Nelson, Cuban head to mediation
DALLAS -- Turns out that the long-running financial feud pitting Mark Cuban against Don Nelson is not quite finished.
A drawn-out contract dispute between the Dallas Mavericks' owner and his former coach -- thought to be resolved in August when a Dallas-based arbitrator ruled heavily in Nelson's favor -- is going to mediation after Cuban successfully appealed the ruling.
Cuban and Nelson -- who's now coaching the Golden State Warriors -- acknowledged before Wednesday's Mavericks-Warriors game that the sides will participate in mediation proceedings Thursday in Dallas. The Warriors were scheduled to stay in town overnight and practice locally Thursday so Nelson can take part, with Cuban scheduled to join in via phone from a Dallas courtroom.
The original ruling from retired judge Glen M. Ashworth established that Nelson was indeed entitled to nearly $6.3 million in deferred payments from his time as Mavericks coach in August, rejecting Cuban's claims that Nelson should have to forfeit some or all of that amount because he breached his Mavericks contract in returning to the Warriors.
Ashworth wound up supporting Nelson's breach-of-contract claim against the Mavericks owner, dismissing Cuban's counterclaims that Nelson violated a noncompete clause in his contract as a Mavs consultant when he took over as head coach of the Warriors in August 2006. Cuban's contention that Nelson used "confidential information" from his stint as Dallas coach to lead Golden State to a historic upset of the 67-win Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 playoffs was also rejected.
A federal arbitrator then increased the figure to $7.1 million in September, at which point the case was presumed to have played out. But Nelson has complained publicly that he has yet to be paid, with Cuban -- having unexpectedly managed to lodge a successful appeal -- apparently intent on extending the process for as long as possible.
"It is what it is,'' Nelson said Wednesday night. "I am making 5 percent on my money. That's probably better than I can do in the stock market or anything else. And he seems to be happy because he says he's making more money [in interest payments] by holding the money. He's happy. I'm happy. I'm not in a hurry. I'm not broke.''
Said Cuban: "We appealed it and I don't know all the details on how it's all going to work, but we sent it back for mediation."
Ashworth's decision in the summer came after Nelson and Cuban -- who were barely on speaking terms in Nelson's final months with the franchise -- were reunited for three days' worth of testimony at an arbitration hearing in Dallas in June. Nelson said he and Cuban had limited interaction at the hearing beyond a few awkward meetings "in the men's room," and they avoided each other again on Wednesday night, as is their custom when the Mavs and Warriors meet.
The Cuban-Nelson relationship -- after they combined with stars Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley to transform the NBA's laughingstock franchise of the 1990s into a perennial 50-win team -- began to unravel during the 2003 Western Conference finals. They clashed over Nelson's reluctance to play Nowitzki again in that series after the 7-footer suffered a knee injury in a Game 3 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, leading to a showdown before what wound up as a crushing Game 6 defeat at home in which Nelson told Cuban that he would have to fire Nelson if he wanted Nowitzki to play.
The relationship deteriorated further during that offseason, thanks to contentious contract negotiations which ultimately resulted in Nelson agreeing to coach the Mavericks for three more seasons and serve as a consultant for five years at $200,000 annually beyond that. But the relationship only got worse when Nelson stunned his players and his boss by abruptly canceling practice before the Game 5 in Sacramento that eliminated the Mavericks in the first round of the 2004 playoffs, which was followed by Nash's free-agent defection to Phoenix just two months later.
Late in Year 2 of the coaching extension, with even Nelson admitting that the club was responding better to assistant coach Avery Johnson and with just 18 games remaining in the regular season, Nelson and Cuban reached an agreement that would immediately install Johnson as head coach and pay Nelson his full '05-06 salary of $5 million.
Cuban initially proclaimed Nelson to be the Red Auerbach-inspired "godfather" of the Mavs after his coaching resignation, but the wedge between them only widened. Nelson claimed that Cuban never used him as a consultant, ignoring his e-mails and barring him from attending training camp, practices and from flying on the team plane. Cuban countered by saying that Nelson forced him to institute a ban because of Nelson's "negativity" regarding Johnson and the Nash-less team he left behind.
Ashworth ultimately ruled that Cuban breached the contract before Nelson did by withholding consulting payments starting on July 1, 2006. Cuban inherited the $6-plus million in deferred payments when he bought the team in 2000 from the previous ownership group headed by Ross Perot Jr.
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.
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