Fifteen years ago Sunday, the Dallas Mavericks played a game in Denver.
As far as Don Nelson and his coaching staff were concerned, it was a somber night. The Mavs were one of the laughingstocks in professional sports and the butt of jokes on the late-night TV talk-show circuit.
And earlier in the day on Jan. 4, 2000, an unknown but brash 42-year-old billionaire from the dot.com world named Mark Cuban hedged his bets and purchased the team from Ross Perot Jr. for $285 million.
Surely, the new owner would come in swinging his ax and firing people left and right.
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Or so everyone thought.
“We literally went out for the last supper, because we were taking it pretty good then,” said current general manager Donnie Nelson, who then was an assistant coach on his father’s staff. “Dirk [Nowitzki] hadn’t kicked in, [Steve] Nash couldn’t make a jump shot, so we literally went out and thought we were going to be fired the next day when we showed up.
“Then the next day Mark walks in Nellie’s office in a T-shirt, jeans and his patented tennis shoes. And Nellie leans over to me and he goes, ‘Son, I think we might have a chance with this one.’”
Not only did Cuban retain Nelson and his staff, but he also gave them a vote of unbridled confidence that allowed them to do their work while he threw a pile of cash at player after player.
“Coming in and cleaning house wasn’t either the right thing for me to do or the smart thing for me to do,” Cuban said. “I was new at this, so I wanted to learn from them.
“And what better person to learn from than Nellie, who was an innovator as a coach.”
Cuban worked the media, talked up his team to whoever would listen and seemingly was all over the place. He was a bartender at a Dallas pub, worked at a Dairy Queen, played basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters, and went out of his way to shower his players with exorbitant perks.
“Mark, when he bought the team, obviously completely changed the culture of the Mavs,” said Nowitzki, who is in his 17th season with the Mavs. “He bought us a new plane, he got us a new arena, we started staying in nice hotels, we started to have food after games and after practices, and he just put Dallas basketball back on the map.
“The ’90s was a tough time for basketball in Dallas, and Mark came in, he created some excitement back for basketball for the Mavericks, and I owe him a lot. He’s been great to me, he’s been loyal, he’s been supportive of me from Day One.”
Early in Cuban’s ownership, there was a major ice storm in Dallas on the night of a home game. Cuban, who was protective of the Mavericks, sent a limousine to the home of every player — 15 — to make sure they got to and from the game safely.
“That was one of the perks that he did just to let the players know that he had their back, he had their interest when it came to them performing on the court,” said Michael Finley, who played for the Mavs from 1996-2005 and is now an assistant to Cuban. “He’s meant a lot to me, but I think he’s meant even more to the city of Dallas.
“He came into a situation where this city was hoping for a winner or somebody to cheer for. He brought that positive energy to the organization and to the city and it’s been great.”
Cuban was a renaissance man who was used to having everything done his way. But he’s always been generous with his money.
The first notion that Cuban was a bit eccentric came when he signed 38-year-old Dennis Rodman to a contract in 2000. Rodman was a seven-time rebounding champion, so from Cuban’s business perspective it made perfect sense.
“We needed rebounding,” Cuban said. “We were the worst rebounding team in the league — that was the thinking.”
Rodman even lived in a home on Cuban’s property.
“Until the league kicked him out,” Cuban said. “It was my first year; I was still learning. We sold tickets, so that helped, too.”
Cuban also is known to speak his mind to the point where he has been fined nearly $2 million by the NBA, mostly for derogatory comments about the officiating. But that was his way of showing how much he cared about his players.
“He was great to me,” said forward Jae Crowder, who played for the Mavs from 2012 until they traded him to the Boston Celtics on Dec. 18.
“He pushed us and he pushed me as a player to get better each and every year, and I think that’s one thing that I appreciate from him.”
Brandan Wright, who departed to join the Celtics in the same trade, was thrilled with the three-plus years he played for Cuban’s Mavericks.
“He treated me great,” Wright said. “He’s a great owner, he’s hands-on, and he really takes care of his players.
“He wants to see everyone succeedm and I can’t say enough great things about him for what he did for me and my family.”
Donnie Nelson echoed that sentiment.
“Mark embraced us in our darkest hour, and that will never be lost on myself and the Nelson family,” Nelson said. “So what kind of [15-year] anniversary present do you get the guy that’s supposed to have everything — more wins.
“I think the thing that I can do to return his generosity is bring another championship to Dallas. He’s done everything to put our franchise in position — not only in the here and now this year, and in the past when we had the parade, but I think in the future. As long as Mark’s at the helm we’ll be right there because he’s a winner in every sense of the word.”
Cuban’s finest hour as owner came when the Mavericks won the 2011 NBA title.
Nowitzki, meanwhile, fondly recalls one of Cuban’s darkest hours in Dallas.
Well, sort of.
“When he first bought the team he came in the Landry Center and asked me to play some one-on-one, so I obviously thought he was joking, but then we actually played a little bit,” Nowitzki said. “He could shoot, so he actually scored a basket, and then I had to end this real quick.
“I drove him to the left, I got up and I dunked on him, so that was fun. I dunked on the owner when he first bought the team, and it’s been a close and tight-knit relationship ever since.”
Dwain Price, 817-390-7760