The NBA basketball season is a week away from its belated start on Christmas day after a months-long player pay dispute, and Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks – last season’s championship winning team – is hard at work.
“Let’s make the trade, Donnie,” he barks into his mobile phone, one of several calls he takes from his team’s general manager during the course of our interview. Stocky and 6ft 3in tall, with jet black hair, the 53-year-old Mr Cuban is shuffling the deck this season, ahead of the season opener against Miami Heat, beaten finalists last time around.
We are sitting in a Manhattan Beach hotel, overlooking a golf course dotted with palm trees. He is in Los Angeles to address an audience of employees of Skechers, the footwear brand, which is branching out into specialist fitness and running shoes.
Mr Cuban, it transpires, is a fan of the shoes and has struck an informal partnership with the company. He will appear in some of its commercials and promote the brand on his Twitter feed (he has 800,000 followers) and wear them. “I’ve always worn their shoes,” he says, proudly pointing to today’s pair, in the blue and white colours of the Mavericks.
In return, Skechers is working with his coaching staff at the basketball team, using the technology created for its footwear to devise new training techniques and reduce impact injuries suffered by players.
The partnership was struck after a Skechers employee spotted him wearing a pair at a Manhattan Beach cinema. “He was looking at my feet in a weird way and finally told me he worked for the company that made my shoes. From there it grew into a business relationship.”
No money has changed hands – “They’re not paying me anything” – but ever since the 1999 sale of Broadcast.com, the video and audio online streaming company he co-founded, to Yahoo for $5.7bn, he has not exactly needed the cash.
In the 12 years since the deal, he has bought the Mavericks, transforming them from an NBA laughing stock into national champions. He has also started a range of other businesses, from HDNet, the first dedicated high-definition cable television network, to 2929, a film production group that he founded with his Broadcast.com partner Todd Wagner.
He built the businesses through a combination of his own wealth, force of personality and a willingness to speak his mind – a trait that has landed him in hot water with the NBA on multiple occasions when opining on the performance of referees. His sometimes profanity-laden tirades have also cost him a lot of money, with more than $1.5m in fines from the NBA.
Yet his outspoken nature and love of the spotlight – he has even appeared on Dancing with the Stars – have helped him to craft a distinct personal brand. Like Donald Trump, who turned a business career into media stardom, he is now as well-known for being Mark Cuban as for his commercial achievements.
He still maintains a hands-on role running his companies – he programmes HDNet’s male-centric schedules himself, for example. “I know my strengths and I know what I suck at,” he says with a shrug when asked how he manages his business portfolio. “So I hire people to help me with the things that I suck at.” He concentrates on the bigger picture, he adds. “I’m not a details-oriented person. My assistant runs my life.”
Mr Cuban is a descendant of Russian Jews who fled the pogroms. His paternal grandparents arrived at Ellis Island in 1902, and the family eventually moved to Pittsburgh. His grandfather’s last name was Chabinsky, which was later shortened to Cuban.
Mr Cuban grew up in Pittsburgh and has always loved the art of the deal: as a child he sold stamps, baseball cards and even garbage bags door-to-door. “I don’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about starting a business,” he says.
His drive and energy at an early age was puzzling to his parents. “My dad would say: ‘I have no idea what you’re doing, but you seem OK’.”
After graduating from Indiana University with a business degree he moved to Dallas. “My friends had moved there. They called me and said: ‘The weather is great, the women are hot and the economy is great’.”
He shared a cramped apartment and for several months slept on a ratty old sofa that was gradually spilling its stuffing on to the floor. “When we threw it away we had a party to celebrate.”
He worked hard, landing a job in a bar, and played harder, hosting beer keg parties and wet T-shirt contests that attracted large, rowdy crowds. “Then I saw a ‘help wanted’ ad for the first PC software company in Dallas.”
He got the job but was eventually fired for “not listening to the CEO”, so set up his own company, Micro Solutions, which he eventually sold to CompuServe for $6m.
After selling Micro Solutions, he took some time off. “I bought a lifetime American Airlines pass and went around the world, to everywhere they flew,” he says. “I got as drunk as I could with as many people as I could meet.”
On his return to the US, he and Mr Wagner realised that they could use the then nascent internet technology to broadcast radio and ultimately video coverage of sports. The idea evolved into Broadcast.com, which was listed and then sold near the peak of the dotcom boom. “Timing was everything,” he admits. “If it had been a different era we would have run the company to be profitable and that would have been it.”
Years later, the boss who fired him wrote to him after the Broadcast.com sale asking him to invest in one of his companies. Did he reply? “I can’t remember,” he says with a wry smile.
Mr Cuban’s journey from barman to billionaire has not always been smooth. At the end of 2008, he was charged with insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission after selling shares in Mamma.com, a search engine. The case was eventually dismissed, but the SEC appealed that ruling. Mr Cuban declines to comment but says he is confident of success.
Our conversation turns back to sport. After witnessing his success with the Mavericks, many Los Angeles baseball fans would like to see him buy the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, which is currently on the auction block. “I looked at the [sale] book and I’ll see,” he says. “My concern is that someone will overbid.”
Sport is evidently one of his self-defined “strengths”. He has even penned a best-selling ebook, How to Win at the Sport of Business, and as our conversation finishes, leaves me with a pithy line that could come straight from its pages. “First you have the innovators, then the imitators and after that the idiots,” he says. “I don’t know who said that, but I always try to be in the first line.”