Cuban. Whistles. Crisis?

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Note: I’m pretty sure somebody else has used a variation of this title somewhere, but whatever. There’s never going to be a pun that fits together quite so perfectly, so let’s just say the shoe fits and move on. Nothing like a little plagiarism to kick off a blog anyway, right?

So it’s official: last summer David Stern pushed Mark Cuban to the brink of leaving the NBA altogether, but couldn’t quite shove him over the edge.

“I told Stern, I told other owners that I was out,” Cuban said. “Given what happened in June, there were a lot of things that I wasn’t comfortable with.”

My guess is that the conversation wasn’t quite as civil as that sounds. I see Cuban walking into Stern’s office and cutting loose a string of about eighteen expletives for each of Dwayne Wade’s flops. Stern probably pursed his lips into a little smile, softly stroked the cat he cradled in his arms, and said, “Well, Mark, I really have no idea what you’re talking about. The better team just won.” At which point Cuban snapped and basically put the team on Ebay.

However it went, the rift between these two couldn’t be cleared by Evil Knievel at this point. Don’t forget that when the season opened, Cuban insisted on including the phrase “David Stern University” in every sentence he uttered to reporters, and even wore those DSU shirts on national TV. Personally, I think each of them are seething right now, and Cuban’s as driven as anyone on the Mavs to stick it to Stern by hoisting the trophy in Dallas this year. And I imagine that’s what Dirk told him the Mavs were going to do in the conversation that Cuban says changed his mind. Has there ever been such open hostility between an owner and a commissioner not named Vince McMahon? Has there ever been a team, from the owner to the ball-boy, so hell-bent on exacting revenge on the league as a whole? (Eric Neel shrugs.)

But what if this isn’t the year? What if the Mavericks get the Warriors in the first round, Nellie figures out how to take it 7 games and then Baron Davis shoots 25 free throws and Golden State moves on? Substitute Spurs/Ginobili or Suns/Nash, and I think Cuban up and sells. In protest, if nothing else. He already said it would have felt great to get some things off his chest last summer. How much longer will he wait to do that if he feels like his team gets screwed again?

I should admit at the outset of this thing that I have my own love-hate relationship with Mark Cuban, similar but slightly different from the one I have with Jerry Jones. Sometimes watching Cuban feels like watching your little brother subtly soil the family name: the overboard antics, sarcastic comments, and the choice of attire (the hybrid football jersey) make my eyes kind of dart around as I laugh nervously and pray in my head for the camera to cut away. But the fact is that Cuban took a franchise that had become a laughing-stock and turned into this 56-11 juggernaut.

Unless you were a Mavs fan under Don Carter (with whom I shared a suburb growing up, incidentally)–or maybe if you’re sporting a Grizzlies jersey as you read this–you can’t really understand the complete lack of passion that pervaded the organization before Cuban arrived. Nellie was already laying the groundwork, but Cuban came in, changed the logo, pledged to spend money, and made the average fan feel like there was some hope for the future. Carter was a nice guy, by all accounts, and the big cowboy hat he wore to the games matched the one that used to hang cock-eyed over the M at center court, but no one believed it was going to happen under him. (Telling story: My next-door neighbors scored some second row seats at one point–not too hard in those days–that happened to be right behind Carter’s. As the story goes, their little six-year old daughter tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he could take his hat off cause she couldn’t see around it. And I think he actually did. But I think he left in about the third quarter too.)

So what happens if Cuban sells? The Mavs either get the inept, old rich guy (see Donald Sterling, Larry Dolan) or they get the ownership-as-hydra model (see the Atlanta Hawks). The league gets another quiet bean-counter, there’s no real pressure to tighten up the officiating (the single biggest problem facing the NBA in the next fifteen years), and no real impetus for other owners to innovate. And Dallas fans get somebody who may or may not care if they slide back into the basement. Or, even worse, they get a couple guys who know a little too much about how to lose in Big D…

LaettnerHubert

UPDATE: Well, the worst-case Golden State hypothetical became a reality, and Cuban didn’t sell.  The difference, I think, was that no one in the Dallas organization felt like they got robbed by the league/refs last year.  Although Cuban doesn’t exactly think it was fair and square

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