Derek Fisher crouches in an ineffective defensive stance (Ronald Martinez/ Getty).
The Dallas Mavericks are not particularly big fans of Derek Fisher these days. In December, owner Mark Cuban agreed to release Fisher following a short stint with the club so that he could rehabilitate his injured knee and focus on a major NBPA power struggle — it was in many ways a personal favor. Then, as soon as Fisher dealt with those situations, he signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder without giving the Mavericks any advance warning or the chance to bring him back. According to reports, Cuban felt aggrieved at the personal slight, for understandable reasons.
On Sunday, Fisher returned to Dallas for the first time as a member of the Thunder. Instead of voicing his opinions in private, Cuban made them very well known and encouraged fans to do the same. From Tim MacMahon for ESPNDallas.com:
"I'll just boo him like hopefully everybody else," Cuban said before the game.
Mavericks fans were on board, too. They booed Fisher when he entered the game with 1:45 left. They then cheered loudly 10 seconds later when the reserve guard was called for his first foul in Oklahoma City's eventual 107-101 win.
After Fisher signed with the Thunder, Cuban reacted with sarcasm, mockingly saying that Fisher's kids had grown up a lot in 65 days and that it was much easier to fly in and out of Oklahoma City than Dallas. On Sunday night, Cuban directly questioned Fisher's integrity. "I took the bait," Cuban said.
Cuban said he was particularly perturbed by Fisher's decision to join a contender after quitting on the Mavs because the five-time NBA champion repeatedly reached out to Cuban when Fisher was unemployed at the beginning of the season. He said he offered Fisher personal advice and fell for the point guard's pitch, prompting the Mavs to sign him.
"My personality is to try to help somebody, particularly somebody that I thought one thing about, even if it didn't turn out to be that way," Cuban said. "So I was just trying to be nice and help. Usually when you help somebody, you expect at least some semblance of loyalty back. When you don't get it, then it's more disappointing.
"With his history, I shouldn't have been surprised what happened."
Cuban's "history" comment refers to the fact that Fisher requested and received his release two previous times in the past six years, although those incidents were not particularly controversial.
The first came in 2007, after his baby daughter was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer, when Fisher asked to have his contract with the Utah Jazz (and its remaining $8 million) nullified so that he could become a free agent and sign with a team in a city with the appropriate medical specialists. While he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers that summer and earned a trip to the NBA Finals the following June, Fisher chose L.A. at a time when the franchise when Kobe Bryant had demanded a trade and Pau Gasol had yet to suit up in purple and gold. The second buyout occurred at the 2012 trade deadline when Fisher was dealt from the Lakers to the Houston Rockets, but there's no indication that Daryl Morey and Co. were particularly upset to see him sign up with the Thunder.
Yet, even if Cuban's take on Fisher's history is uncharitable, he has very good reasons for being upset. As our Kelly Dwyer noted in Feburary, the Mavericks did Fisher a favor when they released him, and it's natural to think that act earned them a heads-up if and when he decided to return to the NBA. On top of that, Fisher has noted that he wants to usher in a new era of openness and transparency in his role as NBPA president, and this is most certainly not an example of practicing what he has preached.
It can be unnerving any time an NBA owner claims disloyalty on the part of an employee; after all, these are the same people who regularly release players with little warning. However, a contradiction doesn't change the reasonable belief that business dealings should contain a modicum of human decency, no matter how cutthroat an industry tends to be.
This is also not the first time that Cuban has expressed distaste at a player failing to apprise the team of a decision before signing with a competitor — last summer, Cuban refused to consider retiring Jason Kidd's jersey after the way he bolted for the New York Knicks. There's a pattern here, which means it's possible that Cuban makes it clear to his employees that he expects a certain level of respect. He deserves it, too, because he signs the checks and typically puts players in a position to succeed. He seems to be a good boss.
Nevertheless, it's worth considering if Cuban crossed the line by encouraging fans to boo an opposing player. His personal booing isn't a big surprise — Cuban has always been more like a fan than an owner in his courtside seats.
Yet that passion doesn't change the fact that he's an owner, and therefore a member of a group with an obligation to look out for the good of the NBA as an organization. Telling fans to get as upset as possible at a player can be seen as its own breach of professionalism, one that could mark the Mavericks out as a team (and, by slippery-slope extension, the NBA as an organization) that turns on its players as soon as they leave town. That's a dangerous cognitive leap to make, but it's not as if the league isn't incredibly protective of its image. Why do you think David Stern fines Cuban any time he criticizes the referees? Is it because he's factually incorrect, or because it makes the NBA look bad?
I don't mean to suggest that Cuban's anger towards Fisher is fundamentally misguided — I actually think it's pretty darn principled. But the dilemma here goes well beyond an issue of basic kindness. The NBA relies on qualities like sportsmanship, passion, and various other principles and emotions to drive and maintain interest in its product. Yet, as a gigantic corporation with global reach, it ultimately can't let those ideals infringe upon its ability to 1) survive and 2) make money.
It's possible to argue that Cuban was wrong simply because he encouraged enmity towards a fellow competitor — two negatives don't add up to a positive. However, if the argument is that Cuban went too far in his role as an owner, it's worth wondering if he really did something truly wrong in calling out Fisher or just broke with decorum. Your answer will probably depend on what you consider the true interests of the NBA to be.
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