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June 21, 2011
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June 21, 2011

The History Those Maiden Mavericks


From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, October 27, 1980

COME ON, DADDY," PLEADED THE BOY. HE CLUTCHED A PICNIC BASKET IN one hand and, with the other, dragged a man in a Stetson across the parking lot. "We'll miss the kickoff." "Tip-off, son," said the man. "Kickoff is what they're doing everyplace else in Texas on a Friday night. Tip-off is what they call it here, and it ain't nothing like a kickoff at all." To the uninitiated, a tip-off involves a couple of real tall tight ends dressed in their underwear, jumping for an airborne fumble. Then 10 fellows run around and jump a lot while the numbers on the scoreboard change faster than those on a gas pump. No, it's not football. It's even better, because there's no traffic jam after the game.

Pro basketball, welcome to Dallas. Again. Remember the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA? Played their last game in Big D in 1973 before 573 customers, paying and otherwise. Left by cover of night with their red-white-and-blue balls for the Mexican border but got no farther than San Antonio. Building a team from scratch is never easy. It was 10 years ago that coach Bill Fitch, whose expansion team in Cleveland had a 15--67 record, uttered the immortal words, "War is hell. But expansion is worse."

Now come the Mavericks with a secondhand nickname and a team full of players only an Italian-league coach could love. The veterans, such as they are, were picked from a garage sale of benchwarmers—"pine brothers" in the players' vernacular. As for the rookies, well, picks No. 3 and 4, David Britton and David Johnson, couldn't even make the ragtag club, while Nos. 1 and 2, UCLA's 6' 8" Kiki Vandeweghe and Syracuse's 6' 11" Roosevelt Bouie, told Dallas, "No thanks." Bouie's in Europe, and Vandeweghe's on his way to grad school. The committee that chose Mavericks as the team's moniker did so without realizing that the name already belonged to the University of Texas at Arlington. The newspapers got mad, and UTA and its fans got madder. Now UTA teams are sometimes referred to as the Original Mavericks, but both teams are Mavs in the headlines.

The Mavericks do have some things going for them: a wealthy owner, a determined coach and a sparkling-new 17,761-seat Reunion Arena that boasts a $1.2 million state-of-the-art scoreboard. General manager Norm Sonju spent a year and a half getting an NBA team for Dallas, buttonholing roughly 200 potential investors before coming up with the $12 million entry fee—nearly twice the $6.1 million paid in 1974 by the most recent previous expansion club, New Orleans. "Dallas is football country, but it's also Bible Belt country," says Sonju. "We can win the respect of the people with wholesomeness and goodness and respect for God and country."

When Sonju had trouble coming up with the money, Donald J. Carter, one of Texas's richest men, stepped in and guaranteed the whole $12 million. Carter's mama is the only woman to serve on the Reverend Billy Graham's evangelical board. So it's not surprising that Carter and Sonju came up with a "model" for the team based on down-home Texas values.

As Sonju describes it, the model involves dress standards and moral codes for every Mavericks employee and close attention to myriad other details. The office rug is vacuumed every day. There are no ashtrays in the team's offices. Beer isn't allowed in the team locker room, even though mixed drinks are served in the arena. And the players received instructions commanding them to line up smartly, "arms straight, no gum-chewing," while God Bless America, not The Star-Spangled Banner, is sung at home games.

Watching the team work out with coach Dick Motta before the season began, Rick Sund, the 29-year-old director of player personnel, said, "Hey, maybe we aren't going to win many games right off, but we're banking on the future. Do you realize that the Cowboys went an entire season before they won a football game? Win or lose, we're going to battle. Texans love killers. They'll say, 'The Mavericks didn't win, but they bloodied their noses.'"

As bad as this team is, it's not as bad as people expected. Detroit, which has been in the league 32 years longer, hadn't even won a game by the end of last week, but the Mavericks had; they were victorious their first time out, on Oct. 11, beating San Antonio 103--92. "They're the new kids on the block," the Spurs' George Gervin grumbled after the game, "and the new kids don't last long in a man's world."

True enough, as Dallas found out last week in losing to Seattle 85--83, Denver 133--98, Kansas City 103--91 and San Antonio 110--96. Results such as these are to be expected from a team whose starting lineup has a total of only nine years of NBA experience, but Motta says Dallas is better than he thought it would be. "A lot of these guys are playing hard because the fear of failure is very great," he says. "They've all been let go by other teams, slapped in the face. We should be a contender in three years, but we have to face the realities of life in this league, which say that expansion teams start off by winning from 17 to 20 games."

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