Can a gazillionaire really be considered a David to someone else’s Goliath? In this case, yes.
It might be difficult to think of Pittsburgh’s own Mark Cuban in the role of the underdog, but that’s exactly what happened in the recently completed NBA Finals. Cuban and his Mavericks weren’t supposed to have a chance against LeBron James and the star-laden Heat. But as they say, that’s why they play the games. The Mavs won in six games, beating the Heat in Miami to win their first championship.
(Quick aside here: This must have been quite the conundrum for the Jews in Miami — there are a few, you know — especially those who left the Burgh for the sunnier climate upon retirement. On the one hand, the local team was in the championship and since there hasn’t been professional basketball here in eons, the Heat may have represented the first time in decades for transplanted Pittsburghers to have a hoops team to call their own. On the other, Cuban has his roots in the Pittsburgh Jewish community.)
By now, many of you know the story. Cuban grew up in Mt. Lebanon, the son of hard working, middle class Jewish parents. His grandparents emigrated from Russia and came through Ellis Island, like so many of our ancestors. Their name, Chopininski, was changed when they arrived. Cuban’s father worked as a car upholsterer and his grandfather took care of his family by selling things out of the back of a truck.
Cuban, it’s said, got the “work hard in business” gene from his grandfather, starting at an early age. He sold garbage bags door-to-door so he could afford to buy the sneakers he wanted. He collected and sold stamps. He finished high school early and enrolled at Pitt after his junior year, then transferred to Indiana University. He made his money largely by being ahead of the curve in the developing Internet world and used said funds to purchase the Mavericks.
It was the ultimate fan’s dream. Cuban had been a season ticket holder for a number of years and now he was the owner of the team he loved, albeit a team that was in disarray. Cuban quickly gained a reputation for both being very visible and audible (How many owners do you know who sit courtside with a team jersey on and berate officials with regularity?) and for turning the team into a first-class operation, the efforts of which were seen with this title run.
But how does a guy who once sold a business for $6 billion (yes, that’s right, billion) become the underdog, especially one who can be as loud and attention getting as any owner in sports? Perhaps Cuban should send a note to LeBron James and company: Fans don’t always like the seemingly greedy athlete who abandons his original team for the big contract, regardless of the sport. The fact that James did it with a half-hour TV special made it even worse.
Not that James should shoulder the burden alone. In any sport, a team that’s brought together by money is never going to be a fan favorite, even if they are the team that is expected to win. In some ways, the Heat deserve kudos for making it to the finals — so many teams of this nature have crashed and burned under the weight of expectations and huge egos.
Something tells me fans outside of Miami didn’t see it that way. Instead, they turned to that loud-mouthed fan-owner in Dallas, the one who rode the big German dude (Nowitzki) and that really old point guard (Kidd) to a title.
Mark Cuban might be a bit controversial and he might call too much attention to himself. But it’s obvious he’s having a ton of fun doing it. And so he yells at the officials and draws enough fines from the NBA to feed a small Third World nation. Who’s he really hurting? And I think more than one of us understands that’s probably how any of us would act if we were able to own our favorite team. Give Cuban points for not letting money change who he truly is and for never being dull. That’s more than enough to root for him against the Miami Heats of the world.
Now, if only we could get him interested in some of the franchises back in his hometown.
(Jonathan Mayo, the Chronicle’s sports columnist and staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)