This is the fifth of a five-part series chronicling the Dallas Mavericks’ 1980-81 season, which was their first season in the NBA. Today: Surviving in the Dallas Cowboys’ backyard.

The year was 1980, and the Dallas Mavericks were the newly-minted pro sports team on the North Texas scene.

Seven years after the American Basketball Association’s Dallas Chaparrals pulled up stakes and moved to San Antonio and changed their name to the Spurs, the Mavericks rolled into Dallas and tried their hand at surviving deep in the heart of Dallas Cowboys country.

Then again, Norm Sonju never did think his team was trying to lure some of the same diehard fans who were fixated on the Cowboys and tuned them into followers of the Mavericks. The Mavs’ co-founder had other ideas.

“My attitude was football is an event – it’s one game a week,” Sonju told “You have a whole week of buildup to that one game, so my competition in my mind was not football.

“My competition was the movie theater, or bowling or dancing – things that people could be doing rather than going to our games. And not only do we rarely play when the Cowboys play, but we played in the evening. Most of our games were in the evening.”

While that’s a solid rationale on Sonju’s part, the fact of the matter is when the Mavs were awarded an NBA franchise on May 1, 1980, the Cowboys were just three years removed from capturing the franchise’s second of five Super Bowls. But did the Cowboys’ loyal following pose a legitimate threat to the Mavs, who were trying to build their own loyal fan base from scratch during the team’s inaugural season?

“It was really funny, because it was totally Cowboys country,” said Rick Sund, who was the Mavs’ first-ever employee and worked as the team’s director of player personnel from 1980-92. “They have the moniker — America’s Team.

“Well, it was America’s Team.”

Randy Galloway, a long-time sports columnist from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News — and also a sports radio talk show host – recalls questioning back in the late 1970’s if Dallas would support an NBA franchise in a city dominated by the Cowboys.

“Remember, there was a lot of doubt, I think even with the NBA, whether Dallas/Fort Worth would support an NBA team in those days,” Galloway said. “The (Texas) Rangers, when Billy Martin was here (as their manager), they had a couple of good teams that fans would come out and would pay to see baseball.

“But when the Mavericks came here, of course, we were all ecstatic. The NBA’s coming to town.”

Galloway credits Dallas mayor Bob Folsom with getting the ball rolling that ultimately led to Don Carter and Sonju becoming co-founders of the Mavs. Folsom was the guiding force behind a hard-charging business group that brought the Chaparrals to Dallas in 1967.

The Chaparrals, who played at the Dallas Convention Center and SMU’s Moody Coliseum, later moved to San Antonio in 1974. Folsom then became the mayor of Dallas from 1976-81, and led a fierce political charge that ended with the building of Reunion Arena.

Construction workers broke ground on Reunion Arena on March 15, 1978, and it was completed at a cost of $27 million, and Parliament-Funkadelic was the first musical act to perform at the venue on May 9, 1980. Eight days before that, the NBA awarded the Mavs an expansion franchise.

“Give full, full credit to Bob Folsom,’’ Galloway said. “The NBA couldn’t have happened here without Reunion being built, because there was no place to play in this town.

“Bob took immense grief wanting to build Reunion Arena, and of course Reunion Arena was the greatest thing that happened here in North Texas because all kinds of things came here. That arena is certainly the reason the NBA gave the franchise to Don Carter, and the reason hockey came to Dallas (in 1993 after the Stars moved from Minnesota).”

Still, football was the dominant sport in Texas in general, and in Dallas in particular. Sonju knew that was one of the primary challenges about opening up an NBA franchise in North Texas.

“Dallas, at that time, was total football country,” Sonju said. “Baseball was big, because it’s Major League Baseball, but not close to football.

“Football was king by light years over anything else, so it was tough.”

Not only that, there already was an NBA franchise in Houston and one in San Antonio. Even to this day, California – with the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings – is the only state with more than two NBA franchises under its roof.

“Do we really want three NBA teams in Texas?,” Galloway said was the battle cry back in the late 1970’s. “There were a lot of people hesitant about giving Dallas a franchise, because they did not know that it would work here.

“But that quickly changed based on what happened by the mid-80s. That’s when everybody went, ‘Oh, great move.’ Reunion Arena was packed with Mavericks; fans, the crowds were great. The Cowboys controlled Dallas, but by the mid-80’s there was no louder arena in the NBA than Reunion Arena. And it was something to see.”

It was something to see because of the foundation laid by Carter, Sonju and director of player personnel Rick Sund, the talented players they brought to town, and the chemistry that ensued. That trio helped build a gritty, workmanlike team that resonated with fans in North Texas.

Meanwhile, with a brand new arena, the inquisitive Mavericks’ fans showed up and got behind the new team on the block as Dallas drew an average of 7,789 fans during their inaugural season.

“We were like a new toy, so the fans were great,” said Keith Grant, who was the Mavs’ equipment manager during their first season. “They didn’t come out like they did seven or eight years later when we got really good, but the Mavericks, at that time, set a record for attendance for an expansion team.

“I don’t care what era you’re in, that says a lot. That says that the fans in this city embraced us right off the bat.”

And that spoke volumes, particularly since everyone knew a lot of those same fans also were embracing the Cowboys. But the Mavs believed a city the size of Dallas had enough love to support multiple sports.

“The Cowboys set the bar pretty high in this city, so we knew what we were up against in a lot of different ways,” Grant said. “On the court, off the court, marketing, television, all that kind of stuff.”

The players did their part in reaching out to the community with personal appearances while letting the fans get to know them. Guard Brad Davis, who was with the Mavs in their first 11 seasons remembers the trials and tribulations of that initial season.

“We were drawing 7,000 or 8,000 fans a game,” Davis said. “So the big key was trying to get out in the community and get our name out there and get people to come to the game.”

The Mavs posted a 15-67 record in that first season. The won-loss record notwithstanding, management was convinced that the NBA would survive in Dallas.

“What’s even more remarkable is that we won more games (124 in the first four years) than any expansion team in history,” Sonju said. “Secondly, we’re the only team in the history of the NBA to be in the black (financially) every single year I ran the team.

“In 1983, Philadelphia won the world championship and Philadelphia lost money, and yet we made money.”

The Mavs finished 1982-83 with a 38-44 record, and did not qualify for the playoffs. But by then, they had developed a fan base they could count on – even with the Cowboys casting a large shadow.

Twitter: @DwainPrice

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