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Mark Cuban’s Forever War With NBA Officiating

The Mavericks owner has racked up more than $2 million in fines in 20 years—and with a $500,000 penalty on Friday, he shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Here is a look at his most audacious fines over the years.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Mark Cuban knows the rules. “The [NBA’s] policy is to fine anyone who criticizes the officiating,” he said in 2000. It was his first year as owner of the Mavericks, and Cuban had received his first two fines from the NBA for arguing with referees. “I knew that before I said anything. But it still doesn’t address the issue.”

If you ask Cuban, the issue still hasn’t been addressed, 20 years and more than $2 million in fines later. On February 22, he lashed out on Twitter after Dallas lost to Atlanta, 111-107, chastising his usual black-and-white-striped targets. Cuban was irate after a messy goaltending call gone wrong: John Collins scored on a putback following Trae Young’s layup attempt; the crew called goaltending on Delon Wright, then overturned the call; they called the whistle inadvertent and ruled Collins’s putback legitimate.

Cuban sent a barrage of tweets, including a condemnation of the referee pipeline:

On Friday, the NBA finally dropped the hammer on Cuban—again. The league fined the Mavericks owner $500,000 for his comments and refused the Mavericks’ petition to replay the final seconds of that game, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

This outburst isn’t new. While Cuban has been relatively quiet since donating $10 million in 2018 to charity following a league investigation that found multiple instances of sexual misconduct in the Mavericks organization in the 20 years that Cuban has been in charge (while not technically a fine, both sides agreed to the donation since the NBA would’ve been allowed to fine him a maximum of only $2.5 million), it was only a matter of time before he returned to beefing with the officials. Cuban’s 20 years as the owner of the Mavericks are dense with such outbursts. That first fine in November 2000 was followed by another two, all spread out over eight days. Cuban has always been an obsessive fan with a platform and a bank account, and his war with the league is now entering its third decade. Here are some highlights—sorted into categories of various audacity—from Cuban’s long war against the NBA’s officiating:

Speaking His Truth

January 4, 2001: $250,000

On Cuban’s first anniversary of buying the Mavs, he was handed the largest fine for an individual in NBA history. We learned who he was during that first year: a rambunctious Texas transplant who wore blue jeans in lieu of suits and got his hands dirtier than anyone ever asked him to. A pioneer for the tech bro owners to come. At the one-year mark, Cuban had already amassed four fines, totaling $295,000.

He owned the place and he knew it: Cuban had rushed the court various times to yell at officials, to gyrate in celebration, to embrace his players (who he thought of as friends), and to yell at officials even more. After falling to the Pistons in early January 2001, Cuban ordered arena employees to replay a specific possession on the Jumbotron—he thought the referees had missed a goaltending call—and to freeze the frame for the photographers on the court, whom he encouraged to take pictures. (Fun fact: The league instituted instant replay two seasons later.)

“The refs were pitiful tonight and I don’t care if I get fined,” Cuban said after the Jumbotron outburst. He reversed his stance a couple of weeks later. “I took the wrong approach; I’m the first to admit it.” (Chronologically untrue, since the league already said he was wrong by slapping him with a $250,000 fine.)

May 10, 2006: $200,000

John Updike wrote in his memoir that “writing, in making the world light—in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing it—approaches blasphemy.” Cuban has a personal blog called Blog Maverick: The Mark Cuban Weblog. For him, writing about NBA refs—in codifying, distorting, prettifying, verbalizing how fucking awful he thinks they are—exposes blasphemy. On May 7, 2006, Cuban published a post titled “How to improve NBA Playoff Officiating.” He suggested that the league rank its officials and seed them to determine who gets to work the playoffs. I liked the kicker: “Anything less cheats us all.” Classic, seals the point, stays with you.

He was fined $100,000 for the post, and another $100,000 on the same day for complaining during a Spurs game. But that didn’t stop him from publishing another blog in response to the fine, this one headlined “I’m a Whiner.” It details how he had whined throughout his life to make change for the better. Here’s a nugget: “When I was [in] high school, I whined about not being able to take business classes when I was a junior (they were only available to seniors), so I took classes at the University of Pittsburgh instead.” Seems like the kind of guy who answers the question, “What’s your biggest weakness?” in a job interview with, “I care too much,” or, “I work too hard.”

Can I make this about myself for a minute? I went through hundreds of posts on Blog Maverick: The Mark Cuban Weblog to find the one that got Cuban fined. (Blog Maverick isn’t Google-friendly. The comments are also turned off.) Here were some highlights on the long road to his 2006 rant:

  • Win loss by officials…,” where Cuban tracks the Mavericks’ win-loss record by each official.
  • An NBA Fun Fact,” where Cuban lays out how many different lineups each team has used. I was hoping for a Wilt Chamberlain story or something, but whatever. Analytics.
  • Here is a surprise for you …,” where Cuban says he voted for George W. Bush twice.
  • This is my blog, so what the hell…,” where Cuban writes, “One of the beautiful things of having a blog, is just that, it’s my blog.”
  • I Forgot How to Write!,” which I actually found quite relatable: “I realized that actually writing each letter as part of a complete word was actually difficult.”

Cuban last updated the blog in July 2019.

February 21, 2018: $600,000

On Julius Erving’s podcast, House Call With Dr. J, Cuban said that the Mavericks were tanking. Or that he had asked them to.

“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but, like, I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night, and here we are, you know, we weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option. [Commissioner] Adam [Silver] would hate hearing that, but I at least sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans were going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again. This was, like, a year-and-a-half tanking, and that was too brutal for me. But being transparent, I think that’s the key to being kind of a players owner and having stability.”

A few things to note here:

  • If you have to preface something with, “I’m probably not supposed to say this,” just don’t say it.
  • Dirk Nowitzki, the reason Cuban has a ring, tried to save face: “You don’t really want a culture here that’s just giving up and quitting and not playing hard,” he said. “I think it just sets the wrong tone for the future.”
  • The NBA messed up, too, because it didn’t fine Cuban the year before, when he basically said the same thing on the Dan Patrick Show:

July 16, 2019: $50,000

This time, Cuban was fined for leaking information during a Board of Governors meeting. (You want to talk about range—let’s talk about how he was still finding new ways to get in trouble 19 years in the game.) During the meeting, Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé grew suspicious that someone inside the room was feeding information to a reporter. The owners were discussing a rule change—whether to implement coaching challenges.

Ranadivé expressed his concern. Cuban came clean without hesitation. That readiness to admit he’s behind certain forms of chaos seems like something Cuban enjoys. It was all incredibly meta: ESPN’s sources told them that Cuban was fined because he was a source for a reporter.

Heat-of-the-Moment Fines

February 16, 2001: $10,000 and a two-game suspension

There are layers to what happened after the Mavs-Cavs game on February 15, 2001. Cuban was ultimately fined for running onto the court to break up a fight between players from the Mavs and the Cavaliers. They were fighting because Cleveland’s Wesley Person knocked down Gary Trent. Person knocked down Trent because Trent shot the ball with 3.3 seconds left in an already-decided game. (The final score was 102-81, Dallas.) Trent shot the ball in an already-decided game because the fans in Reunion Arena would get coupons for 99-cent chalupas if the Mavs reached 100 points.

“It’s bigger than chalupas,” Person said, four words that were by far the greatest contribution he made to NBA history. “Their coach called a play with 10 seconds left in a 20-point game. That’s disrespect.”

Cuban would go on to have a hilarious history of mingling with his players, so the fact that he tried to defend them in a fight isn’t that big of a surprise. (He’s always tried to be the owner version of a players’ coach—the night before he bought the franchise, Cuban approached Dirk and Steve Nash at a nightclub in Dallas, and asked whether he could buy them drinks. Neither had any idea who he was. Cuban told the story in 2017: “[Nowitzki] said, ‘No, that’s OK.’ Nash rolled his eyes and they walked away. Then they saw me the next day and everybody was like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’”)

April 13, 2001: $100,000

Cuban made a choking gesture to referees after a loss to the Suns. Kind of derivative.

January 16, 2009: $25,000

Yet another yelling story; this time, the obscenities were directed at J.R. Smith. In a game against the Nuggets, Cuban rushed onto the floor at halftime to accuse Smith of throwing an elbow in Antoine Wright’s direction. Cuban directed some trash talk in the referees’ direction too, and later asked the NBA to suspend Smith. The league fined Cuban, instead. The events inspired another blog post, “Me and JR Smith:”

“The NBA tells me a tech should have been called on you for throwing the elbow,” Cuban wrote, “and that I should pay a 25k dollar fine because owners aren’t supposed to get mad. Ever.”

He signed it “bff m” for best friends forever, Mark.

Snarky … but Medium-Hot

January 8, 2002: $500,000

Cuban was incensed with officials after the Mavs lost to the Spurs. He believed that several calls had been botched, including multiple missed travel violations by Tim Duncan. After the game, Cuban said that Ed Rush, the lead official, “might have been a great ref, but I wouldn’t hire him to manage a Dairy Queen. His interest is not in the integrity of the game or improving the officiating.”

The $500,000 fine was the largest for a single person at that time. (Cuban broke his own record from the year before; he’d go on to break it again.) He’d been an owner for two years, and was already the loudest critic of NBA referees. Cuban is a blend of deranged mad king and tech bro, emulating the authority of ancient rulers and the innovation of Silicon Valley, and pulling the best from each: He hired a “statistics expert” that season to track results from specific referees. As aforementioned, he’d write many a blog about it. “I can’t tell you how I do it,” Cuban said. “I got someone I trust, and I pay him a lot of money.”

Relatively Innocent Infractions

January 18, 2014: $100,000

It reads like your everyday Cuban fine: Penalized $100,000 for “confronting the game officials on the court after the conclusion of the game and directing inappropriate language.” But this one was a joke that Cuban was playing on commissioner David Stern—something you can do when your net worth is over $4 billion. Stern was stepping down that February. To send him off, Cuban told reporters, he was going to draw one last fine. “We talk about it all the time. I’m going to have one final fine before he leaves.”

“I know he is trying,” said Stern, who had already issued Cuban over $1.8 million in fines, “but our muffin fund coffers are overflowing.”

January 11, 2001: $100,000

Cuban wanted to get to know his employees better in his first season as owner, so he sat with the equipment people on the baseline during a game against Minnesota. But the league disapproved. “I was trying to still get to know everybody,” Cuban said. “My attitude has always been to do whatever you can to connect. You wouldn’t ask somebody to do a job that you won’t do as an owner.” The NBA ruled that the action was “decorum not becoming of an NBA owner.”

May 22, 2010: $100,000

Cuban lasted a decade before incurring his first tampering fine. It’s remarkable considering (a) how blatantly he breaks rules, (b) how freely he speaks, and (c) how desperately he wants to recruit players. (See the DeAndre Jordan debacle in 2015.) In an interview with CNNMoney.com, Cuban foamed over the idea of poaching LeBron. “Come July 1st, yeah, of course, anybody would be interested in LeBron James. And if he leaves via free agency, then it’s going to be tough. If he does like I’m guessing, hoping he will, which is say, ‘I’m not going to leave the Cavs high and dry,’ if he decides to leave—there’s still a better chance he stays—then he’ll try to force a sign-and-trade and that gives us a chance.”

Dallas never had a chance. Which I can say, because this is my blog, so what the hell …