When NBA owners chose the Minnesota Timberwolves Glen Taylor as the chairman of their Board of Governors, the hypocrisy inspired no public outcry. No notice that a mastermind of what the commissioner had called “one of the farthest-reaching frauds I’ve ever seen” had gone from betraying his peers to presiding over them.
Taylor had sanctioned free agent Joe Smith’s secret side deal eight years ago, a clandestine contract that would cost the Wolves three future first-round draft picks and a $3.5 million fine. Taylor didn’t just show his dishonesty by cheating on the salary cap, but his incompetence for doing so with a player whose talent never justified the risk.
The owners cheered David Stern’s harsh punishment. They condemned Taylor as a crook. And then, three weeks ago, Stern would celebrate Taylor’s choice as chairman with a you-have-to-be-kidding declaration that his selection would “ensure the same high standards” of his predecessor.
This is how it goes in the NBA, where rogue owner behavior isn’t just tolerated, it’s rewarded. Now, the Security and Exchange Commission is charging Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with insider trading. He’s denying it. He swears it isn’t true and promises he’ll prove it. And remember: So far, this is a civil case and there's a good chance that it will never rise to a criminal allegation.
For now, Cuban is threatening to become one more cautionary tale of greed and carelessness in the NBA. He’s probably lost his chance to buy the Chicago Cubs. And unless he’s cleared, he’s lost his moral authority on a lot of issues. He’s been a strident, but important voice for the NBA. Even when you didn’t agree, the league has always been better for his challenges of conventional wisdom.
Yet today, we are back to this: For a league whose black players are judged as harshly as any athletes in any sport, the NBA has been run by owners whose bad behavior and bad judgments are too seldom scolded.
Feel free to start anywhere.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ Donald Sterling isn’t just notorious for trying to cheat his fired coaches out of owed money, but has had to pay millions in housing discrimination settlements. Apparently he didn’t mind black players on his team, as much as he did living in his apartments. His 2003 deposition in a sex-for-pay case? It’s the stuff of thesmokinggun.com legend.
There’s the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jerry Buss and his DUI, the New York Knicks’ Jim Dolan bumbling Isiah Thomas’ sexual harassment case and Oklahoma City’s Clay Bennett and his partners getting exposed as fibbing carpetbaggers in Seattle with big mouths and brazen emails. There are the endless court cases for control of the Atlanta Hawks and dysfunctional ownership-management power struggles in Golden State and Denver and pure incompetence in Charlotte and Memphis. There are so fewer and fewer models to emulate.
The most insufferable owner has to be New Orleans’ George Shinn, who should’ve learned a lesson about humility after his phony holier-than-thou Christian facade was obliterated with that Hornets cheerleader affair and a disturbing kidnapping-sexual assault case in Charlotte. He won the case, but the residue destroyed pro basketball there.
These days, Shinn runs around the city perpetuating the myth that he was the one man who never wanted to desert a post-Katrina New Orleans for Oklahoma City. It’s beyond make-believe, it’s a downright lie. He wanted out of New Orleans in the worst way, and the league pushed him hard to return and make a go of it. In the end, Chris Paul saved the NBA in New Orleans. Not Shinn.
No one blames Shinn for having his doubts about returning from that Oklahoma City love-in last year, but it makes people ill to witness the way that he glorifies himself as the man who refused to give up on that city. He even suggests that players told him they wouldn’t return, only to be met with threats by Shinn that they’d be traded. Let him produce the list of names because no one believes that happened. Whatever his players were saying about returning to New Orleans, they were following the owner’s lead. The NBA made him go back, not his conscience. He’s no martyr. He’s an opportunist.
Yet, the NBA doesn’t air-brush Shinn’s past, just Allen Iverson’s tattoos. The league indulges so much time in tsk-tsking bad behavior of its players – real and imagined – that it constantly glosses over the truth of too much of its ownership. In a lot of ways, the NBA is one big, dysfunctional lot.
Cuban happens to be one of the owners responsible for so much good, so much change, in the sport. He saved his franchise, the way that Sterling and Shinn and Taylor destroyed their own. Until he beats the government rap, though, Cuban is one more scar for the sport. He’s had a lot of great ideas, a lot of great results.
Whatever happens, Cuban will probably be welcomed back with open arms to the NBA. After all, these guys voted unanimously to select Glen Taylor as chairman of the Board of Governors. They just air-brush history and make believe it never happened.
For now, the owners will just keep toughening those dress codes and raising draft age limits. Along the way, they will keep insisting that all the trouble is beneath the bright lights on the court, when the truth is that so much of it lurks in the shadows of the owner’s suites.