Thursday, June 16, 2011

BDT -- Mark Cuban: Champion or Clown? (June 16)

Perhaps the hat makes him look like a clown, but the trophy says otherwise.

Mark Cuban is a man of great passion. Mark Cuban is a man of great wealth. Mark Cuban is a man of great influence. And, finally, after eleven long years as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban is a champion.

Oh, and also, Mark Cuban is a moron…


Having written that statement, I’d be curious to see your face as you immediately reacted to what you just read. Were you shocked? Were you upset? Did you curse at me through your computer screen? Or did you nod your head in agreement? The truth of the matter, and the reason I’m discussing the topic here, is that a large group of people honestly and truly buy into the ridiculous statement above. Someway, somehow, people have formed the opinion that Mark Cuban is an incompetent owner. The most troubling aspect of it is the caliber of people arriving at this conclusion. It would be easy to dismiss this trending  opinion if all the Mark Cuban haters were the type of people to wear tin foil on their heads and obsess over the details of old X-Files episodes. However, it’s much harder to do so when savvy sports fans/experts/pundits/executives/etc. have the very same opinion. It seems like, with so many “informed” people standing in opposition to Cuban, there must be something to their claims. Yet, the more I looked at Cuban’s ownership “resume” and the more I recalled his 11 year tenure, it all became very clear to me…people are really, really dumb.

Yesterday, I was listening to Doug Gottlieb (whom I hate) as he filled in for Colin Cowherd (whom I hate even worse). During the one segment I was able to hear, Gottlieb was talking about Cuban’s ownership style and how it severely damaged his ability to own a major league baseball team. As you are likely aware of, Cuban has tried, unsuccessfully, to purchase both the Chicago Cubs and the Texas Rangers. Each time, his brash and outspoken style has come under fire and the powers that be in baseball expressed their wariness at allowing Cuban into their exclusive “club.” Consider this quote from former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent:

"I went through the Steinbrenner business. Some of the behavior of owners can be very troublesome for commissioners," Vincent said. "I don't think Mr. Cuban's been an easy partner or owner for David Stern, and that would put me on my guard if he were to come to baseball."

Wow! Quite a telling opinion, for sure! But wait, there’s more:

"I think it's more important for owners to be gentlemen, play by the rules, respect the authorities, do what's good for the sport, than it is to manage his franchise into total success," he said. "The subtleties make the difference. George Steinbrenner was a real problem in baseball, and I think Mark Cuban is a real problem in basketball."

I’ll be honest; I did a double take when I read this. Being a gentleman is more important than successfully running a franchise? Huh? Isn’t that the point of owning a team? To be successful? To win? Am I missing something here? Of course, this quote should come as no surprise for two reasons. One, Fay Vincent is an old school baseball man and baseball is an old school sport; placing a high priority on maintaining the status quo. Take it easy baseball people! I don’t mean that as a knock! All I’m saying is, tradition has a highly valued place in the game, and bringing in a “maverick” such as Cuban would be viewed as an extreme shift from the norm. Two, Fay Vincent obviously brought a lot of baggage into this interview, having dealt with George Steinbrenner at his absolute worst. For those who don’t remember (or who aren’t old enough to remember), in 1990, Vincent permanently banned Steinbrenner from the day to day operations of the Yankees for hiring a gambler to “dig up dirt” on Yankee outfielder Dave Winfield. Certainly, for a sport placing such a high value on “being a gentleman,” men like Steinbrenner are clearly not the ideal owners.

However, despite the clear bias in the subtext of Vincent’s comments, there truly is some meat in what he is saying. After all, the idea that Cuban is basketball’s version of George Steinbrenner is certainly not a new concept. Countless numbers of ESPN personalities, message board posters, and highly opinionated bloggers (does that sound familiar?) have pinned this label on Cuban since the day he took over as the Dallas Mavericks owner. And therein lies the crux of why Cuban is such a polarizing figure. He’s loud, he’s visible, he’s flashy, he’s in your face…and to the average sports fan, that’s not what an owner should be. Therefore, we reason that Mark Cuban must certainly be a bad owner. Is there some logic to this? Perhaps a little bit, but Cuban’s track record absolutely blows this conclusion out of the water! Yet, that hatred remains and it all seems to be based on some common misconceptions about sports ownership.

#1 – A successful owner operates behind the scenes. He is not seen or heard.

If there is ever a “How To Own a Sports Franchise For Dummies” book written (perhaps there is…is there?) then this will likely be the title of the first chapter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this statement from fellow fans or from sports “experts.” It’s ironic that this criticism would be applied to Cuban, considering the overwhelming level of support he lavishes on his players and coaches. While other owners such as Donald Sterling and James Dolan use their few sound bites to publicly criticize their players, it seems odd that Cuban would be condemned for going out of his way to express his praise and support for his team. The idea that Cuban has made himself a “distraction” to his team is almost laughable when really taken into context. In all honesty, do you really think Dirk Nowitzki is thinking “man, Cube’s is talking about the refs way too much” as he pulls up for a fadeway jumper? Yes, Cuban has taken his vocal antics too far at times, totaling nearly $2 million in fines, but is this really detrimental to the team? At the end of the day, Mark Cuban is much more than the owner of the Dallas Mavericks; he’s their biggest fan. My guess is that, instead of loathing his vocal nature, his players and coaches deeply appreciate the love and support he provides. Don’t believe me? Take some time to read what Dirk, Terry, Kidd, Carlisle, etc. have to say about their out spoken owner and see what you think then…

#2 – Mark Cuban is too involved with the team. Good owners aren’t that involved.

Herein lies the biggest misconception about Mark Cuban’s ownership tenure. The comparisons to George Steinbrenner, Jerry Jones, and Dan Snyder have all been made…but they make absolutely no sense. Cuban’s involvement is certainly deeper than that of the Rooney’s or Peter Holt, but that doesn’t make him George Steinbrenner! Unlike the terrible triumvirate of megalomaniacs above, Mark Cuban understands his limitations as a personnel man and allows his basketball people to do their jobs. Think you could say that about Steinbrenner? Or Jones? No…believe me, I’m a Cowboys fan…I know first hand. It sucks!

Since taking over, Cuban has allowed General Manager and President of Basketball Operations, Donnie Nelson, to take full control of the ship. Nelson handles the draft, Nelson handles free agent acquisitions, Nelson handles trades, Nelson…well, are you getting the picture here? While Jerry Jones reigns supreme as owner/GM (please wait while I cut myself) and Al Davis reigns supreme as Dark Lord of the Sith (or, alternately as the Cryptkeeper), Mark Cuban simply sits back, writes the checks, and cheers his team on.

Not only that, but, as I mentioned in my last podcast, Cuban displays a strong ability to make a plan and remain patient in sticking with the plan. Imagine if Steinbrenner had fallen short for 10 straight years…think the same core would continue to come back year after year? Think the same personnel people would still be roaming the halls? No, I didn’t either. Yet, here we are; after several heartbreaks and many failures, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are still wearing Dallas uniforms. And, because of that, they’re finally hoisting their championship trophy. But yeah…Cuban is definitely a control freak. Sure.

#3 – Mark Cuban is an arrogant, spotlight stealing, attention hog.

Honestly, I don’t know why I’m even responding to this one. It’s just so short sighted and dumb.

In his moment of glory, Mark Cuban allowed the original owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Don Carter, to accept the Larry O’Brien Trophy from Commissioner David Stern. In his “victory speech,” Mark Cuban kept his comments oddly brief, only taking the time to defer all the praise to his players, coaches, and employees. I’m sure Mark Cuban has a sizeable ego, as all multi-billionaires do. Yet, of all the indictments to bring against him, this is easily the dumbest.

In the end, people will have their opinions. Mark Cuban has, in a way, broken the mold of the typical sports owner, and that obviously rubs some people the wrong way. Fine. Lebron James rubs me the wrong way and I have a right to hate him, so I suppose everyone else has the right to hate Mark Cuban. What people don’t have the right to do, however, is call Cuban a bad owner. Here are the facts:

In the ten seasons prior to Cuban’s ownership, the Dallas Mavericks were 239-549 (30%) with zero winning seasons and zero playoff berths.
In the eleven seasons since Cuban took over in 2000, the Dallas Mavericks are 620-282 (69%). They have eleven 50+ win seasons, three 60+ win seasons, two Western Conference championships, and one NBA championship.

Ten consecutive losing seasons! In the NBA, that’s an eternity, and it creates a culture of losing that is very difficult to overcome. As such, the Dallas Mavericks were one of the saddest franchises in all of sports; a veritable laughing stock. They had wasted many great young players and constructed some of the most dysfunctional teams in NBA history. Anybody remember the 3 J’s? Believe me, it takes a special kind of bad to throw away three young studs such as Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn, and Jason Kidd…and not even get one measly winning season out of it! By the end of their decade of misery, the fans had checked out and nobody cared.

Enter Mark Cuban. No, Cuban isn’t solely responsible for the rejuvenation of the Mavericks franchise, but he’s the driving force behind it. You can say all you want about Dallas already having Dirk Nowitzki in place, but you can’t take credit away from Cuban. If people are willing to chalk up the failures of the Clippers, Raiders, Cowboys, and Redskins to bad ownership/management, then people must also be willing to give Cuban his due credit for the success of his franchise. Even accounting for the presence of Nowitzki, how many franchises have failed to successfully build around a star player? Going beyond that, it’s only been recently that people have begun to think of Nowitzki as a superstar you could contend with. His reputation, while always good, has been that of a player who couldn’t take his team to the Promised Land. The fact is, Mark Cuban has dramatically turned around this franchise. His ownership has infused life and energy into the Dallas Mavericks. The facilities are the best, the fans are rabid, and the management is sterling. Like it or not, that all starts at the top.

So, go ahead, say what you will about Mark Cuban. Many people hate him and many people will continue to hate him. Yes, he’s loud, he’s brash, and he’s in your face…

…he’s also a winner, and you know you’d kill to have him as the owner your team. I know I would.

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