Before the National Basketball Association held its biggest garage sale ever recently to stock the Dallas Mavericks, the league's newest expansion franchise, it collected a total of $12 million from General Manager Norman Sonju for membership in the league.
Included in that membership was the right to draft one player from a list of three submitted by all 22 existing NBA teams, which were allowed to protect eight men on their rosters. Even though Sonju knows the Mavericks probably won't win 25 of 82 games next season, at least some of the kids he got may prove exciting.
In fact, several established NBA teams reportedly have already tried to trade for guard Bill McKinney, who played in 76 games this past season with Kansas City, and forward Jack Givens, the No. 1 pick of the Atlanta Hawks in 1978.
What makes Sonju unique is that he resisted the opportunity to draft a lot of older, name players, many of whom have league reputations as disruptive forces. Instead he went for talent that is not only younger but hungrier. By ignoring veteran stars like Spencer Haywood and Rick Barry, he also avoided some of the most lucrative no-cut contracts in pro basketball.
While Sonju's no-star policy may cost Dallas a few early customers at the gate, it should speed up its competitive timetable as a team by several months, and perhaps even a year or two. Basically the Mavericks expect to improve through future high draft picks and trades.
Sonju's philosophy of building from the ground up should provide Dallas's yet-to-be-named head coach (and don't overlook Dick Motta) with more time to teach, while cutting down on the time needed to pacify the egos of veteran players.
"We know that expansion teams have a history of not doing well for several years," Norman explained. "We know that we're going to have to live with that situation. It takes time to discover who your best people are and then more time to see whether or not they can work together as a team.
"Personalities sometimes are as tough to figure as talent," he continued. "But by drafting so many young players with what we think are positive futures, we feel we've eliminated a lot of potential problems. For example, most veteran players are so set in their ways that they either can't or won't change. We wanted to avoid as much of that as possible, although we still feel we got good experience in quite a few positions."
Among players with three or more years of pro experience who have a chance to play key roles with the Mavericks are center Tom LaGarde, forwards Bingo Smith and Abdul Jeelani, and guards Austin Carr and Mike Bratz.
LaGarde played in all of Seattle's 82 regular-season games last year and is still only 25 years old. Smith (with San Diego) and Carr (with Cleveland) both scored in double figures this past season. And there has always been a lot of interest around the league in Bratz (Phoenix) and Jeelani (Portland).
But what the Mavericks are hoping is that the chance to earn a regular job will turn youngsters like McKinney, Jim Spanarkel (Philadelphia), and Richard Washington (Milwaukee) into top performers overnight.
Asked what he was looking for in head coach, Sonju replied: "I would like someone who has worked in the NBA long enough so that he knows the league and understands the problems that come with expansion. With so many kids on our roster he's also got to be able to teach as well as coach.
"Basically what I want is someone who will develop a loyalty for this organization; who won't always be looking down the road for something he thinks might be better; and whose philosophy is the same as my own. And while I might be too optimistic, I feel there are some people like that out there who are available."
The Mavericks, Sonju says, can probably break even financially next season with an average paid attendance of 8,400 per game. With the right kind of promotions, they might even do better.
Dallas also plans to take advantage of a newly signed working agreement between NBA teams and the Continental Basketball League which will allow them to farm out some of their younger players.
This is believed to be the first time the NBA has ever offered major financial support to a minor league, and it is expected to result in a permanent commitment.