Mark Cuban let his team make noise
Owner was on best behavior while Mavs completed their journey to NBA championship
MIAMI -- Steam clouds exploded from the impetuous owner's ears as the red-faced Mark Cuban stared down commissioner David Stern seated a few rows up at AmericanAirlines Arena. Cuban pointed and stomped around the court in ugly protest, a searing scene that unraveled after the third consecutive loss of an epic NBA Finals meltdown that cost Cuban a quarter-million-dollar fine.
What a difference five years makes.
This time Cuban -- sweaty, smiling and finally having broken the unfathomable silence and virtual anonymity he kept throughout this two-month playoff odyssey -- sought out the commissioner for approval to bring down from the stands original owner Donald Carter to present him the franchise's first championship trophy 31 seasons after Carter brought North Texas a basketball team.
With his thin, white hair creeping from under the trademark cowboy hat that became the club's original logo, Carter, in his late 70s, crammed into the overcrowded celebratory locker room and -- surrounded by champagne- and beer-soaked players and media -- spoke of Cuban like a proud father.
"He's become the owner I always wanted him to become because of his love for the game," Carter said. "He played it just right."
He played it quietly. He played it in the background. He played it like few believed he ever could or would, shunning the savory spotlight and instead leaving the headline-making for his NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and the rest of this band of selfless veterans who made good on their unified championship goal set eight months ago during training camp.
Nowitzki and Terry were the lone members on that 2006 Finals team. For them, Sunday's 105-95 victory over the superstar-laden Miami Heat was sweet redemption for the failure that spawned four more years of heart-wrenching playoff misery.
Cuban watched Game 6 just like he watched all the others, from the second row behind the Mavs' bench. He never joined a timeout huddle or stepped foot on the floor. He never slapped high-fives with any players. He barely even stood up. Sometimes he just put his head down all the while compulsively sipping Diet Coke.
At times he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled encouragement to his players -- and a time or two he screamed to point out a traveling call the refs had obviously blown.
Cuban sat next to advance scout Greg Dreiling, a rare experience because Dreiling's working life is spent on the road studying opponents.
"It was a real treat," Dreiling said. "There were a few times he went deep inside himself or to a higher power. I think we all did that a time or two."
Cuban put it in slightly different terms: "I thought I was going to [expletive] my pants."
It could be argued that past Mavs teams, when the pressure boiled over in the postseason, followed the lead of their kicking, screaming, argumentative owner whose club seemingly never lost a playoff game without the aid of a misguided referee and his whistle.
This time around, the owner followed the cool calmness of his third-year coach Rick Carlisle, of his floppy-haired superstar who remained loyal during last summer's free-agent bonanza that turned LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat into hated villains, and his just-old-enough point guard Jason Kidd, the player Cuban said made him want to buy Mavs season tickets back in the day before he was worth billions.
Cuban said the only thing he thought about in advance was making sure that Carter, a season-ticket holder since he sold the team to H. Ross Perot Jr. in 1996, carried off the trophy.
But, that might not be entirely true. Carlisle, who punched all the right buttons with his gaggle of 30-something core players, also had a way with his ever-boisterous boss that led to Cuban taking this very different approach.
Perhaps Cuban just had to endure heartache after heartache to embrace this new-found approach around cameras and microphones. But let's be clear, Carlisle was a driving force behind Cuban's admirable behavior.
"He and I talked some early on, and he was great about it," Carlisle said. "And he understood and he knew it was the right thing. We kind of mutually talked about it, and he understood. He's a smart guy, so he understands that certain things are sacred."
With 30 seconds left in this championship season, Cuban finally allowed himself to move down a row and join the players with whom he is sometimes criticized of becoming too chummy. Injured forward Caron Butler was the first to embrace him.
"I just kept saying, 'Don't get hyped up, don't get hyped,'" Cuban said, recalling the anxiousness of the fourth quarter. "I just remember the last time we were in Miami in that Game 3 where we're up and I'm thinking we've got a chance to sweep and, boom, it all went to hell.
"So, I'm thinking to myself, 'Don't think like that, just don't even think like that, just don't even think like that,'. Just lay it out, just trust these guys. And you know, these are the guys you can trust."
After the buzzer sounded, Cuban grabbed Carlisle from behind. The thin, stoic head coach flashed a smile and wrapped his arms around Cuban. The two embraced for some time.
"He did a great job. He did a great job," Carlisle said. "Look, Mark's a much more humble person than a lot of people want to believe. His heart is always in the right place. He gives us the tools to succeed and he was extremely disciplined during this run, and it helped us."
Cuban has certainly paid the price, both in suffering and salary. This season's payroll was near the top of the NBA at around $90 million, about $30 million over the salary cap and $20 million more than the luxury cap threshold, an amount Cuban will cough up dollar-for-dollar.
2011 NBA Finals: Champion Mavericks
Game 1: Heat 92, Mavericks 84
Game 2: Mavericks 95, Heat 93
Game 3: Heat 88, Mavericks 86
Game 4: Mavericks 86, Heat 83
Game 5: Mavericks 112, Heat 103
Game 6: Mavericks 105, Heat 95
More: Mavs Center » Mavs Blog »
Yet, what is most ironic is Cuban's pursuit of a second superstar to pair with Nowitzki, even going so far as to hype a potential sign-and-trade for the all-world James, who suddenly and inexplicably disappeared from this Finals series.
No second superstar ever arrived and none was needed. Terry turned in the postseason of his life and a 27-point Game 6 that carried the Mavs until Nowitzki heated up in the second half.
Cuban quietly watched his team dispatch playoff opponents with brutal precision. After the Game 4 collapse at Portland, which seemed to only deepen the trust between Carlisle and the players, the Mavs dumped the Trail Blazers by winning two in a row. They swept the two-time champion Los Angeles Lakers and took three in a row to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in five.
And then there was this, a three-game wipeout of the dynasty-to-be Heat after Miami came to Dallas and took Game 3 for a 2-1 lead.
From there, the owner continued to keep his lip zipped while the team he continually kept faith in, even during a mediocre finish to the regular season, provided all the noise necessary.
"I give Mark a lot of credit," Nowitzki said. "Cuban, he stuck with me through thick and thin. He brought all the right players always in, always trying to spend money and make this organization better and this team better.
"So," Nowitzki closed, "Mark is the best."
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.