On The HoopsHype Podcast, Alex Kennedy had a wide-ranging chat with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Cuban discussed life as a billionaire, his success as a businessman, Luka Doncic’s incredible play, how Dirk Nowitzki is helping Doncic reach his full potential, the NBA’s mid-season tournament idea, how he’d fix NBA officiating, the time he faced Nowitzki in one-on-one and more. You can listen to the full interview above or read a transcribed version below:
You bought the Dallas Mavericks for $285 million in 2000. Now, Forbes estimates that the Mavs’ valuation is around $2.4 billion. You’re great at forecasting this stuff, but back then, did you ever think we’d get to this point where your Mavs would be worth over $2 billion?
Mark Cuban: Honestly, I didn’t even care. I didn’t buy it with the idea that it was an appreciating asset. I just bought it because I love basketball and I wanted to have fun with it. It never even crossed my mind what it may or may not be worth.
You’ve talked about struggling to make ends meet in your 20s, eating ketchup-and-mustard sandwiches and sleeping on the floor as one of six roommates in a three-bedroom apartment. How did experiencing those tough times help you achieve success later?
MC: I mean, when your back is against the wall, you realize that you have to dig in and get things done. You can’t just accept it like, “Okay, this is the way it is, everything is kosher. It’s no big deal.” It sucked. (laughs) I had fun and I was loving my life, but nobody likes sleeping on the floor and not having your own closet or drawers. It was nasty. That really motivated me. That kept me working and pushing. And since then, even on Shark Tank, it really helps me relate with entrepreneurs and it helps me recognize good entrepreneurs. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who have had their back against the wall and who have experienced failure and the worst scenarios because that motivates them. It motivated me and, now, it helps me recognize that motivation in other people as well.
In 1990, after you sold MicroSolutions for $6 million, you briefly decided to retire at 32 years old. A lot of people dream of getting rich and retiring young, but you obviously didn’t stay retired long. What was early retirement like and what did you learn from that experience?
MC: It was fun! (laughs) I sold the company, bought a lifetime pass on American Airlines and my goal was just to travel and party like a rock star. And I got really good at it! I just wanted to have beers and drink with as many people as possible, and that’s exactly what I did. I just traveled and hung out. I got a place in Manhattan Beach in Los Angeles, took acting classes and met people. I just had fun, doing whatever I could to enjoy myself. Then, I started dating a girl and came back to Dallas. We broke up, but I connected with one of my college buddies, Todd Wagner, and the internet was just starting to happen. Todd was like, “Mark, you’re a tech geek; you had that networking company that you sold and you’ve written software, so can you figure out how to use this internet thing and find a way for us to listen to Indiana [Hoosiers’] basketball games?” I was like, “I can try.” That basically led to me starting AudioNet with Todd and that effectively was the start of the streaming industry.
You’ve said that you were rich before you were super rich, but walk me through that first moment as a billionaire and that first week where you can basically buy whatever you want.
MC: It was surreal, just like it is now. You realize that you have more money than you could ever possibly dream of and it’s something that doesn’t seem real. Even today – every day – when it hits me, I’m just like, “Oh my God. How the hell did this happen? How is this possible?!” I’m self-aware enough – or at least I think I am – that I know part of this was from hard work, but a big chunk of it was luck. I just try to appreciate it and not take it for granted and not let it spoil me or my kids.
What are the biggest misconceptions about being a billionaire?
MC: I don’t know, I guess it’s not something that I’ve thought about. I guess if I had to pick something, it’s that everybody thinks that money changes you. And it can, in a lot of respects, but it doesn’t have to. Even when I was dead-ass broke and sleeping on the floor, I was hanging out with my friends and just doing whatever. Well, those guys are still my same friends now. We’re older now, but we still do some of the same stupid sh** that we used to do back then – just like anyone when they get together with their friends. I think the biggest misconception is that having that much money has to change you and in a big way. Like with anybody else, having more money than you did when you were broke changes you some, but it doesn’t have to change you a lot and I think that’s the biggest misconception.
The hardest part, really, is just dealing with friends when it first happens. They’re the ones who aren’t quite sure if you’re going to be the same person or how you’re going to act. They’re wondering, “Are you always going to pick up the check or only sometimes going to pick up the check?” It’s a little bit of an adjustment period, but your true friends stay your true friends and I’ve been blessed in that way.
I’d imagine that going out in public has to be crazy too. I’m sure many people want to pitch you their ideas, especially with the success of Shark Tank. What’s it like being bombarded with so many pitches?
MC: I mean, it’s a good problem to have. Let me just say: Shark Tank is now on Friday nights on ABC – I have to get that plug in there. Tune in, it’s great! (laughs) But yeah, it’s a good problem to have. I get pitched everywhere – from the urinals to restaurants to Mavs games to walking down the street, you name it. It’s easy for me to just say, “Email me.” Or I’ll tell them, “You have 30 seconds, give me the elevator pitch.” If it’s somebody that I think is sincere, then I’ll give them a legit response. If I think somebody is just trying to take advantage or not being sincere in some way, then I’ll just say, “I can’t do it.” But, again, I can think of far worse problems to have!
Reading your interviews, it’s clear how much your family means to you. You’ve said, “If I was single, I’d run for president.” You’ve also said that you were interested in purchasing the Pittsburgh Pirates when you were single, but now you want to spend more time with your children. How did starting a family change you as a person and as a businessman?
MC: It’s changed me so much; it’s night and day. Your priorities change. When my kids were little, they weren’t quite people yet. (laughs) They were kind of mommy’s kids and it wasn’t as impactful yet. But as they’ve gotten older and got to be 7, 8, 9 years old – and now they are 10, 13 and 16 – you see that they’re real people and they have real personalities and they’re unique. They’re my babies, so spending time with them has become a priority. I’m lucky because I don’t have to stress about bills, I don’t have to worry if they’re going to turn my lights off again and stuff like that, which I had to worry about in the past. I don’t have to worry about money and I can set my own schedule, so I try to spend as much time with them as I can. The hard part isn’t me trying to find time to spend with them, the hard part is convincing them to spend time with me – as every parent knows. (laughs) It’s been fun. And in terms of how it changed me from a business perspective, I look at ideas and things from the perspective of, “How is this going to impact my kids, and is there an opportunity there for them in the future?”
If you woke up tomorrow and had an average 9-to-5 job that didn’t pay much, but you still had all of your knowledge, what are some things you would do in order to put yourself in a better position financially?
MC: I’d probably get a job working as a bartender at night, just to make sure I had enough money to make ends meet. During the day, I’d probably start a company that did Alexa, Cortana and Google Home installation, configurations and customization for people. More and more people have an Alexa or Google Home in their house, but nobody knows how to really configure them to make them work well. I could go out there and charge $25-to-$50 an hour to do that. It’s not hard to learn; it’s really easy to stay up-to-date with that, but most people just don’t do it. I could also do that for businesses and, now, Alexa is being put in cars so there are ways to set up scripts for that. I think that would be one thing that I did. And I spend a lot of time trying to learn and understand as much as I can about artificial intelligence. I’d probably start a complementary business or, as part of my first business, I’d help small businesses apply artificial intelligence because it’s really hard for them to do. Most of them don’t understand it and they can’t afford to do it by themselves.
You’ve said that ignoring artificial intelligence right now is like being in 1999 and not being able to use the internet. Do you see similarities there?
There’s no question that after you bought the Mavericks, you pumped resources into the franchise and really improved the team’s culture…
MC: We had this big German guy who helped out a lot too. (laughs)
Yeah, he was decent! But you bought a new team plane, hired a bunch of assistant coaches and upgraded things like the locker room and Jumbotron. How much of an advantage is it for a team to have a great owner with deep pockets?
MC: I mean, it makes a difference. It’s not so much about having a great owner, you just don’t want to have a bad one, you know? (laughs) I’d say that 90 percent of the owners in the NBA are really good. But the reality is that it’s not even about having deep pockets, it’s more about being open to new ideas and having a willingness to really dig in and learn. This game isn’t easy. It’s hard to win a championship. If there was a template, everyone would just do it. So few teams actually win a championship and it takes so much luck. I just don’t think people realize how lucky you have to be. The Mavs have been in the lottery I-don’t-know-how-many times since the start of the franchise in 1980, but we’ve never moved up. Not one time! Before I got here, the Mavs had the worst record in the NBA multiple times, but they’ve never in the history of the franchise gotten the No. 1 pick. And even if you get the No. 1 pick, you need to have it at the right time. Michael Olowokandi. Unless you’re an old-school basketball fan, you aren’t even going to remember him! There are so many forgotten No. 1 picks, so it takes a lot of luck. Being a good owner is important and you should be open-minded and take the time to learn the game and the business, but even then, luck is more important. But the other side of that is you can’t screw it up. Once you get lucky, can you make it work and not screw it up?
The Mavs’ continuity stands out to me – whether it’s Rick Carlisle being your head coach for 12 seasons or Dirk Nowitzki playing all 21 years of his NBA career in Dallas. You don’t see that kind of longevity very often in today’s NBA. How important is continuity to you as an owner?
MC: Corporate knowledge is important and the longer that a team is able to play together, the better they understand each other. Look at the Spurs; they’re a perfect example of continuity leading to success. We try to do the same thing, in a lot of respects. But you still need to have talent. The last three years, pre-Luka, we had some talent but not enough and we were playing for lottery balls more than we were playing for championships. As brutally painful as that is, that’s us trying to increase our odds to get lucky. In terms of continuity, [you want] guys who have played together for an extended period of time. When Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki walked out onto the court together, they knew how to play together and what the others were doing and how they each liked to play. That added a lot of value and that helped us win a championship. That continuity made a huge difference and hopefully we’ll be able to continue it with these guys we have now. I think we have a great nucleus with Luka and KP and Timmy Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry and Maxi Kleber and Dodo (Dorian Finney-Smith). These are guys who all have longer contracts and hopefully will be together for a long, long time.
You obviously believed in Luka Doncic enough to trade Trae Young’s draft rights and a 2019 protected first-rounder to Atlanta to land Luka. But at what point did you realize that Luka could potentially be a once-in-a-generation talent?
MC: Probably 10 games into the regular season. We saw some amazing things when he was in Europe, obviously. You don’t just win MVPs and championships at 17 and 18 years old in the world’s second-best league and not be amazing. Then, we saw a lot of great things when he came in and worked out prior to the draft and played pick-up. I mean, he was just dominating. But you still don’t know; there are a lot of guys who come into the NBA with a lot of talent and you get excited about them, but you just don’t know until you really see them in NBA regular-season games. Then, there’s a whole different level in the playoffs that we haven’t seen with Luka yet. But when we saw him in those first 10 games, you could just see that he was special. I just didn’t think that it would come together this quickly for him. Winning Rookie of the Year and then taking another quantum leap forward this year? That’s a testament to not only Luka’s talent, but also his willingness to work hard.
When you hit on a fantastic player like Luka in the draft, how does that compare to investing in a company that takes off? Is it a similar rush?
MC: Yeah, it’s definitely a turn-on. (laughs) It’s like, “Oh my goodness!” The thing about owning a basketball team, I can’t be the one who makes the jump shots. In a regular business, I can go close the deal or write the software or configure the network. I can do a lot of things that have a direct impact on a business deal or on the company in general. In basketball, I can’t do that. It’s not like I’m going to walk onto the court and be like, “Alright guys, I got this. You guys move over.” There’s so much more stress involved in owning a team because you just don’t know how your draft picks or trades or free-agent signings are going to work out until it’s too late. It’s immediately out of your control. So when you get a player like Luka, there are just moments where you just shake your head and laugh. Michael Finley sits next to me at our home games and you’ll see me just smack him on the chest when Luka makes an incredible play. He’ll make an incredible pass or he’ll get to the basket and make a layup and you’re like, “How did he even get to the rim there?” In moments like that, or when we win a big game, I just shake my head and smile and think, “It’s about time we’re back to where we want to be.” Because as much fun as winning is, losing is even more stressful. It’s almost like you have to force yourself not to do things just to avoid losing. Going back to your question, what’s the rush like when you have a once-in-a-generation talent? It’s great. But it’s not a complete rush because you still haven’t gotten the ring yet.
Are there any takeaways or things that you learned from Dirk’s outstanding career that you can now use to help Luka reach his full potential and maximize his success?
MC: Absolutely. It’s not even me, it’s Dirk himself who communicates and is there with Luka. Dirk came down for Luka’s 21st birthday party in Miami and we had a lot of fun. I think the No. 1 thing is discipline. The discipline with diet, workouts, stretching, taking care of your body, working on your game, getting the reps in, getting shots up and watching film… Those are all things that are required to get to the next level and I saw that with Dirk. Dirk at 20 years old was one way and Dirk at 28 was completely different. I remember when I bought the team, I asked him what he ate before games and he said, “… Snickers bars.” By the time he was 8, 9, 10 years in, he was at the point where he wouldn’t have any sugar or fried foods or alcohol during the season – that level of discipline went to another level. It’s not that Luka is going to have to be the exact same way, but Luka has figured out what all great players figure out: That your success and results are directly related to the amount of time and effort you put into working on your game and the discipline you have to do the things that impact your body.
You’ve been outspoken about the NBA’s mid-season tournament idea. What are some of your concerns about the NBA’s proposal to add a mid-season tournament and change the length of the season to 78 games?
MC: Put aside the 78 games because that’s a different issue and it’s not a big deal one way or the other. You can make up four games in terms of a play-in or whatever. I’m not necessarily opposed to 78 games, I just have to see the specifics. But when you feel like you need to have an in-season tournament because you feel it’s needed to make the start of a season or the early-grind-it-out parts of a season interesting, you’re effectively saying that without this, the games aren’t interesting. To me, that’s never a good thing in business. You never, ever want to say, “Well, my product’s not as good this time of year as it is in that time of year, so we’re going to spice things up.” That’s not the case and that’s never good business in my mind.
You’ve talked about how NBA fans are younger, so they’re often cord-cutters who watch on social media and streaming. Do you feel like the mid-season tournament idea is an overreaction to the NBA’s ratings?
MC: I don’t even think it’s a reaction to the ratings, I just think they’re trying to create interest when there are 1,000 better ways to do that. I think we make the mistake sometimes of looking at football as an analogy. We think because there are only 16 games, each one of those games mean more and when each one of those games mean more, people may more attention. I don’t think that’s why people watch football at all. Because there are just some bad teams and, even then, if you look at some of the attendance issues for some of those bad teams, it’s not like people are showing up to games. It’s just that football is the easiest sport to watch on television and you couple that with fantasy sports, which gives people another reason to watch. In football, there is 12 minutes of action in a two-and-a-half hour game. So when you’re “watching” football, you don’t really have to watch football. You can be doing 20 things at the same time – looking at your fantasy team or checking your emails or talking on the phone. You can do whatever and not even miss a play. It’s just the nature of the game; it’s 12 minutes of attention.
With basketball, it’s 48 minutes when you’re watching a game live. That’s a challenge in a world where two seconds after Luka makes a step-back, it’s a highlight that’s on Instagram and YouTube. Our challenge is that kids are growing up and they’re so used to things being on Instagram and Tik Tok, to a certain extent, and Snapchat and YouTube. They aren’t trained to invest the time to watch an entire game, like the way we trained when growing up. It’s not necessarily as big of a problem in football because you kind of know when the play-clock is about to run out, so you can pay attention right before the play starts, then go back to doing 20 other things. Whereas, again, with basketball, sometimes it’s easier to just check out the highlights. That’s what my 10-year-old son does. I’ll have the game on and he’s barely paying attention and then two minutes later, that same play is a highlight on YouTube and he sees that. How that translates from a business perspective is that we at the NBA need to figure out a better way to monetize that attention. In the last 10 years, let’s say, it’s been all about live broadcasts on TV and, to a lesser extent, live-streaming games. Now, a lot – if not most – of the consumption of our games by people 34-and-under is online and on streaming, so we have to find a better way to monetize that.
I know you have a lot of thoughts about how the NBA hires and trains its refs. If you were put in charge of revamping the process of hiring and training refs, what are some things that you’d change?
MC: This is very, very simple: I’d bring in people who are professionals at hiring and training. That’s it. We have none. Just because you’re great at selling, that doesn’t make you a great sales manager. Just because you’re a great reporter, that doesn’t make you a great publisher or editor. You can pick any industry; if you’re great at doing the primary job in that industry, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be great at managing people within that industry. We never learned that lesson in the NBA and that has cost me a lot of money. But it’s an easy change and one of the first things to change.
Dirk said that when you first bought the Mavs, you challenged him to one-on-one. That seems like the ultimate perk that comes with owning a team. Dirk said you were a pretty good shooter and that you scored against him, but then he got fired up and dunked on you.
MC: I scored two times! I beat him 2-1 because after he dunked on me, I quit! (laughs)
(Laughs) I was going to ask if you remembered that game.
MC: Oh, hell yeah! There’s a video of it too, so I’ll have that forever.
Nice! How many players have you played one-on-one against over the years?
MC: I’ve played a lot. Right when I first started, I could move a lot better , so back then I played a lot of guys in one-on-one, HORSE and everything. Now, I’ll go out there and shoot with the guys a lot. But back then, I could hold my own a little bit. But they’re obviously the pros and I’m just the Joe trying to pretend I could play with them. But one thing I never did, I got asked a bunch to run in games during practice and stuff and I was always like, “No, I don’t ever want to cross the line. You guys are the professionals and I gotta respect your job and that you’re here to do a job, whereas I’m just yucking it up and trying to have fun. But, yeah, I’ve shot with some guys for money; I’ve taken some money and lost some money. It’s still fun.
One of the best parts of owning the Mavs is prior to a home game, I’ll get out on the court and shoot before the guys come out to warm up. I’ll just get shots up for an hour and that feeling… That’s where I get my ultimate peace. When the ball is going through the net (hopefully) and I’m raining down threes, the jumpers are falling, and it’s nothing but net, to me, that’s the most calming time ever. That kind of balances me out, getting shots up. And being able to do it on the court of the American Airlines Center is just the ultimate treat and pleasure.
I think I speak for everyone reading this: You’re living our dream!
MC: I’m living my dream too, trust me!