When the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA title in June, Mark Cuban pulled a surprise. He took a step back during the post-game celebration, so 78-year-old Donald Carter, the Mavs’ original owner, could accept the trophy from the commissioner. It was a sweet gesture, hailed far and wide.
But most people don’t watch Cuban to see gentle.
A few days later, in a court case over his management of the Mavs, his attorney petitioned to throw out the lawsuit and entered a snarky exhibit: a photo of Dirk Nowitzki with the championship trophy, surrounded by Cuban and teammates.
Now that’s the Cuban no one can ignore.
How about the photo of Cuban standing at a urinal, the NBA trophy in one hand and him taking care of business with the other? One fan used the shot for a mock-up cover of an NBA video game, and Cuban retweeted the image to his more than half-a-million Twitter followers.
He also sent out a photo of an advertisement on the back of a DART bus. The owner, not a player, was wearing a Mavs T-shirt and yelling encouragement, above this strip of copy:
“Hell yes we can win a championship!” —Mark Cuban.
It’s not enough to say that Cuban is the best owner in sports or the modern, wired version of the celebrity CEO, but it’s a good place to start.
Old-schoolers revere Clint Murchison, the original Dallas Cowboys owner, because he left football to football guys and kept a low profile. Jerry Jones shattered that notion when he took over the Cowboys and promised to oversee everything from jocks to socks.
Jones made good on the pledge, often with spectacular success. Before Jones, the late George Steinbrenner was the definition of hands-on. Wheeling, dealing, and brow-beating, “The Boss” willed the New York Yankees to the top of baseball.
Cuban represents the next leap in that evolution. He spends lavishly to win, swaps players ruthlessly, creates new revenue streams, and lives and dies with his team. But what separates Cuban is that he’s become an entertainer in his own right, a shrewd self-promoter who attracts as much attention as his gifted athletes.
It’s as if the Mavs are one more part of the Cuban brand, albeit a big one. Cuban had his own (failed) network TV show, is a fixture on another reality program, and made a solid run on Dancing with the Stars. He’s had cameos on Entourage, The Simpsons, Walker, Texas Ranger, and more.
Cuban can be found all over TV, Twitter, blogs, and online shows—usually unscripted and unplugged. Sometimes, his mouth gets him in trouble (at least $1.6 million in NBA fines to date), but his wallet and skin are thick enough to handle it. (Forbes puts his net worth at $2.5 billion.)
Cuban can be profane, even obnoxious, but generally, he’s insightful and fun. And he’s always strategic—which is one reason to track him. He weighs in on Google+ to show off his tech bona fides; talks about banning ESPN.com from the Mavs’ locker room to protect his players; and tweets about sweat equity to promote his role on ABC’s Shark Tank.
Mark Cuban is swimming with the current in the virtuous circle: He talks, he tweets, he blogs, he invests, he plays himself to the hilt—and his fame and success seem to grow.
The climax came in June, when the Mavs finally reached the NBA mountaintop. Ironically, Cuban maintained a vow of silence for much of the playoff run, once again defying conventional wisdom and his critics.
Cuban bought the Mavs in early 2000, and promptly remade them into contenders for a decade. Pro sports are humbling, because every year, every team falls short, except one. Cuban doesn’t always handle disappointment gracefully, but the NBA fines became a badge of honor and raised his profile higher.
On talk shows, Cuban’s life story is always reliable material: Internet mogul hits it big and lives out the boyhood dream.
“Are you planning to buy the New York Mets?” Jimmy Kimmel asked him last spring.
Maybe, Cuban said, but it would cost a ton, and he’d have to talk sweet to baseball owners.
“Call me crazy, but when I write an $800 million check, I want someone to kiss my ass,” Cuban said. “I don’t want to beg and grovel.”
It may feel like you’ve seen this act before (think Donald Trump). But Cuban, at 53, has been a serious player on many fronts. His holdings include HDNet, Magnolia Pictures, and Landmark Theatres. He launched several hard-news websites and invests regularly in startups. He punched back at the Securities and Exchange Commission over insider trading charges, and took some mean shots at Ross Perot Jr., the minority partner who sued Cuban for spending too much on the Mavs.
And it’s all chronicled, often in real time, and archived on the net. On his “blog maverick” he recounts his start: sharing a Dallas apartment, living on happy-hour food, and reading every book he saw on computers and business. That paid off with his first million-dollar company.
He often comments on the media. In one post, he mulled barring online reporters, because he and the Mavs could connect with online fans on their own platforms. Newspaper and TV audiences are more difficult to reach, he wrote, so those reporters get to stay—for now.
Cuban invites emails and tweets from anyone. One Shark Tank fan asked if he thought about getting into movie theaters.
“Dude,” Cuban tweeted, “you need to do some homework before you ask business questions.”
Most execs wish that they could be so blunt. The difference is that Cuban has the guts, and money, to do it.
Mitchell Schnurman is an award-winning business columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.