Legal transcripts detail dispute between Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, former coach Don Nelson
July 23, 2009 at 2:23 a.m.
By Brad Townsend and Gary Jacobson
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — The seven-year quarrel between Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and former coach Don Nelson surfaced publicly in snippets and raged into the legal system.
It's still mired there, despite a binding arbitration ruling against Cuban made a year ago next week. But thanks to the release of originally sealed transcripts from last June's arbitration proceeding, the Cuban-Nellie spat is public record — in vivid, blow-by-blow detail.
Most Mavericks fans know the owner and coach were barely speaking by the time Nelson exited as coach and general manager on March 19, 2005. But the transcripts are sprinkled with new nuggets, like the fact that Nelson received a $1 million bonus from Golden State after coaching the Warriors to a 2007 playoffupset of Dallas. There are insightful anecdotes, such as when the Mavericks prepared to make the No. 5 pick in the 2004 draft. Nelson testified that he believed he was in charge of the draft until son Donnie pulled him into the men's room and informed him otherwise.
Other revelations, and more detailed accounts of previous revelations, emerged during the two-day proceeding and are contained in more than 200 pages of testimony, about half of which came from Cuban and Nelson.
At issue was whether Cuban and the Mavericks owed Nelson deferred compensation, per terms of his original 1997 contract and five subsequent amendments. Ultimately, last July 31, arbitrator Glen M. Ashworth, a retired judge, awarded Nelson $6.3 million in back wages and $800,000 for attorney fees.
Last November, a state court confirmed the award, yet Cuban has yet to fork over a penny even as more attorney fees and 5 percent interest, or roughly $30,000 a month, accrue on the potential tab. Why hasn't he paid? The short answer is that the Mavericks appealed the state court ruling.
The longer explanation seems evident in the arbitration transcripts — not only in the legal arguments, but perhaps more telling, the deep-seated acrimony between Cuban and Nelson. With each present at the other's testimony, the tone of their answers seemed respectful, but each got in his digs.
The transcripts were quietly unsealed in December. The Dallas Morning News inquired about them this week.
"It's not a rational course of events here, but not unexpected," Nelson's longtime friend and attorney John O'Connor said of Cuban's refusal to pay the judgment and his decision to appeal. "We think the case is on its last legs."
Nelson did not answer a request to be interviewed for this story. Cuban declined to discuss legal aspects, characterized much of the information in the transcripts as "old news" and called sharing a boardroom table with Nelson "uneventful."
But attorneys for both sides expressed surprise that the transcripts had not attracted media attention until now, adding that they were struck by the insider detail and emotion in the room on June 23-24, 2008. Geoffrey Harper, who represents the Mavericks, called the Don-Donnie restroom story "incredibly heartbreaking."
Perhaps it is a matter of perspective. Cuban and Nelson lived the experience, working together for five years, starting when Cuban purchased the franchise in January 2000. Cuban testified that during the first two-plus years, he "looked up to Nellie as a mentor."
Past media accounts have primarily traced when and why the relationship soured to two incidents.
The first was a 2002-03 preseason meeting in which Cuban told Nelson he would like to see the team carry itself with more urgency. The coach took offense, called in several key players and said the owner had something to say. Cuban believed Nelson was trying to embarrass him.
The second significant breaking point, both men testified, was their disagreement over whether Nelson should have tried to play star Dirk Nowitzki against San Antonio in the 2003 Western Conference finals after Nowitzki injured his knee in Game 3.
Other signs of trouble
But as the arbitration transcript shows, there were more behind-the-scenes trouble signs during the largely successful final three seasons of the Cuban-Nellie era:
Nelson testified that a few days after the 4-2 conference finals loss to the Spurs in 2003, with his contract about to expire, he met with Cuban hoping for a three-year deal and expecting a smooth negotiation.
"Well, he accused me of everything that went wrong," Nelson said. "The Nowitzki thing did not come up in that particular argument, but I remember one thing heaccused me of was losing $40 million that year because the team was over the (salary) cap."
Asked about that negotiation, Cuban testified that he had lost some trust in Nelson's judgment, "not necessarily in his coaching ability, but in his ability as a general manager."
Pressed for an example, Cuban cited the February 2002 seven-player trade in which Dallas sent power forward Juwan Howard to Denver and received Raef LaFrentz. Cuban said he agreed to the trade because Nelson said LaFrentz "would put us over the top."
Cuban testified that in league circles "it was pretty much laughable that we would consider Raef LaFrentz this highly. Cuban said he realized player evaluations are often a crapshoot.
"But when the crap comes up a little too often," he testified, "you question it more, more thoroughly." After explaining why LaFrentz was a bust and how his contract hamstrung the team from a salary cap standpoint, Cuban added: "So you asked for a specific; that was a specific. I can go and give additional ones if you like."
The Mavericks lost to Sacramento in the first round of the 2004 playoffs. But as June's draft loomed, Nelson testified that he had no reason to believe he wouldn't continue to lead that process, noting that he had selected standout Josh Howard with the 29th pick of the previous year's draft.
On draft day, the Mavericks acquired the No. 5 pick from Washington. Nelson testified that as he settled into the draft room to talk to team scouts, he was surprised to hear son Donnie, the team's vice president of operations, discuss taking "this big Russian" with the No. 5 pick.
The player's name is redacted from the arbitration transcript, but it is clear that Nelson was referring to 7-foot-5 Pavel Podkolzin.
"I said, 'Donnie, I cannot take that Russian five,'" Don Nelson testified. "And he asked me if I would go in the men's room. I went in the men's room with him, and he informed me that I wasn't in charge of the draft.
"And I said, 'Oh, really? Well, who is?' He said, 'I am.' And I said, 'Well, it's nice of somebody to tell me.'
"And I said, 'Well, if that's the case, then as your father I'm asking you don't draft (redacted).'
. . . And Donnie didn't. He took Devin Harris."
Later in that draft, the Mavericks sent a future first-round pick to Utah for the rights to No. 21 pick Podkolzin — who never played a regular-season game for Dallas.
A week after that draft, point guard Steve Nash stunned the Mavericks by signing with Phoenix as a free agent.
Nelson testified that he spent much of the 2004-05 season lamenting Cuban's decision not to match Phoenix's offer and keep Nash. Nelson said he wasn't involved in the decision because, by then, he and Cuban weren't talking.
Nelson also said the signing of free-agent center Erick Dampier that off-season made matters worse. He said Cuban circumvented him on that decision by consulting with Nelson's future replacement, Avery Johnson — even though Johnson was a free-agent player at the time.
"I think Dampier signed for more than we were even talking about (for) Steve Nash," Nelson testified. "And I considered him to be a very doggy player that they totally overpaid."
Johnson began the 2004-05 season as an assistant on Nelson's staff. Nelson testified that the only enjoyable part of that season was grooming Johnson as his heir apparent.
Cuban testified about the day in January when he was shocked to learn that Nelson was having shoulder surgery.
"I'm listening to the radio and I hear ½ellipsis¾ 'Don Nelson will be missing three weeks for shoulder surgery and won't be coaching the Mavs.'
"And I'm like,'What?' So I get on the phone and I called Donnie. I'm like, 'What the heck is going on?' And he goes, 'Yeah, just found out about it last night. Avery's going to be coaching.'"
Who hugged whom?
Cuban and Nelson were in general agreement about the decision behind Nelson's stepping down — he was a Mavs consultant for one year before taking the Golden S tate job — and Johnson's replacing him as head coach.
They said they had a cordial private meeting, after which they may or may not have hugged, depending on which version one believes. During the arbitration, it was mentioned to Nelson that he said during his deposition that Cuban did not hug back.
"I don't know," Nelson said at the arbitration. "Who cares?"
Cuban's recollection? "I hugged him. He didn't hug me back. I know a Nellie hug, and that was not a Nellie hug."
Suffice to say, there were no hugs at the arbitration, although O'Connor chuckled in memory of one private Cuban-Nellie moment.
"Don and Mark unintentionally found themselves together alone in the men's room," he said, adding: "The arbitration was really fun. It was like the last episode of Seinfield. Everybody showed up."
And now the word-for-word details are available to any Mavericks fan with a few hours to spare. Parts read like a movie script, others like a marriage counseling session.
"I think it's a very valuable transcript because I think if you are a Mavericks fan, you'd like to know the whys and wherefores of this," O'Connor said. "Really, if you want to call it historic, it gives you as good a window as you can get on the state of the franchise a few years ago."
Staff researcher Molly Motley Blythe contributed to this report.
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