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Mark Cuban on 1999 Pens Ownership Flirtation: “It Was More About Keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh”

The Pittsburgh native almost was the “Ron Burkle” in Mario’s initial ownership group

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Five Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Mark Cuban was a guest on today’s episode of Victory The Podcast. The Pittsburgh native chatted with his friends from the show/movie Entourage about how before the Dallas Mavericks, one of his first forays into owning a team included talks in 1999 with Mario Lemieux.

First, we sold and I was like, “oh f—, the world just changed”. And someone called me up and Mario Lemieux wants to talk to you about the Penguins. And I’m like ‘OK, I’ll talk’.

And I didn’t know what to expect the first time, so I get to the airport, my buddy picks me up. In Pittsburgh and there’s all these TV cameras. And I’m like “what the f—-” and you start to realize this world is a little bit different.

I met with Mario and there was just all this stuff. And I wasn’t a hockey guy, per se, but it was more about keeping the Penguins in Pittsburgh. And then this guy Ron Burkle came in and bailed them out, so that [ownership] didn’t happen.

Cuban references, the company that put him on the map — especially when he was a part of a $5.7 billion sale to Yahoo! back in April 1999 (ahh, the times of the grand dotcom bubble!) That proved to be perfect timing, being as in 1999 the Penguins were in bankruptcy and dealing with one of their leading creditors in Lemieux.

But the Cuban/Lemieux partnership never took off after their meeting. Today, Cuban just glosses over it with “there was all this stuff” but he gave a little more information in this 2003 article from the Tribune Review, that amazingly still remains online almost 20 years later.

Cuban wanted to be part of Mario Lemieux’s ownership team as Lemieux was seeking to buy the Penguins out of bankruptcy in 1999, but he had philosophical differences with Lemieux’s group and pulled out.

“It just didn’t work out,” Cuban said.

Lemieux ended up partnering with California businessman Ron Burkle as the “money guy” portion of his ownership group. Looking back, it’s clear Mario made a good choice — Burkle has been content to remain in the background and be a mostly hands off partner, though he certainly has weighed in about team budgets and has always allowed and pushed for the Penguins to be provided as much as possible to try and win.

For the team’s part, they’ve won three championships and that prestige plus a new arena has grown Burkle’s reported $25 million investment into what was said to be a $120 million worth back in 2017.

Personality-wise, Burkle has been a good match for Lemieux, both are borderline reclusive public figures that don’t seek the limelight.

...Mark Cuban, of course, is anything but a recluse from his stints on the Entourage and Shark Tank show, followed by his penchant to often be front and center at Dallas Mavericks games. Cuban has changed the image of the entire team owner has been over the last 20 years, and no less successful on and off the court, just in his own way.

Months after Pens’ ownership didn’t work out, Cuban purchased the majority stake in the Mavs in January 2000 for $285 million. That franchise was valued at $2.45 billion (BILLION!) by Forbes earlier this year.

Cuban has been occasionally linked to buying his hometown teams, once he was a small part of a 2006 investment group that tried and failed to purchase the Pens from Lemieux and Burkle. Cuban may have unsuccessfully tried to sniff around buying the Pirates, who never wanted to be for sale in 2005. In 2020 Cuban proclaimed baseball a “mess” with no vision and was thankful he didn’t invest in that sport, so the odds other owners ever approve of him to join their club is probably pretty low.

Fate in sports and business would go onto work out for Lemieux and Cuban, even if it didn’t work out together as a partnership. In a way, it’s a shame an outspoken, vibrant personality like Cuban never got involved in the NHL. In another way, he probably would have been too overbearing at times as well. All things work out as they should, but it’s fun to imagine what could have been with Mark Cuban as Mario Lemieux’s ownership partner.