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With his NBA career a distant and pleasant memory, Michael Finley still wanted to be a part of the game in some form or fashion.
So he picked up the telephone three years ago and called Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. It was a phone call Cuban will never forget, and a phone call that has ultimately led to the Mavericks grooming Finley to one day possibly run the basketball operations side of their organization.
“I was surprised he called me, and I remember exactly when he called me,” Cuban said on Wednesday. “He was like, ‘Mark, I want to get back in the back office, I want to get into basketball as a career.’ ”
Cuban was surprised because in 2005, after Finley finished his ninth consecutive season with the Mavericks, Cuban decided to go in another direction and waived the shooting guard under the NBA’s amnesty clause to avoid luxury taxes on his owed salary.
It was not a popular move because of Finley’s popularity.
Also, Finley was the first Mavericks player to make the All-Star team under Cuban’s ownership. The two had developed a close bond.
“When I amnestied him, when he left, it wasn’t the best,” Cuban said of Finley. “And then [three years ago] I said, ‘Fin, you helped me learn the game, I learned so much from you, so yeah, you have a job any time you want.’
“He got a little emotional and it was, ‘OK, you just tell me what you want to do and you’ve got a job.’ ”
After two years of what Finley calls “an internship,” he was officially named the team’s assistant vice president of basketball operations last season.
Cuban and Donnie Nelson — the Mavericks’ president of basketball operations and general manager — have been teaching Finley the ropes. So has Keith Grant, the team’s assistant general manager.
Michael Finley has definitely taken a more prominent role, and he is doing an incredible job. Michael really kind of orchestrated the draft process, which was really exciting.
Donnie Nelson, Mavericks president of basketball operations and general manager
“Between Donnie, Keith Grant and Mark, I’m trying to learn as much as I can,” Finley said. “I think all three of those guys bring a unique dynamic to the front office position, and as much as I can learn from those guys, and if I’m so blessed to have that opportunity to have that position, I just want to be well prepared.”
Many folks saw Finley hanging around the Mavericks and on the team plane for months during road trips. But no one knew exactly what he did or what his title was.
Nelson cleared that up by saying: “I know what it should be. But I’ve got a couple more years in me before I give it up.”
Finley, 43, was a business management major at Wisconsin who also has dabbled in the movie industry. He was a producer for The Birth of a Nation, and also a producer of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which starred Oprah Winfrey.
But basketball is Finley’s first love. When his 15-year career ended when he was a member of the Boston Celtics, which lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games in the 2010 NBA Finals, Finley wanted to remain close to the game.
“When I got done playing a couple of my former coaches wanted me to get in on the coaching side,” Finley said. “They just thought I had a good knack for the game, and that I could help these guys develop and become better players.
“I thought about it for a little bit. But I wanted to be in a position where I can help put teams together, put my input on players, and I thought that would be more of a challenge for me that I would enjoy more than the coaching side.”
Nelson raved about how Finley ran the recent draft for the Mavericks and was the key voice in Dallas using the No. 46th overall pick to select Purdue center A.J. Hammons.
“Michael Finley has definitely taken a more prominent role, and he is doing an incredible job,” Nelson said. “Michael really kind of orchestrated the draft process, which was really exciting.
He’s very valuable, because he’s close enough to having played and he still knows the guys and they know who he is. So it creates a mutual respect and an open line of communications, so it’s really good.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Michael Finley
“He’s really worked hard with the draft process. It couldn’t have gone smoother.”
Cuban also bragged about his star pupil.
“He’s been one of the smartest moves I’ve made in a long time,” Cuban said of Finley. “We’re becoming more and more dependent on him.
“He’s worked his [rear end] off to really understand the nuances of how the NBA front offices work. Obviously, he’s well respected around the league, and so that’s made life easier for him and us.”
Now that former president Terdema Ussery is gone, Finley is the highest-ranking African-American employee in the organization.
“I think it’s a great honor to be in that position not only with the Mavericks, but in the NBA in general,” Finley said. “There are a lot of former NBA players who are African-Americans and who are looking to make that transition to the front office.
“So for me to be the highest ranking one in Dallas’ organization is quite an honor.”
Cuban said he doesn’t know when Finley will be promoted.
“We’ll have to see, but Donnie is wide open,” Cuban said. “The NBA is changing so much and the role of the front office is changing.
“It’s almost like on the court when we’re not worried so much about positions any more, and we’re not worried so much about positions off the court as well. It’s more skill sets.”
And Cuban feels the “skill sets” Finley possess are what the Mavericks need at this juncture.
“He’s very valuable, because he’s close enough to having played and he still knows the guys and they know who he is,” Cuban said. “So it creates a mutual respect and an open line of communications, so it’s really good.”
Finley left Dallas and won a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2007. But now he’s back with Mavericks.
“It means that, for one, I didn’t burn any bridges while I was here playing,” Finley said. “I think we had a good relationship — player-coach or player-owner — while I was here, so that’s in good standing.
“And two, once they did hire me, I’m showing them that I’m a hard worker, and I’m not just a guy trying to collect a check. I’m trying to hold my weight, do all the hard work and the stuff that I did on the court. I’m trying to transfer that same work ethic off the court, and they see that and it’s a good thing that they’re taking all that into consideration.”