CHICAGO – Norm Sonju was taken aback recently when he received a phone call informing him that he was this year’s recipient of the prestigious Jerry Colangelo Award.
“It’s so interesting that they even knew my name, let alone would remember who I was, because I’ve been out of sight and out of mind for so many years,” Sonju told Mavs.com. “So it’s pretty special.
“Jerry Colangelo is one of my closest friends in the world, so to be named for him obviously is a very special thing for me. We go back over 60 years.”
The award, presented Saturday morning at the All-Star Breakfast in conjunction with the NBA Retired Players Association, is given to a person in NBA management who lives an exemplary life on and off the basketball court and who does so while expressing high character, leadership and faith.
Sonju and Don Carter co-founded the Dallas Mavericks. He also was the team’s president and general manager from the franchise’s inception in 1980 until he retired in 1996.
“He was a great leader of the Mavericks and a great leader off the court as well, and a mentor for me,” said Keith Grant, who is one of a handful of people who have been with the Mavs during their entire existence. “A lot of the principles that he taught us have proven to be the correct principles.
“He’s just a detail-oriented guy that knew how to run a team.”
One of the first people Sonju hired to help him run the Mavs was Rick Sund, who was the team’s director of player personnel. Sund knew the chain of events that led to Dallas receiving an NBA expansion franchise, and on Saturday he went out of his way to make sure the public also knows.
“It kind of got lost in history how important Norm was in getting the team to Dallas,” Sund said. “Eventually, maybe another Dallas team would have come, but it wouldn’t be the Dallas Mavericks.
“Norm convinced Don Carter and other investors to put a team in Dallas, and the rest is history. Over time you forget how important Norm was in bringing professional basketball to Northern and middle Texas, and certainly Dallas.”
However, there were several hurdles Sonju had to clear before the NBA would eventually grant he and Carter their final blessings.
For one, Carter and other investors got cold feet because of the unpredictable financial market and pulled their financial interest off the table, much to the chagrin of Sonju.
“It was one of the toughest times to start a basketball franchise because interest rates had gone up over 20 percent,” Sonju said. “I was not a wealthy person, and when Mr. Carter had dropped out, and now I’m on my own putting this team together, I had to put partners with me.
“So collectively all of us had enough to get the franchise, but not me alone. What happened is they started dropping out because the interest rates were so high, and that’s why Mr. Carter became a hero to me because he stepped back in.”
Carter stepped back in at the insistence of his wife, Linda.
“It was Linda’s love of basketball that kind of put Carter over the top,” said Tony Fay, who started as an intern with the Mavs in 1987 and ended as the team’s director of communications in 1999. “They had already committed to building Reunion Arena in Dallas, and the color scheme of the city was blue and green, so the seats in the arena were blue and green.
“So when Norm saw that, he decided the color schemes of the team needed to be blue and green so it would look like the arena was built for the team, not the other way around.”
It was that type of ingenuity that afforded Sonju extraordinary respect throughout the NBA.
“Without Norm we wouldn’t have the Dallas Mavericks,” said Donnie Nelson, who is the Mavs’ general manager. “It was really Linda Carter that was the boss that talked Don into buying the Mavericks in 1980, but without Norm we wouldn’t have this incredible basketball team in our city.
“Norm had to literally talk people into investing, and Don initially didn’t want to do it. But Linda said, ‘Go back and talk to (Sonju),’ and Don ended up doing the majority of (the investing).”
Under Sonju’s guidance, the Mavs were considered the NBA’s model franchise in the 1980s because of their proficiency for getting things done in a practical and successful matter. That includes the Mavs either increasing – or tying — their win total from the 1980-81 season through the 1986-87 campaign when they won 55 games.
“Mr. C and Norm were a perfect match when you talk about ownership and management,” said ex-NBA superstar Jason Kidd, the Mavs’ No. 2 overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft said. “That’s the blueprint.
“When you talk about when the franchise started, they were successful right off the bat.”
Often when it came to signing players to contracts, folks in Sonju’s position could get a bit contentious when dealing with agents. However, agent George Andrews, who at the same time in the 1980’s represented Mavs players Mark Aguirre, Uwe Blab, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Roy Tarpley and Jay Vincent, said that wasn’t the case when he went into negotiations with Sonju.
“He was the best,” Andrews said. “He was the best-prepared negotiator I’ve ever worked with.
“He wouldn’t waste your time, he wouldn’t insult you, he was all business, and we usually would get things done pretty well because he worked the same way that I did. He just took care of business.”
Sonju certainly didn’t waste Mark Price’s time. The Mavs drafted Price in the second round of the 1986 draft, and, being from Enid, OK, Price was thrilled to be joining the Mavs.
However, Price’s excitement was short-lived as he was quickly shipped to Cleveland in a draft-day trade.
“Norm Sonju is a legend in NBA circles,” Price said. “They drafted me coming out of college and they traded me to Cleveland, but Norm not only has had an impact on basketball, but he’s just a great human being. His faith has infiltrated everything he does in his life, and he helps other people.”
Taking care of business has been a way of life for Sonju. It’s his mode of operation, the platform he uses for getting a deal done and moving quickly to tackle the next deal.
“In many ways he’s been a role model for me, a mentor because of his faith and the fact that he always was who he was,” Colangelo said. “I have many, many stories because we go back many, many years.
“I met him in the 70s, he knew my wife in the 50s. Norm had a dream and a desire. As successful as he was as a young businessman, he really had a yearning to be in basketball.”
Sonju originally broke into the NBA as the president and general manager of the Buffalo Braves from 1976-’78. But his career really soared after he was at the forefront of the Mavs receiving their coveted franchise.
From there, Sonju created the Dallas Sidekicks in 1983, was the chairman of the NBA marketing committee, and also served on the NBA expansion committee when Charlotte, Miami, Minnesota and Orlando were awarded expansion franchises in 1988.
In addition, Sonju and his wife, Carole, were vibrant leaders in the Dallas community and helped create the Christian-based school called the West Dallas Community School for disadvantage kids in one of the highest crime-infested areas in town. Today, that school has 270 students, and 99 percent of them graduate from high school and another 81 percent attend college.
In other words, Sonju put his stamp on the sports scene in Dallas while also providing an array of hope in the North Texas community. And he did it in a compassionate way – all while being in a “football state.”
“It was totally football country back then,” Sund said of the city of Dallas. “America’s team – the Cowboys — were rolling, and we came in as an expansion team and Norm had the fortitude and the patience to say, ‘Hey, we’ll take it one step at a time.’
“And on the basketball side we were like, ‘We’re going to go real slow and build it through the draft.’ But Norm was a good leader and a good president, and at the end of the day it was a fun ride.”
What was particularly fun for Sonju occurred in 2010 when the Mavs hosted the NBA All-Star Weekend. On that same weekend, Sonju presented the Jerry Colangelo Award to none other than Don Carter.
Now, everything has come full circle for Sonju.
“It’s probably long overdue,” Sund said. “I told that to Norm when I got the call.”
Now, as he watches the Mavs play these days, Sonju sounds like a proud papa who is overwhelmed by the seeds he firmly planted some 40 years ago.
“It’s an exciting team and the most fun team to watch,” Sonju said of today’s Mavs. “It’s phenomenal.
“We just thank the Lord that it happened. Look now how blessed we are with this great team.”