By Biertempfel, Rob
There's this guy who grew up a middle-class Average Joe and wound up owning a pro sports team. He has more money than Oprah -- and better people skills, too.
The team was a loser for years, so the guy came in knowing he'd have to open his wallet for flashy players and a new arena. Plus, he's in a football-mad town, so he has to persuade folks to tune out the NFL for a minute and give his team a look.
Is this mystery man Jim Balsillie? Kevin McClatchy?
The hero of this riches-to-even bigger riches story is Mark Cuban, the Pittsburgh-born owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
On Wednesday night, the Mavs will play a preseason game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Mellon Arena.
In January 2000, Cuban bought the Mavericks for $285 million from Ross Perot Jr. Until the sale went down, the Mavs had about as much chance of snatching the NBA title as Perot's dad did of winning the White House.
Since then, the team has won 70 percent of its regular-season games, moved into a glitzy, high-tech arena, and made it to the NBA Finals for the first time.
Forbes magazine estimates the franchise's value at $403 million, fifth-highest in the NBA.
"I didn't have specific goals," Cuban said. "I went in hoping I could apply what had worked for me in other businesses to the Mavs. I guess my only preconceived notion was that I wouldn't care if I got criticized for my approach."
Talk of the town
Cuban pampers his players, outfitting every locker with a PlayStation 2, DVD player and big, fluffy towels. He energizes fans by sitting among them, pumping his fists and cheering wildly.
Sometimes, Cuban's cheers go a bit over the top. He has fattened the NBA's coffers by ripping referees and paying nearly $1.5 million in fines -- an amount he has matched with charitable donations.
"Mark Cuban supports the team like no other owner you see in the NBA -- and in professional sports, for that matter," Mavericks forward Doug Christie said.
The Cowboys still rule the sports market in Dallas, and they always will, but Cuban has made the Mavericks a strong second.
"When Mark came in, his enthusiasm became infectious," said Mavericks president and CEO Terdema Ussery. "You could feel a palpable change in the attitude of the team, the coaches and the city. All of the sudden, people were talking about us."
The mop-topped billionaire and his surging team are a hot topic at the office water cooler, on call-in radio shows and, especially, on the Internet.
Cuban's online blog (blogmaverick.com) is a free-flowing mix of tech news and pro-Mavs bravado, and it gets about 2 million hits a month. He is the first, and only, pro sports owner with such an interactive Web site.
"I don't hear much about it from other owners, but the league reads it," Cuban said. "I know because they have fined me over it. My little blog threatens them, I guess."
Through his blog, Cuban gets more than a thousand e-mails a day (not including spam), everything from media queries to fans complaining about cold hot dogs at American Airlines Center.
He replies personally to as much e-mail as he can. And if the angry fan has a legit gripe, Cuban will forward the e-mail to another front-office employee with a "fix this" memo.
"The passion you see from him (at the games) is the same passion he applies to business," Ussery said. "He pushes us hard. It's a 24/ 7 mission."
Cuban sweats the small stuff, right down to the in-game entertainment. He often comes up with ideas for skits flashed on the video scoreboard, such as one last season that used Mavs guard Avery Johnson in a spoof of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
"I look for anything that makes the game more fun and a better value for fans," Cuban said. "Not every game will be great, but every game can be a blast to go to."
When the NBA switched to a new, synthetic basketball this year and players began complaining, Cuban took notice. …