- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Tell Mark Cuban that he has been awfully, eerily quiet lately and he tells you, not surprisingly, that you haven't been listening.
"You didn't see me in Cleveland the other night, getting yelled at by Danny Crawford."
Tell Cuban that marriage seems to have mellowed him, or that his e-mails aren't as voluminous as they used to be, and he predictably tells you off.
"Just keep bringing up the same, old Reporter 101 topics."
Tell Cuban that the scolding he got from David Stern and a few fellow owners at the recent Board of Governors meeting must be the reason for his muted start to the season and he tells you a theory you thought you'd never hear.
"The league's just listening to me more," he said.
So there you go. Those are his explanations to account for the other upset in Dallas: While the Mavericks were going 10 games without a loss to open the season, Cuban went 10 games without a fine.
(Aside: The Yugoslavia thing doesn't count, if you're wondering, since that was a team fine for the Nelsons' alleged crime.)
It doesn't look like Tuesday will be the night for either streak to end, barring an 11th-hour change of heart from Shaquille O'Neal. The Lakers are in Dallas, a matchup that normally provides contentious chatter in Lakers vs. Kings volumes, but L.A. insists O'Neal will resist the urge to indulge in his decade-long addiction of disparaging Shawn Bradley. As a result, with the Lakers unlikely to win sans Shaq and the Mavericks aware that beating a Shaq-less L.A. doesn't mean a whole lot, neither side has anything especially salacious to say.
Cuban? Nothing from you, even?
"What are we going to say?," he asks back. "Shaq's not playing."
"Instead of Nellie doing Hack-a-Shaq," Cuban said, "we'll see the Lakers doing Lack-a-Shaq."
Again, there you go. Most we could get until the eventual blowup for the Mavericks and their owner. The team faces a Seattle/at Detroit/at Indiana stretch starting Saturday to threaten the unbeaten start, and Cuban will inevitably be dinged for something. His personal fines total, remember, sits just over $1 million in just shy of 36 months as a team owner.
In the interim, Cuban insists that "I'm probably more aggressive than I've ever been" in matters of league business. He's tracking referee tendencies for every team and game, as usual, and trying to rally support for the abolishment of the luxury tax … which is no great shock since he's one of the owners who will pay the most of it, with a payroll approaching $75 million.
Cuban on officiating: "I just think the league is making good strides. Traveling calls are up 100 percent, carrying (the ball) is up 87 percent, offensive fouls are up 23 percent. If you've seen me on the sidelines, I haven't mellowed at all. It's just that all the things I've kept track of and made an issue about, they've responded. I've always said the easiest way to shut me up is to just do something. And they have."
Cuban on the dreaded LT: "I still think it's wrong. I still think it's one of the worst business scenarios I've ever seen in my life. Where we've got a (highly paid) guy who undergoes surgery and other teams (under the tax threshold) get paid for it. I've never seen anything stupider in my life. A team doesn't do a good job marketing, so they get paid more? It creates disincentives. The less (a team does), the more money you bring in. It's the dumbest thing I've seen in my life.
"But, if I've learned anything, I realize it's not so much the league; it's more the owners. It's not David Stern. It's something the owners set up for ourselves. I've got my work cut out for me, but as new owners come into the league, it's going to change. There's no doubt. Because, when you spend $200-plus million for a franchise, you've got a different perspective."
Which leads us to Cuban and the recent shouts aimed his way from old-school ownership counterparts Bill Davidson (Pistons) and Jerry Colangelo (Suns). Cuban, castigated for not being more of a partner with the other 28 teams, said he was simply pressing the league for more background information on the luxury tax.
"If anything, it made me more aggressive," Cuban said. "And it got a lot of people to listen. It was the best meeting I've ever been to. I don't mind taking heat from people. If you're going to talk it up, you've got to be able to take the heat.
"If anything, where I've mellowed is realizing that it's more the owners who have to get involved. Before I thought it was just about David, and it's not. It's going to take a lot more action from a lot more owners, and as more guys come in that have (big) money (to buy franchises), we'll get it."
If anything, maybe that's your Cuban story: Stern eventually coming to Cuban's defense at the Governors meeting when things got really testy, and Cuban now pronouncing a thaw in his running battle with the commish.
Or maybe this is all just another byproduct of a tone-it-down mode everywhere you look in Mavsland. Pleased as the Mavericks are by the 10-0 start and the 89.1 points per game allowed -- much of it without Raef LaFrentz and Nick Van Exel -- no one's gloating. Dallas knows that it won't be mentioned in the Lakers-Kings class for anything other than trash talk until it earns that status in the playoffs.
"Every year, we've learned things," Cuban said. "We've learned lessons. What we learned last year was that a revolving door (with players) didn't help us. And that you don't look for leadership from outside; you look for it on the inside. And that you've got to be healthy and ready come playoff time."
"We won 10 games in a row last year, too. Look where that got us."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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