We saw the Mark Cuban we’ve known for 20 years, the kabuki performer in relaxed-fit jeans who barely needs to speak to be heard, all exaggerated gestures and overly dramatic expressions. This was March 11. He was in his usual courtside seat at the Dallas Mavericks’ home game against the Denver Nuggets, initially planned to be the first of a doubleheader on ESPN until, suddenly, it became the last NBA action for more than four months. That night, the league suspended its season in response to the pandemic, after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus, causing the Jazz’s game in Oklahoma City to be called off while the referee was preparing for tipoff.
The Mavericks proprietor and Shark Tank star learned of this when everyone else did, via a press release tweeted out by the league midway through the third quarter, and his shock mirrored our own. He dropped his jaw like a python swallowing an alligator as he stared at his phone. Then he sprang back in his chair as though he were trying to draw an offensive foul on the device. “That will put me down in meme history,” he says over Zoom two months later, sitting in his dark-wood-paneled home office, a framed Shark Tank Season 10 poster leaning against the wall behind him. “Too much chocolate in your hot chocolate? Show Mark Cuban.”
At that moment, after a few weeks of uncertainty, the COVID-19 roller coaster had finally clicked to the top of its tracks, and we’d see in the next hours and days just how fast it could get. Looking back at Cuban’s reaction, it’s almost as if he were seeing a glimpse of the future. Every other sports league shutting down. Every other everything shutting down. People hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper and yeast. Millions unemployed, then millions more. Angry mobs storming statehouses to demand haircuts. Then, after all of that—in the middle of all of that—nationwide protests over racial injustice.
But that would come later. That night, he retreated to his suite under the American Airlines Center stands for a few minutes to process the news and make some calls. When he came back out to the court, it was like he had upgraded to a new operating system. The next part required a different version of Cuban, one that we have rarely seen, maybe have never seen: a statesman. In the fourth quarter, he was asked to address the nation. He had to be the face of the NBA. “And, fortunately, you know, I didn’t say anything stupid,” he says.
He was better than that, a calming voice in a time of crisis, not just for the league or the country but the entire world, managing to strike the right note between stunned and steady. Concerned but not panicked. Standing at his seat, talking to ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi, Cuban didn’t make any jokes or try to deflate the situation. It’s not about the team, he said. It’s about the country and life in general. He wondered about the people who worked at the AAC on an hourly basis. We need to take care of them, he said.
Cuban says that he didn’t do anything special. “It’s just that people glommed on to it.” He says he merely happened to be in the right place at the wrong time, that if the schedule had been different or if the game hadn’t been nationally televised, it would have been someone else. But it’s hard to imagine another owner handling it as well. New York Knicks owner James Dolan would have probably gone on a tangent about how former power forward Charles Oakley had once disrespected him at a breakfast buffet. Really, it is difficult to imagine another owner even in that position. Of course, it was Cuban. Of course, he was there. He’s always there. That has been one of the biggest criticisms of him for two decades, since he emerged from the tech world and deposited himself into a seat near the Mavs bench.
But over the next few months, Cuban turned that criticism into perhaps his greatest strength. He’s always there.
Since March 11, whether the situation has required his money, time, voice, or some combination thereof, he has been there. Whether faced with a problem affecting the city (such as when he pledged $75,000 to help keep Bonton Farms in business in South Dallas) or the country (like when he suggested a federal jobs program to transition millions of unemployed people into the healthcare industry), Cuban has been there to offer something of value. Most recently, he donated $100,000 to the National Association of Black Journalists’ COVID-19 relief fund.
He was named to the president’s Reopen America Committee, but he has mostly gotten things done on his own, relying on contacts he has made, connections he can make.
“I mean, it’s not like I’ve got a lot of other things to do right now,” he says, laughing, “and I have a platform and this is important to me. And where I can help, why wouldn’t I help? It’s the right thing to do.”
He started at home, the day after the Nuggets game, setting up a program to pay the AAC’s hourly employees, taking action when other owners left it up to players such as Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounmpo to handle. Then he moved to help local front-line workers, joining with the Mavs’ Luka Dončić and Dwight Powell to donate $500,000 to UT Southwestern Medical Center and Parkland Hospital on March 20, money earmarked to provide childcare for healthcare workers.
His efforts broadened from there. Less than a week later, Cuban took to Twitter to find a bank that could help implement an idea he’d had “to get cash advances into people’s hands ASAP,” backed by their forthcoming $1,200 stimulus checks. Jill Castilla—the president and CEO of Citizens Bank, serving about 90,000 residents just north of Oklahoma City—emailed him. She had a similar idea, involving a line of credit. As he tends to do, Cuban emailed her back, and soon they were on the phone. “It was just kind of like a short Shark Tank experience, honestly,” Castilla says.
They landed on an overdraft program that allowed customers to overdraw $900 from their accounts without paying fees or interest. Urged on by Cuban, Castilla and the bank had the program up and running in four days. Once they had proof of concept, Cuban took it public. “It ended up I engaged with over 400 banks that were inquiring about how they could set up something similar for their customers,” Castilla says.
From there, she found that she was part of Cuban’s ad hoc response team. “You can tell that he just built a network of resources and then ropes them in to help answer some of the questions,” she says. Castilla was roped in again in May after Arlan Hamilton, the founder and managing director of Backstage Capital and a partner with Cuban in another fund, emailed him an op-ed she’d co-written for Fast Company about minority business owners getting shut out of coronavirus relief. The next day, Cuban tweeted to his 7.9 million followers: “If you are a minority or woman owned, or any company that believes you are eligible for a PPP loan, but have not been approved, please post an overview of your status here and I will do my best to connect you to a bank. There is still more than $100B left.” He tagged Castilla in a follow-up tweet, along with Vista Bank, a community bank in Texas.
“And the key to it wasn’t just tweeting it, because anybody can do that,” he says. “But the key was going through there and spending hours and hours and hours, literally going through the tweets and doing lookups, like ‘Here’s a list of community banks in Atlanta or Miami or this town or that town. Please call them.’ Or Jill doing the same thing or Vista Bank doing the same thing. And there was even a group from UC Berkeley that emailed me saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got all these people willing to help. Can you put it out there?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not going to just put it out there. Why don’t you just go and respond to all these tweets and just help them? Instead of waiting for them to come to you, be proactive and go to them.’ So this UC Berkeley group did quite a bit as well. And so across all of that, I think we had an impact.”
To further the effort, he also backed Castilla and her bank’s site, ppp.bank, which launched at the end of May and helps business owners complete the complicated application for Paycheck Protection Program funds.
“You can really see his heart for these small businesses and desire to get this country back on its feet,” she says. “To have someone with his level of reach and to show his unflappable commitment to the small-business community has given that community hope, and that’s what they need through this crisis.”
He’s always there.
Cuban is uniquely positioned to be this guy. He operates with almost no layers between him and the world at large, only relying on an assistant to manage his schedule. He drives himself everywhere, works without a PR team, answers his emails. Answers almost every email. He has done that since the beginning, putting his email address on the Reunion Arena scoreboard after he bought the Mavericks for a then record $280 million on January 4, 2000.
“I mean, it’s not like I’ve got a lot of other things to do right now, and I have a platform and this is important to me,” Cuban says. “And where I can help, why wouldn’t I help? It’s the right thing to do.”
“I think he just loves playing the game, and—not to be too corny but—he has to be on the court,” Arlan Hamilton says via email. “Can’t sit back from the suite and watch it all happen. That to me explains his accessibility. Doesn’t want to be just an observer.”
But it is still a surprise that he has been the man to step up, that he’s the one who has been there. Maybe it’s because the last time he was confronted with a problem even close to this scale—when a February 2018 Sports Illustrated investigation into the Mavericks revealed a toxic workplace going back 20 years—he brought in former AT&T executive Cynt Marshall to handle it. And when the findings of the team’s own investigation were released, for once he wasn’t there.
Maybe it’s because, since he entered our collective consciousness 20 years ago, the idea of him, if not the man himself, has mostly remained the same. Whether you think about him a lot or a little, you have a picture of him in your mind that has been unaltered since you first put it there, with that heavy-eyed smile and lantern jaw that make him look like a handsome Frankenstein’s monster.
Look closer, though, and you can see that Cuban has changed. He isn’t so boyish anymore. Until recently, it was as though he had stopped aging around 40 or so, or maybe he just had enough money to make it appear that way. But the lines on his face have deepened, and the gray in his hair has conquered more territory. Maybe he looks young for his age (he turned 62 on July 31), but he’s not young anymore. It goes beyond his appearance. He has long stopped being the spendthrift wild card he was during his first decade in the league, infamously breaking up a championship-
winning team in 2011 because of the salary cap implications. It still feels like he’s one of the league’s new generation of owners, but the reality is the opposite. He’s one of its pillars; he has owned the Mavericks longer than two-thirds of his fellow franchisees.
Maybe he still comes off as an upstart because no other team owner, in the NBA or any other sports league, has ever been quite so visible, approaching the job with the idea that he is as much a star of the show as any of the players. He’s holding court with reporters while sweating on a StairMaster or getting up shots on the court before games and hitting clubs with players afterward. Even Jerry Jones can’t say that he has appeared on Dancing With the Stars or was featured in an ad campaign for Skechers, and you certainly wouldn’t see Jones running routes on the AT&T Stadium turf. It’s not really a new way of doing things. It’s just Cuban’s way. And it’s different enough from most other owners that it still comes as a surprise that he has been at it for so long.
All of this makes it seem as though Cuban decided a long time ago what kind of billionaire he wanted to be. There are two main paths for tech billionaires. They can take the lead of Elon Musk, someone who is dangerously online, shooting money at his boredom with a rocket launcher. Or they can follow in the steps of Bill Gates, probably better known by anyone born after the release of Windows 98 as a philanthropist, who uses his fortune (as ruthlessly obtained as all the rest) and influence to make a real difference in the world, the second half of his life almost apologizing for the first.
Given his brashness and extremely active social media presence, Cuban was easily slotted as a Musk. But maybe he has been a Gates all this time, a sheep hiding in wolf’s clothing. He has always been charitable, but mostly his giving has been lower key and direct. He notably came to the rescue of the Greenville Avenue St. Patrick’s Parade in 2012, giving organizers the $40,000 they needed, plus an additional $25,000 for the parade’s fund for DISD. (The Mavericks have been official sponsors since then.) Usually it is less public. As he told Reuters in 2016, “I pay people’s bills and help solve problems.” He has just gotten more attention for it since March 11.
Then, however, there came a problem he couldn’t solve, a bill he couldn’t pay. But he was there for that, too. Once you decide to become a leader, you don’t always get to decide what you’re going to lead people through.
No one in the country was ready for a pandemic, as these past few months have made clear. But Cuban was prepared for his role in it. He didn’t have to leave his comfort zone to address the challenges brought on by the coronavirus, at least not the ones he decided to take on. Finance and tech are worlds he’s well familiar with. Entrepreneurs and small businesses have always been important to him. Making quick decisions is what his television persona is based on.
But what came next wasn’t so simple. Following the death of George Floyd, on May 25, after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his throat for almost eight minutes, nationwide protests erupted over racial inequality and police brutality. They weren’t just something outside of his experience—he has been rich for most of his adult life and White for all of it—they fell into an area where he had failed before.
In May 2014, Cuban had to defend himself against accusations of racism after saying, “[I]f I see a Black kid in a hoodie at night bouncing … on the same side of the street, I’m probably going to walk to the other side of the street.” Though he said he’d do the same if he encountered “a White guy with a shaved head and a lot of tattoos,” the two theoretical assailants weren’t exactly equivalent. The bigger problem: he said that less than a year after a Florida jury had acquitted George Zimmerman after he’d shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whom he had followed and confronted because he was a Black kid wearing a hoodie at night.
The lines on his face have deepened. the gray in his hair has conquered more territory. Maybe he looks young for his age, but he’s not young anymore.
“Back then, I thought being colorblind was a virtue,” Cuban says now. “And I was trying to make the point that I was colorblind. But colorblind is not the best way to be. Colorblind just means you’re effectively ignoring the problem.” It’s mid-June and we are on another Zoom call, a month after the first, necessitated by all that has happened since then, a full Ken Burns documentary worth of news. “And I think part of the issue is we White people get defensive, particularly when we hear the term ‘White privilege.’ It immediately puts us on the defensive. I think we also have a much more difficult time talking about race, in general, and particularly talking about the White race, specifically, than minorities have. And so that’s been a real challenge. … You’ve got to recognize that everybody’s been through a different set of circumstances. And when we talk about White privilege, it’s not about individuals. It’s more macro issues and it’s more systemic issues that minorities have to face.”
This is the part of the conversation that he has grabbed on to in the weeks since the protests began, and it’s a good place to start because the people he needs to reach are a lot like him. He can show his support by turning up at marches and demonstrations, and he has, joining in a protest in late May outside Dallas police headquarters, along with his three kids and a few Mavericks players. But occasions like that are more of an opportunity for him to listen. And he can show his support through smaller gestures, like ordering lunch for his family from a Black-owned business, and he has done that, too. But he could place to-go orders from BurgerIM in the West End for the rest of his life and it would only do so much.
Tackling White privilege, though, is where he can use his voice, where his platform matters, where he could really effect change. It was at the heart of his remarks to kick off Courageous Conversations, an invite-only event he hosted at the AAC in early June, with the intention for people—White, especially—to start having difficult discussions about race. He says he would call White privilege something else if he could come up with a better way to get across the idea that it simply means that White people haven’t had to go through certain things that other people have, not that they have been given advantages or are entitled to them. At the same time, though, he understands that saying “White privilege” has power because it makes people uncomfortable.
He also understands that, in the past, these conversations have started, movements have been taken up, and then they fizzle out and nothing changes. But he’s committed. “We’ll be there to continue the conversations for a long time,” he says.
You want to believe him, because if there is one thing we all know about Mark Cuban, it’s that he is always there.
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