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DALLAS (AP)—The feud between Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and former coach Don Nelson stretches back nearly seven years and has some $7 million at stake. But just how ugly and dysfunctional their relationship has been is only now being revealed.
Previously secret testimony and e-mail, now in the public record as part of legal proceedings initiated in the last 10 months, paint the picture of a spat that has turned two of the NBA’s best-known figures into bitter adversaries.
There’s deposition testimony from Cuban in which he acknowledges that he withheld consulting fees from Nelson in 2006 because he believed the former coach had “badmouthed” the team during the NBA finals and should be made to “beg” for the money. There’s also testimony from Nelson in which he describes being so disgusted with Cuban that he signed a contract to stay on as coach in 2003 only after friends “got me drunk.”
“I think everybody would like to see this settled amicably, but you know how it is in a lawsuit,” said former Mavericks assistant Del Harris, who frequently acted as an intermediary between Cuban and Nelson when he worked for the team.
The proceedings stem from a contract dispute over whether Nelson, now the coach of the Golden State Warriors, should be paid millions in salary he deferred while coaching the Mavericks from 1997 to 2005.
Nelson contends that he legitimately earned the money. But Cuban believes Nelson should get nothing because he breached a contract that made him a Mavericks consultant when he took the Golden State job in August 2006. Although an arbitrator ruled in Nelson’s favor, Cuban has refused to pay the money, now totaling more than $7 million.
Neither Cuban nor Nelson would comment when contacted by The Associated Press for this story.
The matter is one of several legal actions currently involving Cuban, the dot.com billionaire who has become famous for his outspoken ways, courtside antics and outbursts against NBA officials.
A federal judge last week dismissed an insider trading suit brought against Cuban by the Securities and Exchange Commission, though the agency can still amend its complaint. Another lawsuit filed last week by a company controlled by former Mavericks owner Ross Perot Jr. accuses Cuban of wrongfully diverting millions in profits derived from the Mavericks’ home arena, the American Airlines Center, to cover cash shortfalls incurred by the team.
Cuban’s refusal to abide by the arbitrator’s decision led Nelson to file suit in state court last September.
Nelson has also filed a defamation suit against Cuban in California over comments the owner made on a Bay Area radio show in 2007. He claims that Cuban, who was on the show to promote his appearance on “Dancing with the Stars,” defamed him when he said the coach’s demand for money was an attempt “to rip me off.”
In support of his claim, Nelson has included in his court filings an off-the-record e-mail exchange between Cuban and a reporter in which Cuban refers to Nelson as “sleazy” and having “no concept of reality or ethics.”
Perhaps the most revealing document in the public record is the transcript of the arbitration hearing, which took place in June 2008.
During the hearing, Cuban and Nelson gave their versions of how their relationship unraveled, beginning with their disagreement over whether star forward Dirk Nowitzki(notes) should play against the San Antonio Spurs in the sixth game of the 2003 Western Conference finals.
Nelson withheld Nowitzki, who had suffered a knee injury earlier in the series, despite Cuban’s entreaties to play him. The Mavericks lost the game and the series.
Cuban testified that he had assurances from team doctors that Nowitzki couldn’t hurt the knee any worse and believed Nelson was trying to take pressure off himself by keeping the player on the bench. But Nelson testified that he had a similar injury when he was a player and worried that playing Nowitzki could have a long-term effect.
“I didn’t want to jeopardize this great young player’s career for a basketball game, no matter how important it seemed at the time,” Nelson testified.
From that point on, Nelson testified, he was phased out of personnel decisions. At the 2004 draft, he thought he was in charge of the Mavericks’ selections until he spoke with his son, Donnie, the team’s president of basketball operations, during a men’s room conversation that night.
Cuban, in his testimony, denied keeping Nelson out of the loop, saying personnel matters were group decisions.
The hearing testimony also brought out how Cuban and Nelson remained at odds even after Nelson turned over the coaching job to Avery Johnson late in the 2004-2005 season.
Cuban testified that he learned from Johnson that Nelson had been “badmouthing” him while standing in a tunnel leading to the court during home games. Cuban testified that he then invented a “cockamamie” story during the 2006 NBA finals that NBA safety regulations prevented anyone from standing in arena tunnels during those games.
Nelson denied saying anything negative about Johnson and said Cuban wanted him moved out of the tunnel “because I was getting my face on television instead of Mark.”
Nelson also described how he hoped to serve as a mentor behind the scenes in the mold of Red Auerbach, his former coach with the Boston Celtics, yet wasn’t given the chance by Cuban.
“I actually thought when we split we would become friends again,” he said. “That’s how naive I was.”