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Madden's Madness: Heroes and Businessmen

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

If Mark Cuban had bought the Penguins, they would still have Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev. He would have used his millions to purchase more talent, and the Penguins would win the Stanley Cup.

If Cuban owned the Pirates, he would use his money to clone Babe Ruth, thaw out Ted Williams and bring back Barry Bonds. The Pirates would win the World Series every year.

If Cuban owned the Steelers, he would get Jerome Bettis fitted with a bionic groin. He would hire NASA scientists to develop an invisible force field to protect Tommy Maddox. The Steelers would win the Super Bowl every year courtesy of Cuban's checkbook.

If Cuban were mayor, all the potholes would be filled, snow would never fall, crack would disappear from the streets, and there would be a Primanti Brothers sandwich in every pot.

I like Mark Cuban. I've found his ownership tenure with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks to be very entertaining, and the standings -- if not the bottom line -- show it also has been very effective.

But it's time to dispel the idea that Cuban could be the savior for every Pittsburgh sports franchise in general, and for the Penguins in particular. It's also time to banish the notion that the former native of Mt. Lebanon is a local folk hero, while Mario Lemieux has somehow let Pittsburgh down.

Cuban does not live in Pittsburgh. He owns no businesses in Pittsburgh. The guy is rich enough that he could live anywhere he wants and own almost any business he wants, and he chooses to live in Dallas and own the Mavericks. In fact, Cuban lived in Dallas before buying the Mavericks. I haven't heard of Cuban making any sizable charitable contributions in Pittsburgh, and there certainly is no Mark Cuban Foundation for Cancer Research donating millions of dollars to places like Children's Hospital.

All that doesn't make Cuban a bad person. But it does mean he's not a Pittsburgher. Not any more.

As for Lemieux, he's rich enough to live anywhere he wants and good enough to play hockey anywhere he wants, and he chooses to live in Pittsburgh and skate for the Penguins. He also decided to buy the Penguins out of bankruptcy in September 1999, thereby keeping the team from moving to Portland, Ore. Lemieux's local charity work is well-documented.

All that doesn't make Lemieux a better person than Cuban. But it does make him a Pittsburgher.

Cuban, of course, made an attempt to become partners with Lemieux during the aforementioned bankruptcy proceedings.

Looking at comments Cuban made at that time, it seems clear he had no interest in buying the franchise lock, stock and barrel. Why not? He certainly had the money to do so. He could have wiped out the team's debt to Lemieux and owned the whole shebang. Why didn't Cuban do that?

Maybe he looked at the purchase from a business standpoint. Maybe Cuban looked at the Penguins as a dead-end investment, which they were -- and are, as long as the NHL doesn't have a salary cap and the Penguins play at antiquated Mellon Arena.

Maybe Cuban wanted the fun of owning a team, and the additional fun of owning it with Lemieux, without taking a huge financial risk. When that fell through, Cuban found a much better investment in Dallas, his hometown.

Sure, at $280 million he overpaid for the Mavericks, but he got a new building and a team with no ceiling on revenue. The NBA is a league with a salary cap and labor peace.

Cuban owns everything, and he can do anything. He obviously enjoys it that way.

Lemieux, on the other hand, took control of the Penguins, thereby protecting the money the franchise owned him. But he could have gotten most of that money in a lump sum settlement by letting the team move. Then he could have come out of retirement in Montreal or New York and earned $20 million a year.

Lemieux surely bought the Penguins for financial reasons, but, when you consider the windfall that would have come his way -- with far less aggravation -- had he allowed the club to move, it's reasonable to conclude that he had some concern for the people of this city. The hockey fans, anyway.

Ron Cook recently wrote on these pages that Lemieux should not have deferred money the Penguins owed him during the first portion of his career. Cook also wrote that Lemieux made a mistake buying the team out of bankruptcy.

All that is probably true. No good deed goes unpunished, I suppose.

Everyone says sports owners are so stupid because they don't run their teams like a business. Well, the Penguins do. When revenues drop, expenses get cut. The St. Louis Blues lost $43 million last year, but they're considered stable. The Penguins, meanwhile, are shaky. Go figure.

Cuban is a billionaire and obviously a shrewd businessman. But the Mavericks lose money, mostly because the team's payroll is above the NBA's $40.3 million salary cap and therefore subject to the hefty NBA luxury tax. Cuban says the Mavericks would break even without the luxury tax.

Of course, that's what Pittsburgh wants, right? A rebel owner to come in, thumb his nose at the economics and throw money around willy-nilly in pursuit of a championship.

But who's to say Cuban would do that in Pittsburgh? Being a smart businessman, I doubt he would.

When you splash the cash in Dallas, there's the possibility of profit. For a team that spends so much, the Mavericks aren't losing all that much. Dallas is one of the nation's top 10 media markets. Dallas is top 10 in terms of population. It's a growing city where new jobs are being created all the time.

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is shrinking in every sense of the word. Young people -- and their disposable income -- are leaving this city quicker than Jim Leyland goes through a pack of Marlboros. Look at Cuban. He beat it to Dallas because he knew the economic prospects were so much greater.

Maybe I should do the same thing. Seems it's the only way to become a hero in Pittsburgh.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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