Mark Cuban did not play a minute of Game 7 on Monday night. But he was on the court in San Antonio and in the visitors' locker room after the Dallas Mavericks' overtime victory unseated the defending champion Spurs, high-fiving and celebrating like the super-fan he is. Except that Cuban is also the 47-year-old owner of the Mavericks, the innovator behind the franchise's turnaround.
Cuban is part P.T. Barnum, part pot-stirrer, part maverick billionaire. He knows a rivalry when he promotes one, and even if this Mavericks-Spurs instant classic needed no prodding, Cuban was playing his marketing game every day of the series.
"I have never seen or felt anything like that in my entire life," Cuban posted on his blog Tuesday. His words were no hyperbole; they were echoed by Spurs and Mavericks players alike.
The Texas shootout featured six of seven games decided in the final seconds. The Mavericks won the one blowout -- Game 2 -- the two overtime games and one other game by a point.
The Mavericks' euphoria in finally overcoming the Spurs lasted only until Tuesday afternoon's practice. Dallas prepared to play the Phoenix Suns at home Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. The Suns beat the Los Angeles Clippers, 127-107, in Game 7 of their semifinal series Monday night behind Shawn Marion's 30 points and nine rebounds.
This is only the second time Dallas will play for a trip to the NBA finals. In 2003, the Spurs beat the Mavericks in six games. This time, with Dirk Nowitzki leading on the court and Avery Johnson leading on the sideline, the Mavericks had better defense, better depth, fresher legs and a seemingly stronger mind-set than their intrastate rivals.
Cuban has been working just as hard, in his own way. After Game 1, he ran onto the court in frustration over the referees' performance. Then he criticized the selection of playoff referees on his blog. He drew a US$200,000 fine from the NBA for both actions.
After Game 5, he offered a stalwart defense of Jason Terry's below-the-belt punch against Michael Finley (Terry served a one-game suspension), then deflected some of the attention by demeaning San Antonio's Riverwalk and by calling Tim Duncan a crybaby. He also sent film to the NBA on a perceived no-call on the Spurs' Bruce Bowen on the Terry play. After the Mavericks lost Game 6, he yelled a two-word curse at Bowen.
"It's not taunting," Commissioner David Stern said Monday with a smile. "It's just bad taste." Stern was asked how he felt about Cuban's insult of San Antonio. "That's fine," he said. "I grew up with Phil Jackson saying things about other cities or Pat Riley. Usually the owners don't, but Mark is a little different."
"Nobody understands the genius of marketing better than Mark does," said the Mavericks' president, Donnie Nelson. "What separates Mark is that he's not afraid to be a fan, to show emotion and roll up his sleeves. He's the everyman's owner out there, as long as everyman is not from San Antonio."
Cuban, also the owner of HDNet and a film producer, was signing autographs beside the court and bantering with Spurs fans before Game 7, his publicity having a purpose.
"It's supposed to be fun," Cuban said earlier in the series. "This is entertainment."
In the six years he has owned the team, Cuban has transformed the Mavericks from a laughingstock to a respected winner. He revolutionized the way teams recruit free agents, equipping locker rooms with the latest in furnishings and technology. According to Nelson, Cuban improved the technology for the team's global scouting network, setting an industry trend.