In Memoriam: Don Carter
We remember Dallas Mavericks co-founder, Don Carter, who passed away Wednesday night at the age of 84.
DALLAS – Norm Sonju recalls the difficult times back in 1980 he was aggressively trying to put the finishing touches on a business deal to start an expansion National Basketball Association franchise in Dallas.
Times were tough back then, the economy was shaky, and businessmen were getting antsy about starting a new NBA franchise and naming it the Dallas Mavericks. But there was one folksy businessman who wanted in on the deal with Sonju.
His name was Don Carter.
While other potential investors were packing up their money and heading to the hills, Carter was eventually the man who bankrolled the Mavs and brought them to this football-crazed state.
“Without Don Carter we would not have been able to get a franchise in May of 1980,” Sonju said. “Because for the 10 months prior to Don stepping into the partnership in a big way, interest rates were over 20 percent, partners were dropping out because they had margin calls under investments — it was terrible.
“So thank the Lord for Mr. Carter because truly he and (his wife) Linda (Carter) were heroes, because without them there would be no team.”
As the co-founder of the Mavs — along with Sonju — Carter ran the franchise with high integrity and treated members of the organization as if they were part of his extended family. That’s why so many were grieving today when they found out that Carter died Wednesday night at the age of 84.
While trying to capture the enormity of Carter’s death, Quinn Buckner shared what his former boss meant to him.
“There is not a better human being that I know of,” said Buckner, who was the Mavs’ head coach during the 1993-94 season. “He was about the right stuff.
“He just told you exactly what he felt, he was true and honest with it and honest with you. He was an honest man, just a terrifically honest man who I greatly admired for his stick-to-it-ness and his warmth. He was as honest a man as I’ve ever dealt with.”
Carter came from a poor family in Arkansas. But by the time he was 24 years old, his mother had made millions in a direct marketing decoration company called Home Interiors and Gifts.
However, Carter never flaunted that wealth and money didn’t change him.
“First of all, if you didn’t like Don Carter then you had not met him before,” said Dick Motta, the first head coach in Mavs’ history. “He was unpretentious and he didn’t go for the headlines.
“He had everything in the world he wanted, he owned a basketball team, he owned a company that was making so much money they couldn’t count it. But you would think it was a pauper if you were around him. He would go to Benedicts for breakfast about two-three times a week and talk, but very seldom about the team.”
For those who knew him, Carter frequently treated himself like he was a second-class citizen and always treated EVERYBODY else like they were first-class citizens.
“He had a way of talking to you that would just reassure you about everything,” said Keith Grant. “He wasn’t the focal point of anything.
“He wanted the best for everybody, the best for the franchise, and every decision that was made was thought-out and he took it very seriously in how in affected everybody. He’d give the shirt off his back to you twice.”
Grant started working for Carter and the Mavs as their equipment manager in September of 1980. He got emotional when discussing — when his dad was gravely ill — how warmly Carter treated him.
“He was great to me when my dad passed away back in 1984,” said Grant, now the Mavs’ assistant general manager. “He sent me home (to Oklahoma City) two or three times and paid for my trips to see my dad.
“The guy would do anything for you. Anything. All he asked in return was a hard day’s work. He cared about your family, he cared about who you were. He was a father figure when I lost my dad.”
Carter also was sort of a father figure to Mark Aguirre, who is the only No. 1 overall draft pick in Mavs history. Aguirre came to the Mavs in 1981 off the mean streets of Chicago to play for a man who was very openhearted.
“He provided me a level of comfort that I needed because I’m a kid form Chicago, I think different, I’m young, there are all kinds of stumbling blocks that are ahead of me, and he helped me through all those stumbling blocks,” Aguirre said. “You’ve got to love somebody for their heart.
“There are a lot of surface people around here, and especially when you’re a professional athlete there’s a lot of surface people around here. You got to know somebody for their heart, and he opened his heart up to me and he’s never ever wavered. He told me things that I was doing wrong.”
Aguirre, in fact, said if it wasn’t for Don Carter he would have done what Kiki Vandeweghe did in 1980 and not even report to the Mavs if they drafted him.
“Mr. Carter told me (before the draft) when I talked to him personally that a lot of NBA players don’t see Dallas as a place to come being that this was an expansion team,” said Aguirre, who played for the Mavs from 1981-89. “But after I talked to Mr. Carter I was OK with coming to Dallas.
“As a matter of fact, without meeting him I don’t think I would have gone through with coming to Dallas. I would have probably tried to go somewhere else. But Mr. Carter was more than my boss. He was family to me and he was pretty loyal to me.”
Carter’s blind loyalty is also what jumped out at guard Derek Harper.
“Mr. C was real,” Harper said. “I think Mr. C understood the theory of we’re all the same as people, even though were different.
“He used to say to me, ‘Don’t think I don’t go through just what you go through.’ And when you think about it, that’s real. Mr. C, he followed that mantra and he really understood that and he was always open and honest with me.”
Carter was often seen wearing his trademark cowboy hat, and sitting courtside at Mavs’ games. It’s the hat that hangs on the ‘M’ on the Mavs’ original logo.
That logo resonated so well with guard Brad Davis that he said: “I’ve got that logo in the bottom of my pool. The guy that built my pool put it in there. I didn’t know he was going to do it, but he put it in there.”
Davis, who played for the Mavs from 1980-92, described Carter as an ‘aw shucks’ type of man who was deeply concerned about his players — on and off the court.
“He would do anything for you,” Davis said. “He was always available whether it was basketball, whether it was the workers at the Home Interiors. It was all family to him.
“No matter what it was he always took care of people and was always asking how you’re doing, what’s going on and how is the family. He took an interest in all the players and the staff.”
Motta said during the early years, his family and Carter’s family would go out to eat together after home games.
“If we lost the game, Don paid,” Motta said. “If we won, which wasn’t very often — and that’s why I got into that agreement — I paid. I knew I had the best advantage.
“But after awhile when we started winning on a regular basis, then he wanted to change the rules and he wouldn’t let me pay. He wasn’t lavish, he was just down to earth, and he wanted to go and eat truck stop food.”
Carter eventually sold the Mavs to Ross Perot Jr. in March of 1996. Motta still doesn’t know why.
“The night the sale was going to go through to Perot, Linda (Carter) called me and asked if I would talk Don out of it,” Motta said. “She didn’t want to sell.
“She said if you talk to Don he won’t sell. I just didn’t think I should stick my nose in that, so he sold it.”
In Perot’s mind, Carter was an iconic figure who was gutsy enough to bring pro basketball to North Texas and to a city that was totally dominated on the sports landscape by the Dallas Cowboys.
“Don was always somebody you looked up to,” said Perot, speaking while on a business trip overseas. “He had a very keen sense of himself, a very strong moral purpose and he was a man of principle and he was a very unique individual and he had a very strong personality.
“He meant a lot to me personally and to my family, and he was a true legend. He loved the Lord and you know he was a very strong Christian, he loved his family, he loved his friends, and he loved his work. His impact on our community will never be forgotten and he cannot be replaced. He had an amazing, wonderful life.”
As the No. 9 overall pick by the Mavs in the 1981 NBA Draft, Rolando Blackman saw first-hand how inspirational Carter was to his players and front office staff. That’s why upon learning of Carter’s death, Blackman said: “It’s a sad, sad time, for sure. We lost a basketball icon.”
Blackman, who played for the Mavs from 1981-92, went on to say: “One of the biggest things you’ll learn is what a great, great family atmosphere Mr. Carter and Linda provided to us as young Mavericks players coming here in 1981. We knew and understood that not only were we there to play basketball, but the most important thing out of all of that is that he cared for us and loved us, and that’s what was important to me.
“I knew that I was going in to try and help a franchise blossom, and in doing that I was taken big care of by Mr. Carter and Linda and his mother, Ms. Mary (Crowley). It was just a family affair that I felt and it was something very, very special.”
Grant marveled at the way Carter went out of his way to do special things for his employees, but didn’t want the public to know.
“There were things he did for his employees at Home Interiors and Gifts that people never saw, things that he did with people that had trouble with reading and writing,” Grant said. “It’s unbelievable.
“He used to let his Home Interiors people, for Thanksgivings, he would close Minyard’s (grocery store) and based on their seniority, he’d give them X amount of minutes to go through the whole store and get anything they wanted off the shelves. He had me come up there one year and I brought our 24-second shot clocks and put them in each corner of the store so he could count down the last 24 seconds. He let me do it one year, but I had to push my cart backwards. He had a blast doing that.”
According to Buckner, there were other random acts of kindness that became a staple for Carter.
Buckner said: “The thing that most impressed me about Mr. Carter is when there was a national disaster — and I don’t know if in his later years he did the same thing — he’d get a tractor trailer and fill it up with the goods that people would need where there was a national emergency, and he’d drive the truck there.
“He was just a heckuva man. It was simply the spirit of his heart. He was just a good man trying to do something good for people.”
The first Mavs’ employee, Rick Sund, characterized Carter as a “benevolent man” who was spiritual and loved to engage in playful games with his employees.
“I remember one time — and I was young — and he was an auctioneer and he was auctioning a mink coat,” said Sund, who was the Mavs’ director of player personnel. “All of a sudden he said, ‘Rick, you’d like a mink coat, right? Sold, to Rick Sund!’ It was $1,000.
“The next day he called me and said come to my office. And he said, ‘I want you to know you didn’t buy that coat. I bought that coat.’ At the end of the day he was a very sincere proprietor who was great.”
Whether it was it playfully “selling” a mink coat to Sund, driving a tractor trailor to help the needy, or shelling out money so Grant could visit his ailing father, Don Carter was indeed a man of the people.
“If it wasn’t for Mr. C and Linda Jo, there would be no such thing as the Dallas Mavericks,” Harper said. “It was a family atmosphere and they made sure you felt a part of the organization, and they went beyond the call of duty when it came to Christmas parties and Christmas gifts.
“It was really a family atmosphere when it came to Mr. Carter. And he’ll be missed.”
After the Mavs won their lone championship in 2011, proprietor Mark Cuban invited Carter onto the stage to celebrate with the team. NBA commissioner David Stern eventually handed the championship trophy to Carter.
“The entire Mavs family is heartbroken by the loss of Mr. Carter,” current Mavs proprietor Mark Cuban said. “Along with his wife Mrs. Carter, they have been our guiding lights for the organization since its founding in 1980.
“To say he will be missed does not do justice to just how important Mr. C has been to the Dallas Mavericks and the City of Dallas. Our condolences go out to Mrs. Carter and the entire Carter family.”