Skip to main content
Original Issue


The eyes of Texas are usually upon football games, but the NBA's new team in Dallas is trying to change that

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."

"Tipoff, Son," said the man. "Kickoff is what they're doing everyplace else in Texas on a Friday night. Tipoff is what they call it here, and it ain't nothing like a kickoff at all."

To the uninitiated, a tipoff involves a couple of real tall tight ends dressed in their underwear, jumping for an airborne fumble. Then all 10 fellows on both teams 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, where winners fly their own airplanes and losers are encouraged to take their acts to Waco. By sundown. Remember the late, great 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 they got no farther than San Antonio. It's been 10 years since 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 bench warmers—"pine brothers" in the players' vernacular. As for the rookies, well, sadly the Mavericks' history will include the fact that the club's first four picks from the college draft turned out to be as useless as West Texas. Nos. 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 Mavericks do have some things going for them: a wealthy owner, a determined coach and sparkling new 17,761-seat Reunion Arena. 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' richest men, stepped in and guaranteed the whole $12 million. Carter's mama, who founded the Dallas home accessories company that made the family rich, is the only woman to serve on Rev. 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. "What an example we could set for the NBA and our country," gushes Sonju, "if we had a brand-new, clean model that worked just right."

Watching the model, er, 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.' "

On the floor, the motley Mavericks looked out of place against the background of beautiful green and blue arena seats and below the $1.2 million state-of-the-art scoreboard. But at least no one was dogging it. "Dick didn't want anything that even remotely resembled his Washington Bullet team," said Sund.

Dallas doesn't, not with Geoff Huston, Winford Boynes, Jim Spanarkel, Austin Carr, Terry Duerod and Joe Hassett for guards; Tom LaGarde and Ralph Drollinger for centers; Abdul Jeelani, Jerome Whitehead, Richard Washington, Darrell Allums and Marty Byrnes for forwards. 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 ("I don't believe in moral victories," said Motta), Denver 133-98, Kansas City 103-91 and San Antonio 110-96.

Games like 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. "I'm sure 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."

If Dallas does better than that, it will be because the Mavericks are doing a commendable job of executing Motta's deliberate offense. It worked in Chicago and Washington and it will work, at least to some degree, in Dallas too, because it's founded upon the theory that most pro players will guard a man through two screens but not three or more. "We'll mess with the clock like we did with the old Bulls," Motta says. "Slow teams down. Go gritty on them. Play country music during time-outs."

For anything to work, though, it's absolutely essential that LaGarde stay healthy. "He can do almost anything you ask him to," Motta says, "but we're scared to death about his knees." Motta is also high on Huston. "I don't know that I've ever had a guard who can do both playmaking and scoring as well as Geoff can," he says.

Motta parted company with both of his previous NBA employers, the Bulls in 1976 and the Bullets after last season, rather than put up with the spoiled players and meddlesome management he so detests. He is and has always been his own man. "I don't want to sound corny," he says, "but I like the collegiate atmosphere. I had that early with the Bulls, and I had a chance to coach the superstars in Washington—or, rather, to make substitutions during games there. Whatever, I won a championship [in 1978], so now I've washed that right out. I've always loved Dallas and I've always wanted an expansion team. I like the idea of starting something new. Of course, we haven't lost 30 in a row yet."

The Mavericks didn't exactly get off to a roaring start in the Metroplex, which is what the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth have been collectively calling themselves since they built an airport bigger than Manhattan between them. It was bad enough that Sonju, who once was president of the old Buffalo Braves, was a carpetbagger from the North—he doesn't own even a single pair of lizard-skin boots—but did he have to borrow another local team's nickname? The inevitable name-choosing contest brought in some wonderful suggestions, like the Podnahs, Wranglers, Snail Darters, Goatheads and Ayatollahs. But Sonju headed a committee that chose Mavericks, 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. One reporter is talking about calling the NBA club the Plagiarists, shortened, of course, to Plagues.

The Mavericks have been plagued from the start. Originally, each NBA team was going to protect only seven players, allowing the Mavericks to choose from among four. Then the league decided to freeze eight. "There went all the backup centers," says Sund. Instead of allowing Dallas the first or second pick in the college draft—at least after the first round—the Mavericks had to pick 11th all the way through.

The Mavericks added to their problems by going through both the dispersal and college drafts without a coach. "Too much to do" is Sonju's lame excuse for not having named one. Fortunately, Sund, who had spent five years as an administrative assistant with the Bucks, had been under a personal contract to Sonju since February of last season, well before the Dallas franchise was approved. With the help of Bucks Coach Don Nelson, Sund spent the season scouting NBA teams and trying to figure out which players might be available.

When the franchise was finally awarded on May 1, just 27 days before the dispersal draft, coaching candidates began flocking to Dallas. They included former NBA coaches and assistants like Motta, Larry Brown of UCLA, Jack McKinney and Bob Weiss, plus the early favorite, Eddie Sutton of Arkansas. But Sutton had too good a deal already and turned Dallas down. So did Brown, who felt he couldn't leave UCLA after only one year. Motta, meanwhile, was making a bad impression on Sonju. After an interview Sonju told the local press that Motta's chances of getting the job were zero.

While Sonju worried over the coaching problem, Sund pored over the list of "availables" in the draft. "I called everybody who had ever been involved in expansion," Sund says. "They all said, 'Don't take shortcuts.' " Translated, that meant don't mortgage the team's future for an Elvin Hayes the way the Jazz did for Pete Maravich, who, coincidentally, was one of the players the Mavericks could have selected. Also Dallas was determined to stay away from so-called "problem players" or players with big contracts. Thus, Sund passed up the likes of Washington's Bob Dandridge and John Williamson, Philadelphia's Doug Collins, Denver's Charlie Scott, San Diego's Marvin Barnes and even that Texas favorite, Houston's Rick Barry.

The college draft turned out to be an exercise in futility. The Mavericks drafted Vandeweghe, even though he'd told them he would probably go to grad school if he couldn't play in New York or Los Angeles. Dallas, picking just ahead of the Knicks in the first round, chose him anyway.

But if Vandeweghe didn't want the Mavericks, Motta did. He had a friend call some Dallas reporters to find out what was happening on the coaching front. Motta feared that Sonju's friend, Philadelphia GM Pat Williams, had warned him off Motta because Williams carried a grudge against Motta from the days when Williams was Motta's boss in Chicago. Just like that, stories began appearing that asked why a candidate as well suited for the job as Motta had been dismissed so abruptly.

Carter, who had $12 million at stake, posed the same question. He hadn't been aware of the Motta interview when it occurred. He didn't even know who Motta was. "Maybe we should go talk to him at his home," Carter told Sonju. Sonju was quick to agree, so they flew one of Carter's jets to Motta's mountain cabin in Fish Haven, Idaho.

"You should've seen it," says Motta, eyes twinkling. "I go out to meet this millionaire in my old pickup truck. A friend said, 'You ought to borrow a car.' I said no, this is us. So we're bouncing along talking country, walking in the mountains. First time I've ever actually campaigned for a job. Couple of weeks later I fly in to Dallas, and there's Mr. Carter at the airport with his pickup truck. And that was that."

Despite the difference of opinion on Motta, Carter and Sonju did agree on their "model" for the team. As Sonju constantly describes it, the model involves dress standards and moral codes for every employee in the organization 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. Each player was compelled to sign a special pledge stating that use of illegal drugs would constitute a breach of his contract. 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.

Vandeweghe won't be there to hear it. During negotiations, he was guided by his father, Ernie, a Los Angeles physician and former Knick forward, who has counseled Bill Walton and Jamaal Wilkes and other NBA players, and his UCLA coach, Brown. On their advice, he asked for a three-year $500,000 deal with no money guaranteed. This was about $75,000 more than the amount Mike Woodson, the next player chosen, received from the Knicks. The Mavericks offered $420,000, and there they stayed. All summer. Neither side budged. Finally, in true Texas style, the Mavericks issued an ultimatum and a deadline, which said in effect: "Come to Dallas on Thursday, Sept. 25. You have until 5 p.m. to sign, or forget it."

Kiki did go and he did listen, but when it became obvious that Dallas' offer hadn't changed, he didn't sign. Now he is back in school, completing the requirements for his undergraduate degree in economics—he had taken several incompletes because of a trip to China last spring—and preparing for grad school. The Mavericks say they won't trade him unless a fantastic deal materializes, so he remains their property until next year's draft, when his value will probably have diminished because of inactivity. "Either I showed a lot of guts," Vandeweghe says, "or incredible stupidity."

But at least the Mavericks had a chance to show their Texas toughness. "If we let Kiki push us around, what happens next year if we have the No. 1 pick and draft Ralph Sampson?" said Sund. The usually sunshiny Sonju was even more outspoken. "If that young man thinks we're going to be intimidated," he said, "well, all I can say is Dallas happens to be the wrong city to try that on."

Sonju is much cheerier when he's talking about running his team. Before one Maverick game, Sonju was running around chortling and declaring, "Every day is like Christmas morning," and patting the janitors, electricians and usherettes on their backs. "Aren't these girls precious?" he said. "We wanted well-scrubbed gals, so we went to the Campus Crusade for Christ at SMU."

He chased around the arena looking after details from a 30-page checklist. "When you start a franchise from tabula rasa, you don't do it from the back of an envelope," he said. He gushed over the printer who prepared the programs, congratulated the man who wired the 24-second clock, explained how he went through 70 revisions before approving the team's logo. He inspected the plush home locker room, finest in the league, and then the visitors', which is as bare as an unfinished basement. "The officials will dress here," he said, pointing to another door. "But instead of going to the court through the same tunnel our players use, they'll go around to another one. I gave the orders because Dick gets many of his technical fouls in the tunnel."

But all the planning in the world cannot change the fate of an expansion team. Bingo Smith, an original Cavalier, who was drafted by Dallas but failed to make the team, has a good idea of what lies ahead. "I seem to remember that in Cleveland there was a lot of garbage on the coach's front lawn and toilet paper hanging from his trees," he says.

If that happens to Motta, he might consider it a compliment. In Texas, that type of emotional reaction is usually reserved for football coaches.



Sonju (left) is working to have a "model" team off the court, while Motta tries for one on the court.


Carter used his millions to purchase the franchise and his pickup to help make a deal with a coach.


The most important Mavericks are the center, LaGarde (above), and the playmaker, Huston.


Vandeweghe, the No. 1 draft choice, chose the books over the boards.