Don Nelson vs. Mark Cuban

Underdog sport teams nearly always get my vote, especially when playing an up-tempo style. Golden State vs. Dallas has the added bonus of potentially bringing out the Sad-Eyed Billionaire Geek of the Lowland Face from Mark Cuban. Score!

Plus, the next-to last NBA game I actually attended (in a corporate box no less) was in Oakland, and we had a lot of fun.

San Fran Legs

There's Bad Blood When the Warriors Play the Mavericks - When basketball coach Don Nelson of the Golden State Warriors team threw a party two weeks ago for some friends associated with his former club, the Dallas Mavericks, he greeted an old protégé with a hug and a compliment.
“You're doing a much better job than I did at keeping him away from you,” Mr. Nelson told Mavericks Coach Avery Johnson, according to guests at Mr. Nelson's Oakland, Calif., home. Mr. Johnson smiled.
The “him” Mr. Nelson was referring to is Mark Cuban, the mercurial owner of the top-seeded Mavericks team. It faces possible elimination tonight in the first round of the National Basketball Association playoffs, by a Warriors squad seeded eighth out of eight Western Conference playoff teams. A first-round Warrior triumph over a Mavericks team that won 67 of 82 games during the regular season would be a huge upset.

For the 66-year-old Mr. Nelson, it would also mean victory over Mr. Cuban, 48, in one of the nastiest personal feuds in professional sports. Mr. Nelson says Mr. Cuban still owes him $6.6 million in deferred compensation from his eight years as Mavericks coach. Mr. Cuban refuses to pay, because, he says, the NBA's second-winningest coach of all time walked out on him.

“It's like 'Desperate Housewives' in the NBA,” says Wayne Winston, an Indiana University math professor who, as a private consultant, does statistical modeling for Mr. Cuban to predict which players, and referees, offer the best chance of success for his Dallas team.

I never heard the exact reason for the feud, but this sounds plausible (and presents Cuban as the bad guy, another bonus):

But just as the Nelson-Cuban revival was peaking -- in the NBA's 2003 Western Conference finals -- it started to fall apart. With the Mavericks facing elimination by the San Antonio Spurs, the coach and owner exploded at each other over Mr. Nelson's refusal to fulfill his boss's wish to play an injured Mr. Nowitzki, according to Mavericks officials close to the team's owner.

Mr. Nowitzki had suffered sprained ligaments in his left knee in the third game of the best-of-seven series, but, with the Mavericks trailing three games to one, was cleared by team doctors to play again. Mr. Cuban confronted Mr. Nelson in the coach's office and demanded the star forward return to the court, Mavericks officials say.

Mr. Nelson refused, insisting that playing the young German with the ligament injury would jeopardize his career. The coach also confided in friends that he had promised Mr. Nowitzki's parents, when the Mavericks signed the young man at age 19, that he would look after the seven-footer in Texas like a son.

“You're just looking for excuses to lose,” fumed Mr. Cuban, according to two people who heard the blowup. Mr. Nelson threw the Mavs' owner out of his office, these people say.

and then the relationship worsened:

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The acrimony worsened after the team lost the series to San Antonio. Mr. Cuban, in negotiations to extend Mr. Nelson's contract in the summer of 2003, offered the coach what Mr. Nelson regarded as a pay cut, say people who were privy to the negotiations. As with today, their contract dispute centered on millions of dollars of compensation that Mr. Nelson had agreed to defer back in the Perot years -- money Mr. Cuban wanted to slash.

With Mr. Nelson openly threatening to quit coaching, they reached a last-minute compromise: Mr. Nelson got a three-year contract extension as the Mavericks' coach and general manager -- at $5.1 million a year -- but no pay raise, despite the team's success.

“Nellie went ahead and signed that contract but the trust was broken,” says a close friend who helped broker the deal.

Mr. Nelson's lawyer, John O'Connor of San Francisco -- who worked with “Deep Throat” Mark Felt of Watergate fame in his unveiling in 2005 -- said Mr. Nelson “truly feels very proud that he and Mark built a great franchise in Dallas together.” Mr. O'Connor said Mr. Nelson “personally likes” Mr. Cuban and hopes they can settle their financial dispute “amicably.”

Mr. O'Connor says Mr. Nelson is in the process of making an arbitration claim against the Mavericks for the $6.6 million in deferred salary the coach believes he is owed. Mr. Cuban has never publicly said why, legally, he believes he doesn't owe Mr. Nelson any back pay. But he recently expressed disgust with the way Mr. Nelson resigned as coach in 2005.

“I'm not a fan of someone who quits on his team, but will leave only if he gets paid,” Mr. Cuban wrote in an email last week to reporters. The owner also wrote that Mr. Nelson influenced his decision in 2004 not to re-sign Mr. Nash, by indicating the point guard would get less playing time because of the risks of injury. And he wrote that Mr. Nelson sent him an email after the team lost Mr. Nash “confirming we did the right thing.”

Mr. Zaccanelli, the former Mavericks executive who negotiated Mr. Nelson's original contract, says the deferred salary “is not an issue. He earned that money. He only stretched out the payment as a favor to us to help our cash flow.” Mr. Nelson took a pay cut to sign with the Warriors last August, friends say. But if they beat Dallas, he'll earn close to what he did with the Mavericks after a hefty incentive bonus.

Ha! Stick it to the man, Nellie! Cuban could afford to pay, easily, but is just stubborn.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on May 1, 2007 8:22 AM.

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