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As Mavs Celebrate 40th Anniversary, Employees Reminisce About Inaugural Season

By Dwain Price,

May 19, 2020

This is the first of a five-part series chronicling the Dallas Mavericks’ 1980-’81 season, which was their first season in the NBA. Today: Laying the foundation. Saturday: Norm Sonju.

As the Dallas Mavericks celebrate their 40th birthday today, Kevin Sullivan remembers during their first year of existence when they actually suffered from an identity crisis.

“There were a hard core group of people that were really excited from the very beginning, but there also were a lot of people in Dallas who did not know what we were,” Sullivan said. “I would be asked sometimes, when I was getting a haircut, ‘Mavericks? What is that? Is that soccer?’

“And (Basketball Hall of Fame point guard) Nancy Lieberman was playing for the Dallas Diamonds back then, and there would be people asking: ‘Is the Mavericks women’s basketball?’ because she was super famous. But we did have a loyal following from the beginning that grew and grew.”

Sullivan should know. The NBA officially granted the Mavs an expansion franchise on May 1, 1980, and Sullivan was hired on June 2, 1980 as the team’s public relations assistant.

In their inaugural season, the Mavs’ entire front office staff consisted of just 15 people. And they initially worked out of the North Dallas real estate offices of former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach – located on Interstate 635 and Hillcrest — until Reunion Arena was completed before the 1980-81 season started.

“I remember my first day when Dave Burchett (director of public relations) and Greg Jamison (director of marketing), and I stayed there until 11 p.m.,” Sullivan said. “And they kept saying, ‘You don’t have to stay.” But I was saying to myself, ‘I’m not going to leave.’ I didn’t want to leave ever, because I had gotten this job in the NBA.

“I remember walking out — it’s 11 p.m. — and I was so fired up I couldn’t sleep. It was like this is going to be the greatest experience of my life, and really it was in so many ways.”

Being on the ground floor with the Mavs also turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of Keith Grant’s life. One of a group of 20-somethings who had their career jump-started thanks to Mavs co-founder and general manager Norm Sonju, Grant began working for the Mavs on Sept. 1, 1980 and has never been off the franchise’s payroll.

In fact, Grant is the longest tenured employee for the Mavs and has watched this franchise experience a myriad of changes since its inception four decades ago.

“The first season was an experience for all of us,” said Grant, who started out as the Mavs’ equipment manager and is now the team’s assistant general manager. “I had just gotten out of college and I moved down here Labor Day Weekend.”

Of his fresh new co-workers, Grant said: “We were all around the same age. I was the equipment manager, so I was low man on the totem pole. I didn’t know where that was going to go, but it turned out Ok. I’m not complaining.”

Looking back to the day the Mavs were born, for Sonju it was as if a child of his own was born on that memorable day. Leading up to the press conference when NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien gave Mavs co-founders Don Carter and Sonju their official NBA expansion franchise papers, Sonju had worked so tirelessly trying to bring the NBA to Dallas that today’s 40-year old milestone was emotional.

“I would describe my May 1, 1980, experience as a blur – b-l-u-r,” Sonju said. “I felt so busy and it was such a blur and it went flawlessly, and literally I left (the press conference) and I went back to the office and kept working.”

Rick Sund was the first Mavericks’ employee Sonju hired, and he came on board and was working for Sonju with a personal service contract even before the Mavs were officially an NBA franchise. At the tender age of 27, Sund was the team’s director of player personnel and helped execute both the 1980 expansion draft and the NBA Draft.

As part of the expansion draft, the Mavs were allowed to choose one player from each of the other 22 NBA teams after each team “froze” eight players on their roster who were unavailable to the Mavs. That left the Mavs in a quagmire.

“What I found out was almost everyone that was drafted in the expansion draft (in previous years) were gone in three or four years,” said Sund, after seeking sage advice from other NBA executives. “A lot of the advice I got from people in the league that had gone through expansion basically said don’t go after older veterans because you’re still an expansion team, you’re not going to win very many games.

“They said to go with young guys and hope that they can be with you in two of three years. So that was kind of the format that we had and what we did.”

It didn’t help the Mavs their initial season when their own first-round draft choice — Kiki Vandeweghe, who was the 11th overall pick – refused to play for them and demanded a trade. That trade request was eventually granted on Dec. 3, 1980 when the Mavs shipped Vandeweghe to the Denver Nuggets for a first-round pick that the Mavs turned into Rolando Blackman in 1981.

The 1980 expansion draft and NBA Draft occurred before the Mavs hired a head coach. They ultimately got around to that on July 16, 1980 when they hired Dick Motta, who was two years removed from coaching the Washington Bullets to the NBA title before beating out Eddie Sutton, Bob Weiss and Bobby Boyd to become the Mavericks’ first head coach.

The Mavs opened the inaugural season on Oct. 11, 1980, with an invigorating 103-92 home win over the San Antonio Spurs behind 21 points and seven rebounds from Winford Boynes, and 19 points and 14 boards from Tom LaGarde. The Mavs went on to finish the season with a 15-67 record, and truly treasured every victory.

“One of the things that was interesting that first year is when you’re a bad team and you’re an expansion team, every win you get is like winning the NCAA championship,” Sund said. “You go in that locker room and we cherished every one of those wins.”

The fans cherished those wins, also. Especially since the Mavs’ most expensive ticket in 1980 was only $15.

“One of my favorite players in the beginning was Bill Robinzine,” said 77-year old Robert Rottinger, who has been a Mavs’ season ticket holder every year that they’ve been around. “He just hustled so much, he went diving for basketballs on the sidelines and really was a humble guy.

“And the Mavericks always treated their season ticket holders properly.”

Another player who went after a lot of loose basketballs was Brad Davis, who joined the 1980-81 Mavs in December of 1980 after playing for the Anchorage Northern Knights in the Continental Basketball Association.

“It was an interesting first year,” Davis said. “We had a lot of guys come in and out that first year.

“The fans were very enthusiastic. They were very loud and they loved the game.”

The Mavs only sold out two of their 41 home games during that first season. Both games happened when Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers came to Dallas.

“I remember the first time when Magic came we had a few tickets left on the morning of the game, and he had agreed to do media availability after shootaround and he wanted to make sure that the game sold out,” Kevin Sullivan said. “I remember (Mavs public relations director) Allen Stone going to Magic and thanking him for this.

“We had gotten word that the last tickets were sold, and Magic said, ‘Ok then.’ And he kind of clapped his hands together like he had accomplished his first mission, which was to sell the game out, and his second mission was to take care of business that night.”

The Mavs averaged 7,789 fans at home during their inaugural season, and 8,912 fans during their road games. They drew 17,828 at Reunion Arena on Mar. 17, 1981 for a game against the Lakers, which, at the time, was a record home crowd for an NBA expansion team.

Meanwhile, their won-loss record notwithstanding, the Mavs considered their 1980-81 season a glowing success.

“It was incredibly exciting to be a part of something from the ground floor,” Sullivan said. “We had great people, and Mr. Carter and Norm Sonju had created this family atmosphere where everybody was supported.

“I was 21 years old, I was the eighth employee (hired) and there were only 15 people in the front office that first year, so it was an incredible close-knit, all hands on deck, whatever it takes atmosphere. Just an exhilarating experience with really good and talented people that Norm had put together.”

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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