Over his nearly 30 years as NBA commissioner, David Stern has butted heads with many rivals, from executives in other sports to various representatives of the NBPA during work stoppages. However, there's no question who has been his most public antagonist since 2000. On January 4 of that year, Mark Cuban became the majority owner of the Dallas Mavericks and immediately began to challenge the league's status quo and complain about referees at seemingly every opportunity. Over his time with the Mavs, Cuban has amassed close to $2 million in fines from the league and often appears to enjoy being a bad boy in comparison to the 29 other owners. It's no great secret why all this might annoy Stern, a man focused on maintaining the NBA's image.
It's somewhat of a surprise, then, to hear Cuban speak so fondly of Stern's impact on professional basketball, even with the commissioner set to retire in February. Yet that's exactly what he did Tuesday in an NBA TV interview with Ernie Johnson, Chris Webber, and Greg Anthony (apparently conducted after Cuban had been to the gym). Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com has the relevant quotes:
"I love David," Cuban said during a Tuesday interview on NBA TV. "I mean, David and I have banged heads a couple times, [but] the truth be told, David Stern made me. Nobody knew who Mark Cuban was until he started fining the hell out of me and sent me to work at Dairy Queen. So he made my job of selling tickets a lot easier."
"David took us internationally. Even when I came in, I wasn't a big proponent of international, and David was there. David was a big proponent of digital -- the Internet -- [and] I remember sitting down talking to him. Even before I bought the team [in Jan. 2000], he invited me in to talk about streaming and the Internet. I helped him set up his first Twitter account. He was always open-minded about expanding into new areas and you really have to respect that."
"Despite the fact that we disagreed on a lot of things, we really agreed on far more. I'll miss him. I really like David." [...]
Cuban occasionally wore a "David Stern University" T-shirt during the 2006-07 season, particularly when he made national TV appearances. He said recently he still has the T-shirt and plans to wear it on Stern's final day in office. A laughing Cuban also said he's determined to be assessed the final fine of Stern's tenure.
Cuban has clearly found some joy in needling Stern and the league executives he oversees, but it's clear that he owes the man for helping to cultivate his public image. The 2002 Dairy Queen incident, for instance, involved Cuban taking up the company's offer to work at a location for a day after he said NBA director of officiating Ed Rush wasn't fit to serve as its manager. If not for Stern issuing a record $500,000 fine for the comments, it's likely that Cuban wouldn't have achieved such widespread attention then and after similarly lofty fines in the future. Every time Stern has punished Cuban, it's made the owner look more outspoken.
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Apart from that more transactional relationship, though, it's clear that Stern and Cuban share similar goals for the NBA. While Cuban's comments about officiating relate in some way to his desire to see the Mavericks win every game, that bias doesn't change the fact that he also sees this subpar officiating as an image problem that hurts the league's ability to reach new fans. At root, he wants to grow the NBA as a business and see a greater return on his investment — the same things Stern wants as the organization's top executive and representative of all 30 member teams. When they argue, it's because they disagree about the best way to reach those ends. We should take Cuban at his word when he praises Stern for seeking out new ventures and building a global market for basketball, because those developments figure to improve the Mavericks' bottom line.
It's not surprising that some form of affection (or even friendship) would arise from this business partnership, and not just because both men love basketball. If Cuban intentionally rankles the NBA to cement his place in history as the target of Stern's final fine as commissioner, it won't be just because he wants the attention. For these two men, the best way to bid a fond farewell is with one final exchange of basketball-related money. It's the process that informs their relationship, through sickness and health, until retirement do them part.
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