- Associated Press - Thursday, May 12, 2011

DALLAS (AP) - After years of bankrolling one of the NBA’s highest-paid teams and paying more than $1 million in fines for haranguing the refs, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is making perhaps his biggest sacrifice yet.

He’s gone silent.

The normally loquacious Cuban hardly has been heard from since the Mavericks got out of the first round of the playoffs. During their second-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Cuban was as visible as ever _ jawing with Kobe Bryant during a game, joining players and coaches in the post-series greeting line to shake hands with Phil Jackson _ but he either avoided interviews or only made small talk with reporters.

Asked in an email Thursday if there was a reason for his recent low profile, Cuban replied, “Nope.”

Without Cuban explaining his new approach, speculation abounds. Perhaps someone dared him to see how long he could go. Or maybe he was just trying something different in hopes of a different result for the Mavericks; after all, his club hasn’t won any championships in 11 years of trying as he has soaked up the spotlight.

If that’s the impetus, and the Mavs end up winning their first title … well, there’s no telling what might happen.

“It should be about the players, never about the owner,” Mavs superstar Dirk Nowitzki said. “We played a great series (against the Lakers), we fought hard and battled and that was fun. I haven’t really seen Mark since then and that’s probably a good thing. It’s fine.”

Dallas has won at least 50 games in each full season under Cuban’s watch. Nowitzki’s rise to among the game’s elite players is a big reason, but so is the owner’s willingness to load up on quality players, coaches and whatever else he considers might give his team an edge.

For years, that included getting fined for lashing out about officiating. That hasn’t happened in a while, though.

Before Game 2 of the first-round series against Portland, Cuban refused to comment when the Mavs were assigned his least favorite ref, Dan Crawford. Dallas had won only one of the last 18 playoff games Crawford had worked, until bucking the trend that night.

Yet that wasn’t the dawning of the Quiet Cuban era.

Following a loss in Game 4, Cuban piped up with some specific complaints that he said would likely get him fine. They didn’t, which led to rumors of another possible, but highly unlikely, explanation for his new leaf _ some sort of secret probation.

Nowitzki believes there’s something else at work. His boss has mellowed.

Cuban has gone from being single to getting married and having two young daughters. Earlier this season, Cuban estimated that he’d missed more games in 2010-11 than all previous years combined, mainly because he was staying home for soccer games and dance recitals instead of joining a road trip to Cleveland and Indiana.

“He still gets fired up during games,” Nowitzki said. “He’s still a huge fan once the ball goes up. He’s still in it with his heart. … He picks his spots better, I think. He’s not as hands-on as he was. He’s still hands-on for an owner, I think, but not as hands-on as he used to be.”

The Western Conference finals will begin in Dallas on Sunday or Tuesday. It’s the closest the Mavs have been to a championship since 2006, when they blew a 2-0 lead to the Miami Heat in the NBA finals. Dallas lost Game 3 in the final seconds and Game 5 in overtime, with Cuban going bonkers over the officiating each time. After the series, Nowitzki joined the chorus of those saying the owner’s antics were hurting his team.

“He’s definitely changed,” said Jason Terry, the team’s longest-tenured player after Nowitzki. “I think guys have seen it. He’s still going to get on the refs if they make a call he doesn’t particularly care about. But he’s doing a great job with the media, being mindful of the fact they do listen when he talks. I give him a lot of credit for that.”

Cuban kept his lips zipped the last few weeks under the most quote-worthy of circumstances.

Dallas just ended Los Angeles’ two-year reign as NBA champs and three years atop the Western Conference. The Mavericks swept the Lakers, too, with Nowitzki outplaying Bryant and with three Los Angeles players getting so rankled that they started throwing cheap shots, leading to ejections and suspensions. The combination made for an ugly exit for Jackson, who is retiring after winning a career that included an NBA-record 11 titles.

Earlier this season, Cuban and Jackson had some fun with a dialogue volleyed back and forth through reporters, spiced up by the Mavs owner calling the Lakers coach a “boy toy.” Late in the season, Cuban picked on volatile Los Angeles forward Ron Artest, admittedly playing mind games with him. Cuban avoided both targets _ at least, publicly _ during the series, even after Artest was the first of the Lakers to get ejected and suspended.

He’s even been tame on Twitter. After the series, all he tweeted was, “i’m proud of our guys and the MFFL Nation. One game at a time. We believe” (MFFL stands for “Mavs Fan For Life,” a term he coined and put on his license plate.)

Cuban’s low profile certainly is no accident.

The Internet billionaire showed his media savvy soon after buying the team in 2000. Because the franchise was among the worse in all pro sports, his first challenge was giving people a reason to even pay attention to the club. Everything he did, said or bought became headlines _ like turning over his guest house to newly acquired Dennis Rodman until the league said that was a no-no.

Two postseasons ago, Cuban hogged the attention during Dallas’ series against Denver as a diversionary tactic to keep reporters from the bigger story going on, Nowitzki’s private life falling apart. A woman he’d become engaged to was discovered to be a fraud; she was arrested at his house and later sent to a Missouri prison for violating probation in a forgery case.

No matter how much Cuban enjoys attention, what he wants most is an NBA title.

It would be a heck of a scene, too, Cuban in his jeans and T-shirt taking the shiny gold trophy from NBA commissioner and frequent sparring partner David Stern.

Mark is going to do whatever it takes to win a championship,” Terry said. “If it’s to spend more money, he does it. You look at our talent, you look at our roster _ he’s done his job.”

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