Norm Sonju co-founded the organization with the late Don Carter during an economic downturn where investors got nervous about the idea of an NBA team. They felt like football was king in Dallas and basketball would never catch on in the city.
Even today, Sonju can recall every detail from the early days with precision and clarity. He said the Mavericks franchise was founded on faith, “a lot of prayers,” and divine timing.
“There was no sure thing that we’d have a franchise then,” said Sonju. “The interest rate was 21 percent. To actually get a franchise and now see what it does for millions of fans and the people in Dallas means an awful lot. It’s fun to be back again.”
Sonju also was the team’s president and general manager from the franchise’s inception in 1980 until he retired in 1996.
He, along with countless other legends, executives, and former Mavs employees, arrived at the State Fair of Texas Wednesday night to celebrate the opening of the Mavs Vault, presented by ShiftKey.
“Mavs Vault” is this year’s Hall of State history exhibit and runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 23 inside an air-conditioned facility that is included with fair admission. Four decades of Dallas Mavericks basketball history and memorabilia are on display, along with interactive kiosks, a Mavs photo booth, and other special surprises.
The Mavericks first NBA game ball is also on display at the exhibit. It’s dated Sept. 26, 1980, exactly 42 years and two days ago.
Sonju said the night was meaningful to him for personal reasons. One year ago, he wasn’t sure he’d be here.
“Last year, when my cancer (took over) my body, I never thought I’d have this day,” Sonju said. “I never thought I’d have the chance to experience the joy we are right now. It’s so good to be here.”
Perhaps the most endearing moment of the night happened when Sonju spotted one of his original players, Rolando Blackman. They embraced as both men recalled what a special night it was to relive some of the most incredible memories in the franchise’s history.
“No one ever thought an NBA team would arrive in Dallas,” said Blackman. “Each time I walked to my locker and picked up that jersey, I immediately came to life. I see the same kind of hope in the eyes of the current players.”
After visiting with Blackman, Sonju explained how the early founders wanted it to be “Dallas’ team” so severely that they allowed fans to pick the name. Over 4,600 citizens submitted ideas, and it came down to Dallas Express, Wranglers, and Mavericks. There was something about the name “Mavericks” that just felt right. They took a chance, and the rest is history.
The partners were granted an expansion franchise by league owners at the 1980 NBA All-Star Game and the team has dazzled fans all over the world ever since.
Sonju felt like the Mavs Vault was an important moment for the entire city, especially with its location at the State Fair of Texas, an iconic venue that will connect fans of all ages.
Many former employees from the last 40 years attended the Mavs Vault celebration event, everyone eager to share a story from the past that shaped their future.
Donna Coach was among them. She answered the Dallas Mavericks’ phone line for nearly a decade. She started in the Mavs’ third season.
“Norm is the greatest man I’ve ever known,” Coach said, almost in awe to see her former boss standing before her at the Mavs Vault. “I’m not sure if the public understands how character and community were instrumental in our early days with the organization. I was 21 to 31 years old, so Norm pretty much molded my character as a young adult. It was much more than a job for us. It became an identity, and we proudly represented the Dallas Mavericks.”
At a game in 1983, Coach sang “God Bless America” after a singer missed her flight and never arrived.
“After I sang, Coach (Dick) Motta even came over to congratulate me,” Coach said. “They said, ‘you just sang for our first sellout crowd!’ Everyone on the staff was excited for me. It was 1983 against the Boston Celtics.”
Back then, she said, Mavs employees had all sorts of roles. She said Sonju would even count the lights in the scoreboard before each game.
“Norm would tell us that fans paid a lot to attend,” Coach said. “So, he wanted everything perfect for them, down to the light fixtures. He put his heart and soul into this organization and he always honored God by doing the small things. Many of us came tonight to see him.”
Everyone had a unique story to share, like Coach, who wanted to attend the Mavs Vault because it represented an essential part of her life and history. She, like many others, wore a giant smile all night as they visited with familiar faces and took in the entire atmosphere.
New Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison stood nearby, visiting every single part of the exhibit.
“I think everything about the history and culture of a franchise is the most important thing,” Harrison said. “You want to learn how they did it before and why they were successful so that you can carry that on all the way.”
Vendors at the event walked around with fair treats like mini corn dogs and funnel cake while the 2011 NBA Trophy glistened in the background. The bright orange Texas sun kissed the skyline in the distance, creating a nostalgic effect that tied the entire night into a perfect bow.
The timing of the vault could not be better. It all came by chance after fair organizers selected the Mavericks for the 2022 Hall of State exhibit long before the team appeared in the Western Conference finals.
The vault will likely be a favorite this year for the two million people expected to attend the State Fair of Texas. It also helps that the exhibit is inside an air conditioned facility. There’s something for all ages, including children who might love the LEGO creation of the Dallas Mavericks arena.
The last 42 years of the Dallas Mavericks tells a story that started with a dream from Sonju and Carter and now brings hope to millions of fans worldwide.
The Mavs Vault paints a vibrant picture of the power of sports to unite a community.
“There’s historical value coming here,” Blackman said. “I think people will be amazed and proud of this team from the beginning to where Luka Doncic has the handle today. This is a fantastic thing.”
Story: Tamara Jolee, Dallas Mavs
Photojournalists: Monica Borja and Vernon Bryant, Dallas Mavs
ABOUT THE EVENT
WHEN: Sept. 30 – Oct. 23, 2022 | 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
WHERE: Fair Park | Hall of State
ADMISSION: FREE, with State Fair of Texas ticket