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Mark Cuban Once Crashed the NBA’s Party. Now He Hosts It.

It’s been 20 years since the tech billionaire bought the Dallas Mavericks, a timeline that has seen the 61-year-old evolve from a disrupting force into one of the league’s most formidable constants

Mario Zucca

Luka Doncic hadn’t been born yet when Mark Cuban’s online streaming company, Broadcast.com, made its initial public offering in July 1998, a deal that soared nearly 250 percent on its first day of trading even though the business had lost millions for years. (Like impeachment trials and scrunchies, everything old is new again.) And Doncic was only an infant in April 1999, when Cuban sold that same business to Yahoo for $5.7 billion in stock and pretty much top-ticked the dot-com market. So when I ask the 20-year-old Doncic whether he remembers how he first heard about Cuban, the 61-year-old Dallas Mavericks owner, it makes sense that the young Slovenian point guard’s answer is at best tangential to Cuban’s ’90s tech trajectory and even to the NBA. “Probably because of Shark Tank,” Doncic says. To the future of the franchise, the origins of ownership may as well be ancient history.

He’s not alone. “Well, I knew that he’s a sports freak,” says forward Maxi Kleber, whom the Mavericks signed in 2017 as a free agent out of Germany. “He’s into basketball, obviously, and a very smart guy.” The rest of Kleber’s perception of his new boss, though, derived from network television. “I knew he’s an entrepreneur,” Kleber adds. “I’ve seen Shark Tank on TV.”

Cuban’s share of that 1999 deal with Yahoo was in the 10 figures, meaning that he was suddenly positioned to answer that burning question known to daydreamers everywhere: What would you do if you had a billion dollars? In his case, the answer was threefold: buy a mansion (nearly 24,000 square feet), a Gulfstream V jet (online), and an NBA team (the cellar-dwelling Mavs). And Cuban’s timing was fortuitous: not too long after he cashed out of all that Yahoo stock, it fell by half from its dot-com bubble highs.

These are the sorts of unlikely life events that qualify a person like Cuban to become one of the titular sharks on the hit ABC reality/game show, a gig that involves a lot of leaning back in a white Eames chair and looking appropriately skeptical as humans both scammy and sincere pitch their startup businesses. His very involvement in the show is of a piece with his personal life journey: from gonzo to gatekeeper, from pest to sage, from a 20-something guy with a $0 balance and creditors calling him at all hours to a multibillionaire with a total hip replacement negotiating from a midcentury-modern throne.

On a weekday in October, a few hours before Dallas hosts its first home preseason game of the year, Cuban sits on a dark leather sofa within the American Airlines Center, inside what his assistant refers to as his “bunker suite,” a dimly lit and cavernous private space just a few skips away from the Mavericks’ home court. Blue martini and wine glasses line one wall, an enormous TV takes up another, and clear square cases containing basketballs of yore—signed by the likes of Michael Jordan and Julius Erving—are stacked up against the rest. I am keeping Cuban, who is wearing blue-and-gray team athleisure, from his preferred game-day routine of playing some afternoon pickup hoops, a routine that has paid off. Instead, he is reminiscing about one of the ways he and his buddies used to scrimp back when they were in their 20s and living six-deep in one three-bedroom Dallas apartment.

Around the corner from that place, Cuban says, was a Tom Thumb grocery store with a killer deal. “They’d have these chicken packs, I’ll never forget,” he says, “where they had two chicken wings and two big French fried potatoes, right?” (Cuban says “right?” a lot, like a sunnier, salesier reverse Walter Sobchak, a steamroller with a disarming smile.) “And they dropped from $4.99 to a buck-29 at midnight. And we’d go buy a bunch, right?” His budget calculus has shifted ever so slightly since then. When he bought the Mavericks from Ross Perot Jr. two decades ago for $285 million, for example, he admits he probably paid like a hundo mil too much. But who’s counting, right?

When Cuban bought the Mavericks 20 years ago, he was an offbeat, self-assured rich guy who exemplified the tenets of the franchise’s name, like if the kid from Blank Check grew up to be Ted Turner with a Lloyd Christmas haircut and a terrible wardrobe. But while he once sought to knock down the doors and pull the rug out from under the league, he now owns the damn place. He has won a title and has elevated some of the NBA’s most exciting talent over the years, but he has also dropped the ball, tearfully apologizing in 2018 for overlooking systemic sexual harassment within his organization. He has eschewed the more typical anonymity of ownership to crow about his successes and smite his opponents—usually, the refs—but he has also been personally called out for his own decisions, like trading last season for Kristaps Porzingis, a player who had been recently accused of, though never charged with, sexual assault.

“In many ways,” Newsday wrote of Cuban in February 2001, “he is redefining the role of an NBA owner. Not everyone is happy about that.” This assessment was correct on both counts, and perhaps even an understatement. In the 20 years since buying the team, Cuban has pushed the NBA’s limits on everything from decorum to statistics, running his mouth while running the numbers, serving as both the jester of his castle and the king. This season, as the Dallas Mavericks have gotten off to an irresistible start, buoyed by the joyous play of sophomore sensation Luka Doncic, Cuban is once again presiding over a franchise with legitimate relevance and near-future title hopes. For years, Cuban has been changing the game by doing everything in his power to win it, and he doesn’t appear to be stepping back anytime soon.

The Mavericks were in shambles when Cuban inherited the team. Dallas hadn’t made the playoffs in a decade and had never reached the Finals. Since then, the Mavericks have won a championship (2011), been screwed out of another (2006), and have missed the postseason only five times. And while Cuban says he overpaid for the franchise, he has nevertheless reaped a tidy return, with the most recent annual Forbes estimate valuing the organization at $2.3 billion, the eighth highest in the league. Combined with his other holdings, which range from a production company to an unthinkable amount of Amazon stock to all the various enterprises he buys into, on TV and otherwise—Cuban all told is estimated to possess more than $4 billion in assets.

“Never in my wildest dreams,” Cuban says, “did I think I’d be this rich, never. And honestly, you couldn’t spend it all. I mean, I guess I could buy more sports teams and blow it all there.” He has tried to do this more than once, to be fair, to no avail.

Soon after he bought the team, Cuban also bought a sweet team plane. He installed DVD players in the locker room—the height of luxury at the time—and stocked both the home and the visiting locker rooms with extremely plush Mavericks branded towels. (A proto-influencer, Cuban wanted his opponents to pilfer the towels because it was free advertising to other teams’ future free agents.) And he shelled out for a big Jumbotron; hired a robust team of assistant coaches whose sole focus was player development; consulted with quantitative minds on how to create and analyze bespoke statistics; and rarely blanched at paying the luxury tax. If all of this sounds pretty unexceptional when viewed through the lens of today’s NBA, it’s because Cuban was the exception who became the rule.

A 2000 piece in the Los Angeles Times noted that the Mavericks employed twice as many assistant coaches as any other team. The following year, the San Francisco Chronicle said that every NBA owner was “running and hiding from the extra payments” in the new luxury tax world with the exception of Cuban and the late Paul Allen, owner of the Portland Trail Blazers. Cuban told Esquire in 2017 that the Mavericks were the first organization to truly invest in full-time player development. “I remember having to explain to the sports media that we spent more on support of our personal computers and software than we did developing our most important employees: our players,” Cuban said then. “Now every team has a staff of player-development coaches.”

Similarly, while the NBA is now a haven for stat geeks, Cuban was an early adopter. He hired one of his old statistics professors from Indiana University, Wayne Winston, soon after buying the team in 2000 to try to gain any edge. (By way of comparison, it was in 2002 that baseball’s Oakland A’s had the season that inspired Moneyball, and it was in 2006 when “Dork Elvis” Daryl Morey, not yet the Rockets GM, founded the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.) When the Mavericks won their title in 2011, they had a “stats coach” named Roland Beech who sat with the team on the bench and earned a championship ring.

Sometimes the biggest innovations can feel like the smallest in hindsight, having become so ingrained in daily life that they’re now ubiquitous. Like online streaming, or professional athletes on social media, both of which are now part of society’s fabric but were far-out concepts 20 years ago. “I think as players become more comfortable with the technology and more and more carry laptops,” Cuban predicted in a live chat with ESPN the Magazine in 2000, “I think you’ll see them using the internet to communicate with fans through e-mail, their sites and of course team sites.” Today, when Cuban talks about his visions for the future—from AI in arenas to the state of college basketball—it’s worth noting the accuracy of so many of his past visions of the present.

Cuban has long grasped how to build and share a catchy public persona, both among basketball fans and players alike. “It’s definitely, like, a household name,” says forward Dwight Powell. “The word around the league is pretty accurate, if not understated, that he’s all about the players, he’s all about the team.” And his Q score extends far off the court: During Cuban’s first year in the league, he raised eyebrows with a saucy Q&A in Penthouse in which he chatted about his favorite sex acts and also, for some reason, about Bobby Knight. In 2002, after he yelled at an official that he wouldn’t hire him to manage a Dairy Queen, Cuban made amends to the restaurant chain by suiting up and working there for the day. He has competed on Dancing With the Stars, played himself on Entourage, Billions, and The Simpsons, invested in crypto and esports, danced on TikTok, and risen to parallel Shark Tank fame.

The danger of being such an open book is that not every chapter comes to a neat, happy ending. Cuban has at times allowed his affinity for publicity to dwarf his good sense, leading to several cringe-worthy moments. In 2003, for example, his reaction to the accounts of rape levied against the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant was to go on CNN and point out that it could draw interest to the league. “It’s unfortunate the way it all turned out from a people perspective,” he said then, “but, from a business perspective, people are going to be intrigued.” He has paid nearly $3 million in cumulative fines from the NBA, including for trash-talking Kenyon Martin to his mom. He battled the SEC for years in an insider trading lawsuit and ultimately won. Cuban’s clashes with the local and national press go back to the early aughts, when he threatened a D Magazine editor for inquiring about Cuban’s then-fiancée, now-wife. (“Do you know how much money I have to spend on kidnapping insurance?” he said at the time, despite having happily chatted with Penthouse a few months earlier about their love life.)

If it weren’t for the Mavericks’ decade-plus of winning—the permanent currency in professional sports—he might have been canceled by now. But for all of Cuban’s volatile behavior and unpredictable statements, his team has had a remarkably stable run. Head coach Rick Carlisle has been in Dallas since 2008, a longer tenure than anyone save for Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, and general manager Donnie Nelson has worked in the front office since the pre-Cuban era, when his father, Don, coached the team. JJ Barea came to the Mavericks in 2006—“I’m his boy,” Barea says of the owner. And Dirk Nowitzki, who arrived in Dallas before Cuban and lived the dream by dunking on his new owner not long after they first met, was the 7-foot face and soul of the franchise for an NBA-record 21 seasons with one team until his retirement at the end of last year.

Cuban was fortunate to dovetail with Nowitzki, the NBA’s sixth all-time-leading scorer, for as long as he did, and told Esquire that never trading him, even in the mid-aughts when many believed he should, is one of his proudest accomplishments. “We’d gotten calls for years about Dirk,” he tells me, “and you say, ‘No, Dirk’s not on the table. We’re not going to trade Dirk.’” Cuban reminisces about some other potentially big Mavericks acquisitions that never came to fruition. He was rehearsing for his stint on Dancing With the Stars when he learned that Jerry Buss had talked Bryant out of demanding a trade to the Mavericks in 2007. In 2013, Dallas thought it had Paul Pierce in a three-way deal, but the third team torpedoed it. “Every team asks every team if they’d be willing to trade their star player,” he says.

Two years ago, the stars the Mavericks had their eye on were the ones in the NBA draft. On a podcast with Julius Erving in early 2018, Cuban talked about how much he valued transparency with his players, and gave an example. He had been out to dinner with some of them, he said, and had truthfully explained that at this point in the season, “losing is our best option.” Cuban was fined $600,000 by the league for the pathologically honest comments, a small price to pay for getting exactly what he wanted. Thanks to a zag by the baffling Kings and a draft-day trade by the Mavericks, Cuban landed Luka Doncic, his second once-in-a-lifetime talent. And in his second season with the Mavericks, the beefy, breathtaking Slovenian point guard has already soared right into the league’s top echelon. He is the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer; he is averaging just shy of a triple-double; his power cannot be contained by a mere neon jersey.

Not all of the players on Cuban’s team know him as the Shark Tank guy. There are also those who have long thought of him as the refs-you-suck guy. “He was kind of the guy always on the sidelines, yelling,” recalls Mavericks guard Delon Wright. Porzingis chuckles as he thinks about Cuban. “I was probably still in Latvia,” he says. “I remember him being owner of Dallas, and all these, you know, amazing stories about what he was doing differently—and just him trash-talking the refs, and so on.” This is an accurate takeaway, and Cuban would say so too. At one point, when I ask him what he thinks his most achievable and least achievable pipe dreams are in terms of improving the NBA, he responds: “The officiating, for both.” In 2017, the referees union complained that Cuban had amassed too much influence on their careers. Lately, he’s been arguing that the retired NBA officials who help train the current crop spend too much time hanging around the NBA, when they should really be working with officials down in the G League, developing them as if they were players.

When Cuban sat in his first ownership meeting two decades ago, he was taken aback by how little discourse there was among the suits in the room, how rubber-stamp-y everything felt, and he even asked NBA commissioner David Stern whether he was allowed to speak up and ask questions. (I imagine it being a more comedic version of this.) The two would go on to be worthy adversaries; when Stern died this month, his New York Times obituary concluded with a quote from Cuban, describing the Mavericks owner as “a frequent Stern antagonist.” Since Cuban bought the Mavericks, two-thirds of the NBA’s teams have changed hands. “I’m the one that talks,” he says. “Top three.” (He won’t name the other two.) “It’s surreal,” he says. “A lot of times people ask me stuff and I’m like, ‘Why are you asking me?’”

Not that they always listen to the answer. “I’ve said it for 15, 20 years,” he says, “that playing in the Olympics is ridiculous.” To him, the Games represent money that the NBA should be capturing but isn’t. He wishes the league would build out more streamable content in the offseason, like investing in The Basketball Tournament or the Big 3. “Right?” he says. “We should have NBA content year-round, but it’s beyond the definition of stupidity that we take our best players and we let them play for the Olympics, which is a commercial event.” In Cuban’s mind, basketball should be more like soccer. “What’s a bigger event, soccer in the Olympics, or the World Cup of soccer?” he asks. “Why can’t we do the same thing?”

On the domestic front, he loves the idea of teams being reseeded 1 through 16 for the playoffs—one of several ideas the league has slowly been mulling—regardless of conference. He hates the idea of a midseason tournament, however, another proposal that has made headway in the months since we speak during preseason. “You don’t know how to align your incentives,” he says. “What are you going to get? Right? You know, well, the Mavericks would rather play for the final championship, the real championship. So, we’re not going to even play our best players.”

He thinks that NCAA basketball, as currently configured, is “ripe for disruption.” In his mind, “it’s not inconceivable that someone will come in and say to the Big Ten or the Pac-12 or whatever: ‘Here’s $1 billion a year, but you have to secede from the NCAA,’” he says. “‘And we’ll arrange everything, and we’ll deal with the TV contract, and you guys split this billion dollars a year.’” Who would have that kind of money? “It’d be a PE company that came in, right?” he says, meaning private equity.

There are more owners in the NBA today with various Cubanesque attributes than ever before, showing just how much he’s rubbed off on the league. (There is more of that sweet, sweet PE money too.) There are the Clippers’ avuncular, sweaty Steve Ballmer, with his expressive sideline reactions, and the Bucks’ Marc Lasry, who, like Cuban once did, suited up and played in the Celebrity All-Star Game. Cleveland’s Dan Gilbert writes soulful, searching missives in Comic Sans, while Washington’s Ted Leonsis blogs. The Warriors’ Joe Lacob is quite successfully obsessed with optimization, whether it has to do with 3-point shooting or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. On the wannabe end of the spectrum is the Kings’ Vivek Ranadivé, whose bold, grand cherry-picking dreams never did quite materialize. Cuban’s bombastic, combative nerd influence is not just in the ownership suites, it is everywhere around the NBA, laid out on each hyperoptimized postgame meal table organized by some specialized technonutritionist and embedded in the increasingly showy, even stage-managed online beefs between players.

Last year, Cuban was asked during an AMA on NBA Reddit what he wishes he could say to his 18-year-old self. His response was illuminating and savage. “That people will be asking you the same question over and over about what you would tell the teenage you,” he wrote. “Don’t get annoyed at them!” Between Cuban’s NBA status and his no-BS investor role on Shark Tank, he is cursed to forever be asked about precisely how he went from being the son of a car upholsterer in Pittsburgh to the owner of a pro basketball team in Texas.

As with most success stories, there both is and isn’t an explanation for Cuban’s rise. He has entrepreneurial audacity the way some people have curly hair or an aversion to cilantro. As a kid, he didn’t just go door-to-door selling garbage bags, he went door-to-door selling what was essentially a garbage bag subscription service, the better to lock in recurring profits. In college at Indiana, he didn’t just party, he raised money to purchase a bar by selling shares in the business to his peers. He was still underage at the time.

Before Cuban became a billionaire, he was but a simple millionaire: In 1990, when Cuban and a business partner sold a network software integration firm called MicroSolutions to a subsidiary of H&R Block for $6 million, Cuban, who was in his very early 30s, received around a third of the proceeds. He promptly retired, bought a lifetime pass on American Airlines, moved to Los Angeles, attempted to act—he once played a groomsman on Walker, Texas Ranger—and made a killing by day-trading years before its late-’90s frenzy. This retirement was short-lived, and before long he was back in Dallas, helping a friend start a new company, this one initially called Audionet and later Broadcast.com. (In the HBO show Silicon Valley, the winningly obnoxious character of Russ Hanneman is described as having made his vast fortune by “putting radio on the motherfucking internet,” as this venture did.) The company was started in part so that Cuban and his buddies could listen to Hoosiers basketball games from Texas.

After he became an NBA owner, Cuban made his email address public, even putting it up on the Jumbotron, and made a point of responding to anyone who emailed him. While he can no longer keep up with such volume, he is still inexplicably responsive. When I randomly emailed him one weekday morning this summer, at 7:42 a.m. his time, he wrote back at 7:46. More recently, he purchased the domain “Democracy.com” for an undisclosed sum from a dude who cold-emailed him about it; Cuban agreed with his sales pitch that such a primo URL ought to be kept out of more nefarious hands.

A few years ago, Cuban considered pursuing an even bigger role in democracy and running for president. He told TMZ’s Harvey Levin in 2017 that if he ran, it would probably be as a Republican; either way, it would be quite an idiosyncratic campaign, some mix of Bloomberg, Justin Amash, the #YangGang, and early-aughts Donald Trump. But he never did—his family ixnayed the idea, he says—and he has kept himself busy by other means. “My whole life right now,” he says, “is health care, and basketball, and artificial intelligence.”

He partnered with Andy Slavitt, a former architect of Obamacare, to collaborate on designing a new framework for the U.S. health care system, and occasionally commissions studies to compare things like the costs of procedures in the United States and Canada. (When you’re a multibillionaire and something piques your interest, not only do you get to read about it—you can pay others to write about it just for you.) He says that after military service, paying taxes is the “most patriotic thing you can do,” and added that his effective rate in 2018 was 28 percent even though “I probably could have played games” to lower it. But he wants the money used efficiently. “There’s no reason for Kate to pay for Mark Cuban’s health care,” he says, gesturing to me and to himself. “But that’s what ‘Medicare for All’ is all about.”

When we speak, he has recently been tweeting in opposition to Elizabeth Warren, her wealth tax in particular, joining some other prominent billionaires in doing so. I ask him whether the existence of billionaires represents some sort of societal failure. “There’s a certain unfairness to it,” he says, “but it’s all a question. It’s all relative, right? We’ll go back to Elizabeth Warren. Does she have an extra bedroom in her house? Why should that bedroom be empty?” When he was a scrappy yuppie back in Dallas “eating mustard-and-ketchup sandwiches” with all of those roommates, he continues, an extra bedroom sure would have been nice.

Cuban has so many ideas and so much to say, on so many subjects, that when he shuts up the silence speaks volumes. He is happy to talk at length about trading for Porzingis—“You only get a unicorn chance at a unicorn,” he says of the Latvian big man, referencing NBA vernacular for a one-of-a-kind, mythical player—and about how having a transcendent talent like Doncic gave the franchise the baseline security to deal young assets for a 7-footer who had just missed a season with a torn ACL. But when it comes to the subject of the extant accusations against Porzingis, and about how much Dallas knew, Cuban has little to add. “I can’t comment on anything, but there’s nothing I can really say,” he says when I bring it up. “That’s all in the hands of the NBA.” The NYPD told The New York Times in November that there was no update on the investigation it had opened in March

Nor is there much Cuban will say on the record about the NBA’s relationship with China. He has long pushed back against letting Chinese companies go public in the U.S., protesting that they don’t operate with enough scrutiny to be competing in our stock markets. “If you do business with China or would like to do business with China, you need to be paying attention,” he warned on Fox Business in late September. But that was before Rockets GM Daryl Morey launched an international incident with his support of protests in Hong Kong.

“You’ve never heard me talk about any foreign countries’ domestic policies,” he insists. “If a foreign country’s policies impact Americans, in this case investors, I’ve never hesitated to say anything.” No one ever grills him about Turkey, he says, despite the fact that NBA player Enes Kanter’s father is going on trial; why should China be any different? Cuban has spoken strongly in the past about NFL players’ right to protest, telling The Washington Post that “I’m glad the NBA doesn’t have a politician litmus test for our players.” I point that out to him, asking whether the league’s lack of discourse regarding China and Hong Kong might be viewed this way. “It’s just totally different,” he insists. “One is about your neighbors. Just night-and-day difference.”

It’s maybe understandable that Cuban doesn’t want to rock the boat on international waters. And I can grasp why he can’t say much about Porzingis, who has not been charged with a crime and whose representatives have argued that the claims against him are extortion. But it’s tougher to excuse what he has—or doesn’t have—to say about his organization’s response to the disturbing 2018 Sports Illustrated sexual harassment report or to a subsequent independent investigation overseen by the league.

When Cuban was told by the league during his first year that he couldn’t sit with the equipment staff on the ground during games, he protested that he was connecting with his workers, and that “you wouldn’t ask somebody to do a job that you won’t do as an owner.” (He also compared eavesdropping on the players huddle to sitting in on a sales meeting.) And he tells me a story about the attention he pays to on-court intricacies: In 2012, when Vince Carter played for the Mavericks, “I remember sitting, going through all the data,” Cuban says, “and realizing that Vince shot a higher percentage 2 feet behind the 3-point line than he did right at the 3-point line, and Dirk the same thing. And we started looking at it and it was obvious, because no one guards you back there back then, right?” All the Mavericks practice courts now have an additional line, in tape, about 2 feet behind the 3-point line, and during games Doncic and Porzingis can often be seen taking and making these extremely long shots, spreading the floor all the while.

In other words, Cuban is a proud meddler. So it stands out that he claimed to be blindsided by the accusations made about people who occupied positions of power within the organization. At one point in our conversation, discussing his theories about artificial intelligence and privacy, Cuban is confident, maybe even a tad smug, as he explains that there are two kinds of businesses: those that have been hacked, and those that have been hacked but just don’t know it. This is true, but imagine if that same understanding of the interplay between malice and structural vulnerability had been applied to Mavericks employees.

I ask what the organization has done to improve, as Cuban pledged it would during his apology tour, and he gushes that the team’s new CEO, Cynthia Marshall, “changed the culture, she changed everything about the team.” But when I try to get him to elaborate on what some of the changes have been, he just repeats “everything” and adds that “people love working here, that’s the barometer,” a response that feels particularly vague coming from a guy who typically traffics in outspoken specifics. Cuban is someone who is notoriously impervious to bullshit on Shark Tank and who explains to me that he can’t watch the Democratic debates because “I know the difference when they’re just selling versus when they’re trying to deliver a solution.” In conjunction with the league, Cuban agreed to donate to “organizations that are committed to supporting the leadership and development of women in the sports industry and combating domestic violence.” The amount, $10 million, was four times what the league was allowed to fine him outright, and about a quarter of a percent of his net worth.

“If there was a template for building a champion,” Cuban says as he sits in his bunker during preseason, “everybody would use it, right? And there’s only been what now? Ten teams that have won championships in the past 25 years or whatever? So, you know, it’s just not easy.” The truth is actually more extreme than that: There have been just 11 different NBA champions in the past 36 years, dating back to 1984, one of them being the 2011 Mavericks, nearly a decade ago. There might be a template, however, for rebuilding the Dallas Mavericks: Get yourself a large European man, like Nowitzki or Doncic, and shape the team around him. “Once we realized what we have with Luka,” Cuban says, “we felt we weren’t going to be a bad team.”

This prediction, so far, has been going mostly right. The team’s supporting cast has thrived, from Kleber to the under-the-radar Dorian Finney-Smith to the sweet-shooting Tim Hardaway Jr., who arrived in the Porzingis trade. As for Porzingis, he is averaging 17 points and returned Tuesday after missing 10 games following platelet-rich plasma injections in his sore right knee. And Doncic is a player you plan your day around watching—a guy you will say you saw back when. He has been so good this season that he hasn’t even accelerated the Mavericks’ rebuilding timeline so much as he has obviated it.

Later that night in October in Dallas, before tipoff, I am standing in the American Airlines Center basement hallway, FaceTiming with my family back home, when Cuban, who has been on the court shooting baskets before the game, suddenly appears and sticks his sweaty face in front of my phone, smiling and waving at my confused husband and kids before jogging merrily on. He can be childlike himself: innovative and immature, quirky and curious, and most of the time that’s a good thing, except for the times when it is not. Regardless, it’s a persona that the league itself has come to embrace in many ways, this mix of bullheadedness and whimsy, of authenticity and affectation, of self-involvement and self-promotion.

The AAC’s lease runs through 2031, but Cuban owns 13 acres across the highway, where he might build a new arena one day and frog-leap once again into the future. He talks about how artificial intelligence, one of those three obsessions, could play into a new-age fan experience: “I think using facial recognition will change things,” he tells me. “I think 5G will change things.” Maybe there will be an Alexa in your armrest. “If it’s OK with you,” Cuban says, “we’ll know more about you.” Isn’t that a bad thing? “I think people always choose convenience over privacy,” he says. And speaking in early January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Cuban remained passionate. “If you don’t know AI,” he told the audience, “you’re the equivalent of somebody in 1999 saying: ‘I’m sure this internet thing will be OK, but I don’t give a shit.’” He gave an example of how he has incorporated all of this into his own life.

At home, he said, he has his Alexa set up so that if he asks it about his son Jacob, it responds: “Jacob Cuban is also known as the fart master.” One of the most influential people in the NBA is just a fart-master-programmer at heart. But he has a broader perspective than he once did. In an interview last February at a Goldman Sachs event, Cuban chatted about Doncic, his most prized player, the guy who could bring Dallas deep into the postseason for years to come, the walking, dishing championship template. Like the Mavericks owner, Doncic has three big priorities, although only one overlaps. “He does three things in life,” Cuban said. “Eats, plays basketball, and plays Fortnite. I have to struggle with him to keep those priorities ordered correctly.” Maybe they’ll grow up together.

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