One of the oldest sayings regarding the National Basketball Association is that it is, above all, a business. Fans who forget this lesson by becoming emotionally attached to a particular player are often left with only hurt feelings and outdated jerseys to commemorate the old days.
Many Mavericks fans faced this situation when Tyson Chandler, a popular fan favorite, was allowed to leave town, followed by Mavericks stalwart Jason Terry the following year. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban responded to criticism by arguing that he had an obligation to do what was best for the team, placing its long-term interests ahead of the desire to retain popular players.
There is nothing wrong with Cuban’s principles, as the NBA is indeed a business. Getting tied down to aging stars is bad business and often spells ruin for a franchise. Principles, however, are only as good as they are consistent. The departures of point guards Jason Kidd and Derek Fisher to contenders received an emotionally-charged reaction from Cuban, whose response displayed a degree of emotional hurt rarely revealed publicly by NBA GMs. His reaction, while justified, is unbefitting of the high standards he has led the organization to establish.
Cuban vented his feelings on Kidd publicly and unapologetically. Cuban’s outburst came on ESPN Dallas 103.3’s “Ben and Skin Show,” where he admitted he was “pissed” about Kidd’s departure. Those hurt feelings led Cuban to promise that Kidd’s jersey would never hang in the rafters of the American Airline Center. Several months later, while downplaying the incident, Cuban still couldn’t escape telling ESPN Dallas’ Tim MacMahon that he would quote “boo the hell out of” Kidd.
Those feelings were on display for a different veteran point guard less than a year later when the recently-released Derek Fisher returned to Dallas wearing an Oklahoma City Thunder jersey. Cuban told Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas that he would “just boo (Fisher) like hopefully everybody else (will do).” Cuban, who went on to say he “was just being nice” by granting Fisher’s earlier release, said that he “shouldn’t have been surprised” that Fisher signed with the Thunder given his history, a dig at Fisher’s integrity and loyalty.
Cuban’s frustration with both players is understandable. He strongly believed that both would play out the 2012-2013 season as a Mavericks point guard and had those hopes dashed by unexpected events. His ire was rightfully piqued by Kidd’s rumored behind-closed-doors meetings with Deron Williams and Fisher’s lack of notification to the Mavericks that he would sign with the Thunder.
Whether Cuban’s frustration is justified is separate from the question of whether it is best for the organization to have Cuban expressing emotional frustration publicly. Cuban’s comments certainly wouldn’t be out of the ordinary in private conversation but they represent a breach in the thin public veneer of professionalism and sportsmanship the NBA works tirelessly to build, an illusion which makes it taboo to encourage a group of fans to boo a particular opposing player. Cuban certainly hasn’t been shy about violating NBA mores before, whether it was to criticize the referees or to give Kenyon Martin’s mother a piece of his mind. The difference between the recent fallout and past incidents is the direction of Cuban’s hostility.
Cuban’s criticism of the NBA, referees and opposing crowds is motivated by his desire to protect and defend his players. This stance makes Cuban an attractive boss for prospective employees because it demonstrates that he fights for his players’ best interests at the expense of his own wealth. This perception is very useful, as Dallas doesn’t have all that many features of a major market. Dallas’ desirability as a free agent draw relies on a carefully cultivated atmosphere that attracts veterans by treating them like professionals.
The emotional criticism of Kidd and Fisher could damage that brand by creating a misleading perception that Cuban is an unsteady boss whose emotions overpower him. The danger this could pose for the Dallas Mavericks is highlighted by Yahoo Ball Don’t Lie’s Eric Freeman, who notes that:
“Telling fans to get as upset as possible at a player can be seen as its own breach of professionalism, one that could mark the Mavericks out as a team…that turns on its players as soon as they leave town.”
That perception would be unfair, as Dallas has always been a player-friendly organization. Recent off-the-cuff remarks by DeShawn Stevenson reinforce this view, with Stevenson telling Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News that Dallas “handles things and people great,” and does everything “the right way.” To assume Dallas isn’t player-friendly because of Cuban’s moves is, as Freeman acknowledges, a “dangerous cognitive leap to make.”
Perception and reality, however, are sometimes different. Perception, no matter its basis in reality, can transform into a viewpoint that dooms a franchise. Deron Williams’ negotiations with Dallas provide an object lesson. In reality, Dallas desperately wanted Williams on board and Cuban made his overwhelming desire to sign Williams clear. Williams balked, however, in part because of his perception that he wasn’t Cuban’s top priority. According to Williams, that perception arose because Cuban wouldn’t take time away from filming a television show to personally attend a meeting with Williams. Cuban, true to form, suggested that Dallas would be better off without Williams.
Mark Cuban is a world class owner and rightfully renowned for his business savvy, but he should stick to what he does best and leave the emotional moments for private conversations. As Cuban himself frequently and rightly reminds Mavericks fans, the NBA is a business — one where the personnel and personal spheres should rarely overlap.