powdered milk and garbage bags. He sliced cold cuts in a deli. During a newspaper strike in Pittsburgh, he brought in papers from Cleveland to sell.
Cuban once set up a chain letter, which paid for one semester’s tuition at Indiana University. He gave disco lessons to sorority girls for $25 an hour.
In 1981, while wrapping up his bachelor’s degree in business, Cuban opened a pub in Bloomington, Ind., called Motley’s. It quickly became a popular hangout for both students and professors.
“It was definitely the best bar in town,” said Wayne Winston, who taught Cuban a statistics course at Indiana. “I don’t think I’ve had a student since who’s started a business while they were in school.”
After college, Cuban moved to Dallas and started a computer consulting firm — even though he never had any formal computer training. In 1991, Cuban sold the company to CompuServe and became a millionaire. He was 31 years old.
Five years later, upset that he could not listen to Hoosiers basketball games on the radio in Texas, Cuban founded Broadcast.com. He later sold the venture to Yahoo! for $5.7 billion and made nearly all of Broadcast.com’s employees instant millionaires.
Today, Cuban is worth $1.8 billion, making him the 428th richest person in the world.
During his early days in Dallas, Cuban sat in the top row of Reunion Arena — the only seats he could afford — to watch the Mavs. Eventually, he was able buy his way closer to the court until he finally got the best seat in the house.
At Wednesday night’s NBA preseason game, it’s a tossup who will be the bigger attraction — Cavs whiz kid LeBron James or Cuban.
“I love the response I get when I’m back home,” Cuban said.
Usually, that reaction is part admiration, part desperation.
Cuban has seen homemade banners at Mellon Arena and PNC Park, pleas of “Save us, Mark Cuban!” from fans of the financially strapped Pirates and Penguins.
“They crack me up, but I love ’em,” Cuban said. “Hopefully, someday, I can come through.”
Cuban was involved in the bidding for the Penguins, but his group ultimately lost out to Balsillie. Cuban has offered to be a minority investor with Balsillie, but so far has not gotten an answer.
A year ago, Cuban let it be known he’d like to join the Pirates ownership group. However, during an interview in late April, McClatchy, the Pirates’ CEO and managing general partner, said the economics of Major League Baseball are much different from those of the NBA.
“If Mark came in here, I don’t think he do too much different at this time,” McClatchy said. “Maybe he’d spend an extra $5 million or $10 million, (but) I know that isn’t the answer.”
It’s not the first time someone has doubted Cuban’s business approach. Some experts said Cuban was crazy when he started reshaping the Mavericks. Others know a winner when they see one.
“I’m sure he could fix the Pirates if he owned them,” Winston said. “He’d make people want to come to the park, which I know in Pittsburgh has been a problem.”
Last week, Cuban replied with a succinct “No” when asked if he thought he’d ever be accepted by the Pirates’ current ownership group.
McClatchy was unavailable for comment.
Cuban says he wants a piece of the Pirates or Penguins because he is a die-hard Pittsburgh sports fan. He comes home a couple of times a year, usually timing his visit to coincide with a Pirates homestand or Pitt men’s basketball game at the Petersen Events Center.
Some nights, Cuban and his high school pals play pickup hoops games at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. His post-game beverage of choice is a cold Iron City.
“We’ll hang out at a bar or restaurant, just screwing around and having a lot of fun,” Reidbord said. “Just to walk three blocks with him takes a long time because people are stopping him to get autographs and that kind of stuff.”
Does any owner in sports have more fun?
“None that I know,” Cuban said.
Hometown: Mt. Lebanon
Now lives: Dallas, with wife (Tiffany) and daughter (Alexis)
Original family name: Chopininski, changed when his grandparents emigrated from Russia
First job: Selling garbage bags door to door at age 12
Favorite ‘Burgh spot: The Original Hot Dog Shop, Oakland
Allergic to: Some metals, so he wears a platinum wedding band
B-movie roles: Macho Mark in ‘Talking About Sex’ and villain in ‘Lost at Sea’
TV role: ‘The Benefactor’
Electronic romance: He asked his wife out on their first date via e-mail.
Pet peeve: Being misquoted by reporters, which is why he conducts nearly all of his interviews via e-mail. ‘So, for instance, if you mess with me in this interview, I’ll just post this email (on blogmaverick.com) in its entirety. Are you scared yet?’ Cuban wrote, tacking a sly smiley face at the end of the sentence for effect.
Drop him a line: [email protected]