Michael Jordan was standing in his Washington Wizards management suite that night 23 years ago when he noticed that someone down on the court, next to the Dallas Mavericks bench, seemed to be gesturing toward him.

“Who is that?” he wondered.

That was Mark Cuban, the Mavericks’ brand-new, forty-year-old billionaire owner.

“Is he threatening to come up here and fight me?” Jordan asked. No. Cuban was just excited that his Mavericks, then one of the NBA’s worst and least interesting franchises, had beaten the Wizards by eighteen points. At that point in the Mavs’ history, any morsel of success probably tasted like a championship. Even from Jordan’s perch far above the court, he could see that Cuban was going to be unlike any other owner in NBA history. For starters, it was not customary for franchise owners to sit with their players during games. And they certainly didn’t taunt a fellow owner, who in this case also happened to be the all-time-great player whose singular brilliance had helped double and triple NBA franchise values.

I witnessed Jordan’s reaction firsthand after the Washington Post, my employer at the time, assigned me to chronicle his first days as the Wizards’ president of basketball operations. I asked Cuban years later about this incident, and he responded with the blankest of blank looks. (My favorite moment from that assignment was the day Wizards point guard Rod Strickland showed up late for a game. As he passed Jordan in the hallway, hurrying toward the locker room, Jordan pointed toward his watch and said, “Rod, you’re late.” Strickland responded: “Mike, I’ve been on time all day, but my car is running late.”)

Now, with the Mavericks facing the Golden State Warriors on Wednesday night in game one of the Western Conference finals, it’s nearly impossible to remember how low Dallas had been in the NBA hierarchy before Cuban brought his smarts and energy to the organization. 

Cuban purchased a franchise on its way to a tenth-consecutive losing season. The roster had no stars and no buzz and barely existed in the hearts and minds of sports fans in the Metroplex. In the 23 seasons since, Dallas has made the NBA playoffs 18 times, including 4 trips to the conference finals, and it won the 2011 championship.

There were acres of empty seats at Reunion Arena in the pre-Cuban days. In the 2021–22 regular season, the Mavs played to 102.8 percent of capacity, the highest in the NBA, at American Airlines Center. Their average attendance of 19,739 was the league’s third-highest.

I’ve had a soft spot for the Mavericks ever since covering the franchise’s first season and part of its second for the Dallas Times Herald in the early eighties. It was my first time on a pro beat, and I’ve never had more fun.

On the first day of the Mavericks’ first training camp, in 1980, the team’s head coach, the brilliant, irascible, and eminently quotable Dick Motta, looked at his players gathered on one end of the floor and whispered, “I’d take one first-round draft pick for all of ’em.” During one game, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was about to inbound the ball near the Dallas bench, Motta walked over and told him, “I had a good thing going in Chicago until you got to Milwaukee. You ruined my career.” Some weeks later, Motta approached veteran referee Bob Rakel before a game and said: “Bob, whatever you do tonight, don’t stoop to my level.”

That first Mavericks team was 15–67. I was off to another assignment by the time the franchise made the playoffs in its fourth season, beginning a run of five playoff appearances in six seasons. That was followed by a terrible stretch in which Dallas went through five head coaches, three owners, and lots of futility.

When Cuban bought the Mavericks in 2000, he believed he could do better than previous owners. He understood that the NBA was a players’ league and that successful teams needed superstars. He also planned to market the absolute heck out of his franchise and reimagined the NBA arena experience as a street party taking place alongside a professional basketball game. 

He also happened to take over the team at a perfect time. Months before Cuban purchased the Mavs, the team had acquired a twenty-year-old future superstar in Dirk Nowitzki. Over the next 21 seasons, the German shooter would lead the Mavericks to fifteen playoff appearances and the 2010–11 NBA championship. Thanks to Cuban’s bombast and salesmanship and Nowitzki’s excellence on the court, the franchise reached a perch in the Dallas–Fort Worth sports landscape that it had never seen before.

Cuban’s time as owner has not been without scandal. Amid reports of a toxic work environment in 2018, he fired two employees and publicly apologized. He is also being sued by former Mavs general manager Donnie Nelson, who alleges that Cuban fired him last summer in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment by a team executive. Cuban denies the allegations.

Then, just as Nowitzki’s career began to wind down, the Mavericks acquired another superstar in Luka Dončić, who arrived in a 2018 draft-day trade. This year, in his fourth NBA season, the Slovenian wunderkind has led Dallas to a postseason breakthrough after the team had been eliminated in the first round the previous two seasons. Over the course of defeating the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns in the first two rounds of the 2022 playoffs, the Mavericks have found themselves as a complete team with formidable costars in Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie, a first-rate team defense helmed by Maxi Kleber and Reggie Bullock, and an assortment of role players who’ve stepped up at various points.

A conference finals against Golden State and its superstar core of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson could prove to be the perfect showcase series for a Mavericks team ready to make the leap and reach higher levels of both local and national attention.  

Curry and Thompson, arguably the two best shooters in NBA history, along with emerging young scorer Jordan Poole, will present all kinds of problems for the Mavericks defense. But Dončić creates more than anyone else. Small defender? He shoots over him. Big defender? He blows past him.

When these Mavericks have it going—as they did in Sunday’s game seven blowout over the Phoenix Suns, which clinched Dallas’s conference finals spot—they play with an energy and joy that makes them wildly entertaining to fans. They also have the best player remaining in the playoffs in Dončić.

“It’s not just a fun product, it’s an interesting product. They put on a hell of a show,” said Dale Hansen, recently retired after a 41-year career in Dallas television. “Oh my God, they’re fun to watch.

“They’ve had two of the biggest superstars this town has ever had. Dirk Nowitzki might be the best superstar I’ve ever known, and Luka is right there. I’m sitting there during game seven (Sunday night) and getting texts and emails from people just going nuts about the Mavericks.” 

On Monday, I emailed Cuban to ask if his team’s first appearance in the Western Conference finals in eleven years could elevate it even more. “I think we are already there,” he wrote back. “North Texas loves the Mavs. We hear it at every game and see it with so many people wearing Mavs gear.”

“The city is very much in love with the Mavs,” Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw told me. He said the AAC was so loud during game two of the first-round series against Utah that it “reminded me of when they beat the Lakers in the second round in 2011 on the way to the title.”

The Mavericks will never be more popular than the Cowboys, but at least some of that appeal comes from watching Jerry Jones’s train-wreck management style—see four playoff wins in 25 years and this off-season’s string of salacious headlines, among other examples.

“There’s a lot of Cowboys fatigue in this town and the Mavericks are moving in to take advantage,” Cowlishaw said. “People are worn down on the Cowboys’ false promises and failure to deliver.”

And more of those people will be pulled into the picture to check out these Mavericks as the next round plays out. With four teams—Boston, Miami, Golden State, Dallas—remaining in the playoffs, the Mavericks are a popular pick to add another championship trophy. Here’s to a fun ride.