The ultimate Maverick

Overlook the fact that he owns the team, that he’s already shelled out more than a million bucks to bash referees and who knows how much more to study them, and Mark Cuban is just like every other fan of the Dallas Mavericks.

All he wants is justice.

How much more he’s willing to pay for it is another matter.

The problem for Cuban is that the NBA can’t or won’t overlook the ownership part, which means his desire for fair play will require reaching ever deeper into his pocket.

The league’s latest forget-me-not arrived on Cuban’s desk earlier this week in the form of $200,000 fine half for taking his beef with the officials onto the court during the Mavericks loss to the Spurs in Game 1 of the playoffs, the other half for an entry titled “How to improve NBA Playoff Officiating” that Cuban had posted earlier on his Web site.

Cuban was only a few weeks into his first full season as an owner when he notched the first fine $5,000 for berating officials after a loss to the Kings in November, 2000. And according to an unofficial total compiled from news reports and a league insider, he’s paid another $1 million, minimum, for the pleasure of doing it again and again.

That’s in addition to $400,000 or so for criticizing, ignoring or violating various other league rules and regulations down through the years. And just for good measure, Cuban has deposited an amount equal to those fines in the coffers of a handful of charities and plans to continue doing so. That’s roughly $3 million.

All of which begged the question put to Cuban in an e-mail Thursday: How much further is he willing to pay to speak his various pieces.

“Depends,” Cuban wrote back, “on the value I saw to the league.”

That reply was in keeping with the maverick owner’s suddenly sharpened sense of discretion; that, or else Cuban has begun looking for answers on the slips of paper tucked into fortune cookies. When news of the latest fine leaked out, his response to a request for comment read simply, “Change in any business never comes cheaply.”

No kidding.

Being a billionaire, as well as a novice to the buttoned-down world of ownership, Cuban was once both candid and long-winded about the hits he suffered at commissioner David Stern’s hands. Who can forget his saying that league director of officials Ed Rush “might have been a great ref, but I wouldn’t hire him to manage a Dairy Queen” a quip that cost Cuban a cool $500,000 in January, 2002.

Judging by Sunday’s outburst, he’s still not satisfied with the officiating, just more careful about what he says.

In Thursday’s e-mail, Cuban would only describe the cost of hiring someone to scour box scores, watch videotapes and analyze a league’s worth of referees’ tendencies as “a lot.” His answer to whether the league had ever asked to see the studies or incorporated any of the conclusions was shorter still.


That’s not true, though, and Cuban knows it.

The commissioner recently came out and said the league’s own studies showed that officials made the right call about 95 percent of the time, an acknowledgment that owed, in part, to Cuban’s relentless campaigning. Besides, plenty of the things that the NBA has mandated for its officials in recent years among them, remedial sessions, videotape study and independent reviews have been in response to the criticism Cuban has aired.

Stern, if truth be told, regards Cuban as more friend than foe, especially because he’s limited his bashing of the referees to issues of competency and not the league-wide conspiracy theories that drive the commissioner nuts.

He’s had far fewer reasons to discipline Cuban since the $500,000 whack. Neither the owner nor the league has said much in public about the few incidents since, but suffice it to say the total doesn’t match the “Dairy Queen” episode. Then again, Stern has set the floor for berating his referees at $100,000, and for multiple offenders like Cuban, prices can go through the roof in a hurry.

For his part, Cuban is more mellow and a little more mature now that he has a family in tow and a team good enough to legitimately challenge for a title. He still has too much invested in his image as a rebel to cozy up to Stern, and too little self-control to keep the fan that lurks inside from breaking out and running onto the floor to berate an official on occasion.

What it adds up to is an expensive and sometimes-uneasy truce that will stand as long as both of them remember what’s best for the business.