DALLAS – Here was Mark Cuban on his StairMaster, legs churning, sweat dripping to the carpet. With the exercise room empty now and the start of the Dallas Mavericks’ season an hour and a half away, basketball's best and brightest owner pushed harder and harder on the machine, climbing a mountain of rage.
David Stern's email had come on Thursday morning and The Cuban Rule had been declared NBA law. No more hanging in the team huddle, no more intimate game-night moments with his basketball team. The Board of Governors had conspired with Stern to send the Mavs owner back into the stands and back to his seat. Here on the StairMaster, on opening night at the American Airlines Center, you were waiting for the old Cuban to let loose on the commissioner and his cronies.
"I can't do anymore than be their friend now," Cuban said to Yahoo! Sports.
This was new.
"They guided me to see the error of my ways and now with David I have someone to learn from, someone to absorb knowledge from.
"I have a new aspiration beyond winning a title in the NBA: That's to fit in and be like everybody else."
Cuban kept pumping those legs and kept talking about falling into line, about conforming into that bland, boring box of his brethren. He kept saying he was serious, but his sweaty smirk kept giving him away. The Cuban-Stern feud has escalated again – the Mavericks owner and NBA commissioner rapidly becoming this generation's Al Davis and Pete Rozelle.
Together, the commissioner and owners have made this profoundly personal with Cuban.
"Back when I was error-full in my ways, I thought it was necessary [to go into the huddle] to get a feel for how the coach and the players interacted. It worked for me in business, but I've learned it's not relevant here. I can't be thankful enough for how the league has helped me become a better manager and a better owner.
"Now I can be like everybody else."
He didn't go to the Board of Governors meeting in New York last week, because he knew this issue was on the agenda. In some ways, they've worn him down. He doesn't want to fight anymore. Mostly though, Cuban sounds like he thinks most of these owners are back-stabbers, petty phonies trying to mess with him.
In the past, many of them invited Cuban to come speak to sales groups, and Speakers Series and do Q&As with key people when he hit town with the Mavs. He turned down $25,000 speaking engagements in those cities to do these gratis, he said. He thought it was in the spirit of NBA cooperation. What's more, they solicited his thoughts on selling tickets and marketing, forever probing to borrow a little of the genius that made the once-moribund Dallas franchise an NBA phenomenon.
"Despite [our] sellout streak – the second longest in the NBA – there's an incredible amount for me to learn on how to market the NBA and our product," Cuban said. "Now, I'm going to school at the University of David Stern to learn."
Cuban was smiling now, fighting back a laugh, because he knows anything would get him fined and he's tired of sending those checks to New York. Ultimately, the Mavs are the ideal business model in the sport, a young team that came within two victories of the NBA title in June. So, I asked Cuban if he could imagine a circumstance where his Mavericks would win a championship, maybe two, and he would feel like he had conquered the NBA – in both business and basketball – and sell the Mavericks. By then, maybe he would want to find another frontier for himself.
"The old Mark might have thought that way," he said. "Not the new Mark. In the past, the old Mark would've said maybe a conflict with the NBA would've led me to selling, but the new Mark knows that learning from the best will help all my other business endeavors. Selling the team would be ridiculous when I'm surrounded by so many brilliant minds."
"I want to be in better position to take notes so I bought a lot of legal pads, bought a really cool pen."
Cuban promised that he won't just stay out of the huddle, but that he'll stay out of the referees' ears, too. "If I have the old urge to yell at the officials," he said, "I'll just write it all in a diary at the end of the day."
Listen, Cuban isn't perfect, but his flaws are forever in the spirit of trying, of caring, which is more than you can say for a lot of the mummies owning teams in the league. Bruce Ratner bought the Nets to cut a real estate deal in Brooklyn. He wouldn't know a basketball if Cuban threw it upside his head. What Cuban has done with the Mavericks is unprecedented in the sport, a business and basketball restoration born of a mind that forever rails in the face of conventional thinking.
Although Cuban campaigned for Stern to let him travel to New York for a "Take Mark to work day" at Olympic Tower headquarters, where Cuban could "just follow (Stern), shadow him for a day," his message was unmistakable: He thinks targeting him with this rule was out of line, a bunch of garbage.
"They obviously thought that I had a greater impact than they did," he said.
What bothers Cuban most of all, though, is that this rule infringes on the way he evaluates his personnel, the way he runs his business.
"I don't think Avery (Johnson) would be coach if this rule had been enacted several years ago," he said. "Because I got to see Avery interact with the guys. I got to see how all the players responded in the huddle. I won't have that opportunity now. But just like all the other owners, I'll just have to trust my basketball instincts."
Cuban says he wrote Stern an email on Thursday, essentially promising to bend to the will of the commissioner's office. Finally, Cuban said, "David's won," but it was just opening night in Dallas, just a 97-91 loss to the Spurs to start the long road back to the NBA finals.
Yes, David Stern and his boys chased him out of the huddle. Deep down still, Mark Cuban had to be hoping that maybe in June, when the commissioner passes him that championship trophy, that he'll be able to hold it in the air, hold it up to all of the NBA, and thank them.