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NBA: Chief Maverick relishing rebel role

Mark Woods

Bouncing out of his chosen seat, Mark Cuban leaps to protest a call which has just gone against his beloved Dallas Mavericks basketball team. He screams as young German star Dirk Nowitzki pulls off another of the dazzling moves which are making him the pre-eminent European in the National Basketball Association. And he beams with elation at the Mavericks return this week to the NBA's end of season play-offs after a decade's banishment to mediocrity.
For most fanatics of the Mavericks, such reactions come as standard. But for Cuban, an Internet billionaire who paid a cool $280 million for the Texan team 16 months ago, such rabid support comes at a price. So far this season, his wallet has been emptied by a further half-million dollars, fines imposed for behaviour which the NBA's conservative management consider unbecoming of a member of their owner's coterie.
Frowned upon it may be by some but in Dallas Cuban is revered. By his players, who have been lavished with an array of toys designed to make their lives even more luxuriant. State of the art stereos in every locker. Upmarket hotels on the road. A private jet to whisk them across North America in total comfort.

And by the fans too. For unlike his aloof contemporaries who linger behind glass in the executive boxes, Cuban can be spotted in his Mavericks t-shirt high-fiving his fellow fans, often sitting in the cheapest seats to underline his unbridled loyalty to the cause.

"This is a game," he observes as we trade emails, his preferred route of communication. "We play and watch games for enjoyment. That doesn't change whether you are an owner or fan.  I think those who think owners should act differently are a negative impact on the game. They will never understand how to communicate with their customers."

So far the personal touch is working. The Dallas public have flocked back to witness a once moribund franchise rebound to rude health. And the Mavs' recovery is expected to accelerate next season when the team moves into its spanking new American Airlines Center home where Cuban plans to oversee a further advance towards his dream of bringing the championship to the city for the very first time.

The penalties though have not halted. Running on court to break up a fight, pausing the video screen on a disputed refereeing call, two of several transgressions which have incurred the NBA's wrath. Other charges have been however been of a more ludicrous nature. Taking a seat near his team at courtside recently brought a $100,000 surcharge. 

"They are going to do what they are going to do," Cuban states of the league's disciplinary enforcers. "They have their logic, if that's what it could be called, and they follow it. I don't understand or agree with it, but I recognise that it exists."

Even in the play-offs, the drill is the same. In the Mavericks' Tuesday night loss at first round opponents Utah, Cuban was patrolling the courtside, trading barbs with Jazz coach Jerry Sloan over a disputed call. "I looked over and Jerry was cursing at me. I was kind of surprised, but I didn't say a word back, just blew him a kiss," he admits.

Such mock affection may yet bring another slap on the wrist. But at a time where the NBA is placing much of its hopes on the mooted return of Michael Jordan, Cuban at least is refusing to wait around while others do nothing to arrest the league's present decline. 

"I would make (NBA Commissioner) David Stern go to at least one game a week in a t-shirt and jeans, and sit in the least expensive seat in the arena and eat a hot dog and nachos with fans," is his typically combative solution. Then again, you would hardly expect any less a proposal from the maverick-in-chief.

Cuban Embargoes

April 13: NBA fines Cuban $100,000 for making a derogatory gesture during a Mavericks loss to Phoenix.
Feb. 15: Fined $10,000 and suspended for two games after he runs onto the court to break up a fight with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Jan. 4: Fined $250,000 for criticising referees after a Pistons game.
Jan. 1: Fined $100,000 after sitting on the baseline during a game against Minnesota. 
Nov. 20, 2000: Fined $15,000 after being escorted off the court after a confrontation with an official during a game with the Utah Jazz.
Nov. 14, 2000: Fined $5,000 for criticising an official after a win against the LA Clippers. 
Nov. 2, 2000: Fined $25,000 after verbally abusing and publicly criticising officials.

Total: $505,000 (£350,000)

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