Mark Cuban: Jeffrey Mayer/
Liane Bonin
September 11, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, Mark Cuban will be the Mr. Moneybags of The Benefactor (premieres on ABC, Monday, Sept. 13, at 8 p.m.), dangling a cool $1 million prize before a group of applicants whose only mission is to impress him. That may remind you of a certain reality show hosted by another brash billionaire. But Cuban, 46, maintains his show is different from Donald Trump’s hit The Apprentice. We asked him to explain why he’s in a billionaire boys club all his own.

HE’S NOTHING LIKE TRUMP Don’t look for Cuban, who made his fortune in computer consulting and Internet ventures, to don the Donald’s fancy suits just because he can afford them. ”He’s entourage and gold,” Cuban says. ”I’m jeans and T-shirts. I like him, he’s a nice guy, but he’s a deal maker. He had money and made more money. I’m an entrepreneur who started with ideas and turned them into reality.”

THERE ARE NO RULES Trump may pick off players one by one on his show, but Cuban plays it fast and loose. ”Sometimes it’s one person, sometimes it’s multiple people,” he says. ”And eliminations don’t just happen at the end of the show. Sometimes they happen several times in an episode.” Unlike the more regimented, marketing-oriented tasks of The Apprentice (like selling lemonade, shoebox apartments, and bad art), Cuban’s assignments often involve having his contestants come up with their own ideas — and turning a profit isn’t necessarily the goal. ”The Apprentice is about getting a job. The Benefactor is about winning the money and not needing a job, so it’s very open-ended. I give people challenges, but I don’t give them guidelines. They have to be creative.”

HIS SHOW IS MORE FUN Cuban says that on The Benefactor he wants to emphasize joie de vivre and creativity rather than what he sees as the cutthroat approach of The Apprentice. ”If you want to be successful, you have to know how to have fun,” says Cuban. ”So a challenge might be seeing who makes the most people in Dallas smile over a 24-hour period. I tried to create challenges that pushed people out of their comfort zones and made them face up to their dreams. And the people who did, I rewarded. The people who were afraid went home.”

NO M.B.A. REQUIRED While The Apprentice may cast already successful businessmen and Harvard grads, Cuban’s criteria were entirely different. ”We picked a really diverse group of people who had personality and were people I thought could express their creativity if put in the right position. With some of them I guessed right, but with some of them I was dead wrong. You can find people who are unique personalities. But the hard part was weeding out people who were asses.”

FORGET ”YOU’RE FIRED” There will be no boardroom review for contestants to suffer through on Cuban’s show, and no brutal dressing-down by the boss, either. ”It’s not ‘Oh, you’re out of here, you’re fired.’ I want people to win. My attitude was ‘Don’t give me a reason to make you fail.”’ Indeed, the touchy-feely billionaire had a hard time giving people the boot. ”People would cry and hug me, and I was upset. I got to love these people.” Crying? Hugging? Trump would eat this guy for lunch.

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