This is the third of a five-part series chronicling the Dallas Mavericks’ 1980-81 season, which was their first season in the NBA. Today: Rick Sund. Monday: Brad Davis.
Rick Sund rolled the dice and took a big gamble. And it ultimately paid off big-time.
With his career as a pro sports executive barely off the ground, Sund decided to shift gears in mid-stream and set his sights on a career with the Dallas Mavericks.
At the time, Mavs co-founders Don Carter and Norm Sonju were looking for someone to run the basketball side of their young operation. But there was just one lingering caveat.
The Mavs hadn’t officially been granted an expansion team by the NBA when they were courting workers like Sund. And Sund’s resume wasn’t as impressive as some of the more established NBA folks the Mavs had on their list of executive hopefuls.
However, Sund had something very valuable in his back pocket that the others didn’t have – time, patience and the ability to wait things out.
“The problem was there were a lot more people more qualified than me for the job,” Sund said. “But they weren’t going to give up their position to put together basketball information like scouting and talking to people for potential expansion players, because what if the Mavs didn’t get voted in? But I could take that risk.
“I had just gotten married, my wife was working. So, I basically worked with a personal service contract to Norm Sonju and Don Carter to get everything ready in case we got voted in for the upcoming season. People that were way more qualified than me – who would probably have done a better job than I did – didn’t want to take that chance.”
For Sund, “that chance” tuned into him becoming the first employee the Mavs hired during their inaugural 1980-81 season. And he ran the team’s basketball side wonderfully until 1992.
“(My wife) Carole and I were paying Rick out of our own checkbook (starting in 1979), and he was doing scouting,” Sonju said. “I started to put together a staff in case we got the team – and there was a good chance we didn’t get it.”
Before joining the Mavs in 1979, Sund was working for the Milwaukee Bucks after he was given an internship by Bucks executive Wayne Embry.
“I had graduated and played basketball at Northwestern, and what happened was I had applied for graduate school at Ohio University, which was the only school at the time that had a curriculum of Sports Administration, and that was as a Master’s degree,” Sund said. “So, I decided it was best to go get my Master’s degree, but to get the degree I had to do an internship, which was a requirement.
“So, I called Wayne Embry and he gave me the internship, and that led to a full-time position with the Bucks.”
Meanwhile, Bucks head coach Don Nelson and Embry contacted Sonju and asked him if he could interview Sund for the Mavs’ job opening. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Rick and I clicked,” Sonju said. “I just liked Rick from the minute I met him, but he was young. I had to help train him a little bit.”
At a mere 27 years old, Sund was on top of the world. And when the Mavs officially became an NBA franchise on May 1, 1980, the kid from Elgin, IL, was the league’s youngest director of player personnel.
Behind Sund’s penchant for wheeling and dealing, the Mavs became known as the NBA’s model franchise as his steady hand led to Dallas either increasing or matching its win total for seven consecutive seasons. And in year No. 8, the Mavericks took Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers to seven games in the 1988 Western Conference Finals.
“(The day the Mavericks got their franchise) was a big day for me because I had given up a position with the Milwaukee Bucks as a young aspiring executive to take a chance that the Mavericks were going to become a reality,” Sund said. “Of course, at that time it wasn’t called the Mavericks.
“It was a potential expansion team that would lead to a good position for me for a career in basketball, so that worked out as well.”
In addition to scouting, Sund helped run the Mavs’ expansion draft and regular NBA Draft. He also beat the bushes looking for free agents.
The job consumed many, many hours. But Sund was loving every minute of it.
After all, he rolled the dice and took a gamble. And it paid off.
“There was a time there where the Mavericks decided that they maybe weren’t going to get there and I’m like, ‘Oh, I never should have left the Bucks,’ “ Sund said. “But as it worked out, it was really good for me and hopefully it was good for Dallas, and in the process I got to know Norm and obviously Don real well.
“I love that Dallas team and I love my years in Dallas, and I think it was because of Don Carter and Norm. They made it like a family. It obviously allowed me to have a 45-year career.”