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Court case courts Cuban courtside

Mark Cuban is a popular guy in Dallas these days, except with the local paper.

    When the going gets tough, the tough get their antidepressants, which in my case is 50 mg of the experimental drug Innuenda each day, rain or fog, whether the Nasdaq has plunged or merely stumbled. This week my prescription ran out, and I was forced to see my analyst, Doktor Helmut Fraeme-Relais, to have it renewed.

    Once on his couch, I found myself divulging my persistent insecurity that if one day the Internet came to an end, so would I. Much to my surprise, on hearing this complaint Dr. Fraeme-Relais declined to renew the Innuenda and instead wrote out a prescription for a case of imported El Rey del Mundo cigars.

    It took me awhile to get the old Freudian's point, but when I did it made perfect sense. The cigar wasn't just a cigar, of course--it was a Cuban, as in the man, my intended role model, who has found life after the Internet.

    Mark Cuban became a billionaire when he sold his Broadcast.com to Yahoo two years ago for nearly $6 billion. Once his fortune was made, Cuban went on a shopping spree that included a Dallas mansion and a Gulfstream V jet--but most importantly, his hometown NBA team, the Dallas Mavericks.

    I hopped a flight to Dallas to catch a game and found that--at a time when most Net honchos are reviled as they lay off staff and order stock option rescissions--Cuban is Mr. Popularity there. There are a few holdouts declining membership in his fan club, however, including hometown newspaper The Dallas Morning News, which happens to be one of the hosts of a national Internet media conference this week--and happens to be suing Cuban for matters related to his ownership of the team.

    Fans couldn't care less where Cuban made his money or who's suing him for it.

    "He's the best," said one, Terry Goins of Dallas, before Thursday night's game against the Boston Celtics. "Ain't an owner like him. He's turned this team around in one year."

    But "Cubes" (as he's known to friends) has gained some critics in the basketball world, some of whom have been in a unique position to levy fines and punishments against the enthusiastic owner.

    During games, Cuban gets so excited that he criticizes the referees or runs onto the court from his second-row seat--all in direct violation of NBA rules. All told, the Cubes' behavior has cost him nearly half a million in fines--more than famed NBA "bad boy" Dennis Rodman. Newspaper headlines now make reference to the "Cuban Missile Crisis." The Texans love it.

    The billionaire's latest antic: running onto the court during a Feb. 15 game after a dispute broke out over a fast-food promotion.

    In what is being dubbed the "chalupa caper," the Mavericks agreed to hand out coupons to all the team's fans for 99 cent chalupas --as long as the team scored 100 points in a recent game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. When the Cavaliers objected to the Mavericks running up the score at the end of the game, a shoving match broke out and Cuban ran onto the court to support his team.

    Cuban's behavior didn't sit well with NBA Commissioner David Stern, who already has disciplined the owner five times since he bought the team last year. This time the punishment was unusually harsh: a $10,000 fine--and suspension for two home games.

    As billionaires go, Cuban is one "chatty Cathy." But he's kept a low profile since the latest offense. This week, Cuban repeatedly declined to respond to questions from The Dallas Morning News about his antics, the paper reported Thursday.

    Cuban's public-relations machine has kept him out of the limelight, too, running interference to pesky reporters. On Thursday night, Cuban's first night back from the two-game suspension, News.com Editor Jeff Pelline (in Dallas with me for the Internet media conference) tracked Cuban down by plunking down $95 for a courtside seat right near Cuban's, leaving me in the cheap seats. He buttonholed the owner for some answers.

    Cuban waxed unapologetic, musing on the lessons his new sport could learn from his old industry.

    "On the Internet, when you push, it's a good thing," he said at courtside during halftime. "In basketball, it's perceived as a bad thing."

    Most fans adore Cuban. They swarm around his seat during time-outs, seeking autographs and shaking his hand. His admirers Thursday night included an "entourage" of two women--one blonde and one brunette. For the record, he kissed the blonde, who was wearing a game pass that read "Tiffany Stewart." In Dallas social circles, Tiffany is known as Cuban's serious girlfriend.

    "Cuban" fever extends well beyond the basketball arena.

    At Bob's Steak and Chop House, Dallas' top steakhouse, the diners were buzzing before Thursday night's game about Cuban's return after the two-game suspension. "The Mavericks were boring before he bought them," said waitress Karla Fitch.

    Fitch volunteered that she waited on Cuban at Bob's recently and said he was a good tipper--having ordered a filet mignon and a $245 bottle of Pinot Noir. One complaint: "He doesn't have much of a tan like he says in those TV commercials."

    Not even tipping well or a tanning bed can solve the problems brewing between Cuban and The Dallas Morning News, however. Cuban dislikes the coverage that the "Mavs" get in Dallas' sole remaining daily newspaper. But the dispute runs deeper: According to insiders, the Morning News' parent, Belo Corp., has sued the billionaire, claiming he reneged on a promise to buy the media giant's financial interest in the team.

    The case is still pending, and nobody wants to talk. "I can't," Cuban responds, pointing to ongoing litigation. "Go talk to the newspaper owners," snapped the Mavericks beat reporter for the Morning News on Thursday night.

    As for Cuban's first passion--the streaming media business--he's taking a break, at least for now. When asked what's happening with his ballyhooed plans to launch a subscription-based online and offline record company, he answers, "Nothing," and goes back to cheering for the home team. I'm out of meds, Yahoo didn't offer to buy the Rumor Mill for $6 billion, and it's still February. What's left except to light a prescription cigar and await your rumors?