Through the years Mark Cuban has taken more than his share of whippings for the short-sighted decision to let Steve Nash walk out of Dallas over money back in 2004.
But it was in the very same summer that the Mavericks owner kept the door closed, slammed shut and nailed up when it came to another member of his roster.
Back in the day, Cuban picked up the phone and called forward Dirk Nowitzki to tell him to ignore the gossip and that he would not be part of any trade that would bring Shaquille O’Neal from the Los Angeles Lakers to Texas.
The dryly-humorous Nowitzki, Cuban recalled at the time, responded with a wisecrack about stopping his search for a new apartment in Los Angeles.
The Lakers had just been stunned by the Detroit Pistons in The NBA Finals, Shaq was feuding publicly with team owner Jerry Buss, the Mavs were coming off a first-round playoffs loss to the Sacramento Kings and it might have been quite tempting to pull the lever on the high-profile, quick fix in Dallas.
There were all sorts of rumors floating around and Cuban has never been shy about showing interest in moves big and small that could improve his franchise. It was the kind of deal that got traction in the rumor mill and, truth be told, would have gotten a lot of NBA clubs to pull the trigger. More than a handful of club executives polled at the time said they would have swapped Nowitzki for O’Neal.
Hindsight and history are the great second-guessers. While Shaq would eventually move to Miami and add another title in 2006 -- beating Dallas -- he was inching closer to the downside of his career. At the same time, the rules and style of play in the game had changed and the 7-foot German had not yet blossomed into the all-around force and prototypical jump-shooting big man every team in the league craves today.
When he dropped in that baseline jumper last night to become the sixth player in league history to crack the 30,000-point barrier (and only the third to do it with one team), it was a no-brainer decision to keep Nowitzki in a Mavericks uniform. But flip the calendar back those 13 years and it was a case of Cuban using his head.
For one, Cuban was able to quickly change the narrative about his team from another disappointing first-round playoff loss to one that it was the offseason headlines with the biggest name in the NBA (Shaq). For another, it also distracted from the impending free-agency loss of Nash. Most importantly, it delivered the message to Nowitzki that the Mavericks were all-in with him.
“I thought it was critically important,” Cuban told reporters back on the eve of the 2006 Finals clash between the Heat and Mavs. “You know how you guys are. The rumor is more interesting and more fun than the fact. I wanted Dirk to know there wasn’t any question in my mind.
“I even told Shaq that. I said there was no way. If that is what it’s going to come down to, it’s not going to happen.”
There were more bumps in the road for Nowitzki and Cuban. After winning a franchise-best 67 games and Nowitzki the MVP award, the Mavericks were rolled in the first round by No. 8-seeded Golden State Warriors. There were more early ousters until 2011, when Nowitzki led Dallas to the shocking upset of the LeBron James, Wade and Chris Bosh-led Heat in The Finals (of which Nowitzki was named MVP).
Now he is 19 seasons into a Hall of Fame career, the highest-scoring international player in history, and continuing a climb up a list that has only icons Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant ahead of him.
“It was certainly something we tried to do,” Cuban said back in 2006. “Our idea was that we had a lot of last-year (contract) players and Draft picks. We tried to sell them on the perspective of maybe you have a down year, but then a couple of years out, you have a lot of cap room."
The Lakers weren’t buying it. Not without Dirk in the package.
"There is nothing (else) on your roster we want,” Cuban recalled the Lakers saying. “Period. End of story.”
Actually a better story, of commitment and belief, as it turns out.
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