Don Carter was folksy, not flamboyant. Selectively opinionated, but not outspoken.
Though his trademark white Stetson adorned the Dallas Mavericks logo, making him synonymous with the team he co-founded and owned for 16 years, he regarded himself as caretaker and the franchise as a twofold gift.
Carter, who died Wednesday night at age 84, often said the Mavericks were a present to which he had promised his beloved wife, Linda Jo.
And to North Texas, as the origin of his mother's decorating accessories business, Home Interiors and Gifts, in 1957. It became the ultimate proving ground for her hellraising, Crozier Tech High School dropout son, Donnie Joe.
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Carter's only teenage interests, he once told The Dallas Morning News, were cars, motorcycles and escaping high school to "make $35 a week so I could buy more gas."
Ultimately, though, he married Linda Jo, succeeded his mother at the helm of Home Interiors, bought an NBA team and quietly lived a life of philanthropy.
"I probably knew and worked as close with Don as anyone," Norm Sonju, who co-founded the Mavericks in 1980, told The News on Thursday. "Every now and then, though, I would hear of something good that he had done.
"Pay for someone's college education. Pay for an operation. Things like that. Every time, with no exception, there was a consistent response from him. Never acknowledging it. Never smiling. It always was, "How did you find that out? Who told you?'"
Though Carter's death was not officially confirmed until early Thursday morning by the Dallas County medical examiner's office, two sources told The News on Wednesday night that emergency medical personnel were called to Carter's condominium in Uptown Dallas' 22-story Residences at the Stoneleigh.
Carter had been in declining health, he and Linda rarely seen the past two seasons in their customary courtside seats at American Airlines Center. They came to the Mavericks' opener this season, but Carter was unable to attend longtime Maverick Derek Harper's Jan. 7 jersey retirement ceremony.
"We are all heartbroken," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said by email after learning of Carter's death.
Later, the franchise issued a full statement from Cuban and announced that Carter will be honored with a moment of silence during the Feb. 26 home game against Indiana and with a special tribute at the second timeout of the first quarter.
"Along with his wife Mrs. Carter, they have been our guiding lights for the organization since its founding in 1980," Cuban said. "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."
Reached Thursday at his Lancaster, Pa., home, an emotional Sonju recalled the circumstances that led to the April 15, 1980, day on which Carter literally and emphatically stood up for Dallas.
In the late 1970s, Carter and former Buffalo Braves executive Sonju separately explored avenues to bring the NBA to Dallas.
When NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien announced on Feb. 3, 1979, that the NBA would expand by two teams starting with the 1980-81 season -- and with Dallas mayor Bob Folsom's pet-project Reunion Arena under construction -- Carter and Sonju joined efforts land an expansion franchise.
But when the NBA kept raising the ante for an expansion franchise, from $8 million to $12 million, Carter and several minority owners Sonju had assembled balked. For 10 months of 1979 and 1980, Sonju carried the ball alone as prime interest rates spiked to an all-time high of 21.5 percent.
On the morning of April 15, 1980, five Mavericks investors dropped out. Sonju looked around his kitchen table at wife Carole and their four young children, opened his Bible and read aloud Deuteronomy, Chapter 4.
Minutes later, Carter phoned and asked Sonju to meet him for breakfast at Coco's restaurant off LBJ freeway.
On a napkin, they mapped out a counter-offer to the NBA in which Carter and Home Interiors would cover most of the $12 million expansion fee. But instead of paying $6 million up front [as requested by the league], Carter would pay $2 million up front and $4 million at the start of 1981.
"Then Don stood up in that restaurant and said, 'Let's you and I buy the team,'" Sonju recalled Thursday. "That was so significant. Because obviously I'm not a wealthy man. I couldn't do it without Don giving the financial support. Don couldn't do it without me having already done a lot of the work. That marriage was pretty unique for the time. And we just praise the Lord it happened like it did.
"He will always be my hero."
Just two weeks later, on May 1, 1980, O'Brien came to Dallas' Union Station to sign the Mavericks franchise charter agreement with Carter, Sonju and Carter's longtime friend and attorney, Doug Adkins.
For a 2005 story commemorating the franchise's 25th anniversary, Carter told The News that he felt a strong desire to repay an unquantifiable personal debt to Dallas.
"We had an arena being built; Mayor Folsom had his neck on the line," Carter recalled. "And this town was awfully good to me and my mother and my family. We came here with nothing."
Then there was Linda Jo, who on her first date with non-sports fan Donnie Joe insisted that they attend the Duncanville girls basketball tournament.
By 1980, Donnie Joe's two attempts to woo existing NBA franchises to Dallas first excited, then disappointed his bride.
"From that point forward," Don Carter said, "it was about fulfilling the sparkle in her eyes when she was told that we would have part of an NBA team."
The Mavericks by the mid-to late-'80s were considered a model for how to build a franchise. They became a perennial playoff team and reached the 1988 Western Conference finals, where they lost to the Lakers in seven games.
The franchise's fortunes plummeted in the 1990s, first with a strip-down and then a failed rebuild of the roster around top-four draft picks Jim Jackson, Jamal Mashburn and Jason Kidd.
Carter in 1996 sold majority interest in the franchise to Ross Perot Jr. for $125 million, but kept a minority share of the team.
Carter maintained that share when Cuban purchased majority interest of the franchise and half of American Airlines Center's lease rights from Perot at a franchise-valuation of $285 million. Today, according to Forbes, the franchise is worth $1.9 billion.
When the Mavericks won the 2011 NBA championship, Cuban memorably insisted that Donald and Linda Carter join the team on the dais. Then Cuban stood behind Carter, hands on his shoulders, while commissioner David Stern first handed the Larry O'Brien title trophy to Carter.
Early this season, The News asked Cuban how it felt to have quietly surpassed Carter as the longest-tenured owner in Mavericks history.
"No matter what I ever do, the Carters are the heart and soul of this organization," Cuban said. "One of, if not the best, moment of owning the team was watching Mr. and Mrs. Carter get the championship trophy from David Stern."
Editor's note: Here is a 2005 Dallas Morning News story on the 25th anniversary of the Mavericks' founding:
By Brad Townsend,Staff writer
Like a newborn foal, the Dallas Mavericks franchise entered the world at 10:22 a.m. on May 1, 1980, wobbling boldly, naively, into the provocative realm of professional basketball.
Dignitaries and onlookers filled Union Station's Pullman Room. NBA commissioner Lawrence O'Brien picked up a pen and smiled at Mavericks owner-to-be Donald Carter.
"Shall I sign first, Don?"
"I've been willing to sign for a long time," quipped Carter, at the time a precocious 46-year-old retail tycoon. "Y'all are the ones that wouldn't sign."
Twenty-five years later, it seems absurd that Dallas had to beg, barter and ultimately kick the door down to gain entry into the NBA.
The Mavericks and their fervent fans have been so immersed in the ongoing playoff duel against Houston, so consumed with trying to overcome an 0-2 series deficit, that the franchise's silver anniversary came and went Sunday with little fanfare.
But for a handful of founding fathers, it was an occasion for pause and reflection.
"Twenty-five years went by in a hurry," says Carter, who sold controlling interest in the franchise in 1996 but retains a minor stake. "I've had a lot of smiles over those 25 years."
So have countless others, including members of the NBA establishment who were certain that pro basketball would never survive in North Texas.
Of course, there have been times when the Mavericks gave folks reason to smile at them.
Through 25 years, two home arenas, three owners and eight head coaches, they have managed one division title and two conference finals appearances.
There have been far more Winford Boyneses than Dirk Nowitzkis, more Darren Morningstars than superstars. But much like Dallas itself, the Mavericks generally have been exciting or tumultuous but hardly ever dull.
"It's unbelievable how time goes on," says franchise co-founder Norm Sonju, who for 10 months in 1979 and early 1980 carried the ball alone, vainly trying to round up investors after Carter temporarily dropped out of the picture. "But my dream was just what has happened now.
"Right now, people love basketball in Dallas, but it wasn't like that in the late '70s and early '80s. There was pure apathy in Texas towards basketball."
Still a young franchise
In the lifespan of a typical sports franchise, 25 years is barely brag-worthy.
The Mavericks aren't even middle-aged in a league whose origins date to 1946. Some franchises go back even further, notably the Celtics, who debuted in 1914. The Mavericks aren't even the second-oldest franchise in Texas.
Houston got its team in 1971 after the San Diego franchise moved there. San Antonio acquired the Spurs in 1973, after the old American Basketball Association Dallas Chaparrals couldn't hack it financially and were leased to a group of South Texas businessmen for $1.
Yet in some respects, the climate that existed just before and after May 1, 1980, makes those days seem like the Dark Ages.
Dallas' NBA entry fee was $12 million. The franchise's original home, Reunion Arena, cost $27 million. The most expensive seats ($15) in 1980-81 cost $630 for the season.
When the Mavericks' current 46-year-old owner, Mark Cuban, purchased controlling interest in the team from Ross Perot Jr. and a 50 percent stake in the American Airlines Center in January 2000, the price tag was $280 million.
Understand this, too, about the NBA of a quarter-century ago: It was practically coughing up blood. During the 1978-79 season, 18 of the 22 teams lost money and television ratings plummeted 26 percent from the prior year.
Since fielding 10 teams in 1966-67, the NBA had more than doubled in size. Sonju says that owners in large markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston believed the league had become watered down, the talent pool diluted.
Those owners were adamantly opposed to further expansion, especially to a hayseed state that already had two franchises.
"I think the NBA thought it was still cowboys and Indians in Dallas," says Doug Adkins, the Mavericks' vice president/counsel from 1980 to '96. "It was fairly evident in their opinions and actions."
It was Adkins who ultimately negotiated the final legal details with the NBA's general counsel, a sharp young fellow named David Stern.
But that was after a year of haggling; resorting to "shenanigans," as Carter puts it; Sonju wooing and being rebuffed by 143 potential investors; Sonju spending nearly $300,000 of his own money; and, finally, an answered prayer and a famous meeting at Coco's restaurant on LBJ.
Donnie Joe Carter wasn't much of a sports fan.
While growing up in Sherman, and later Dallas, his primary interests were cars, motorcycles and doing just enough hell-raising to stay an arm's reach from the law.
He once told The Dallas Morning News that his primary ambition before dropping out of Crozier Tech was "to get out of high school and make $35 a week so I could buy more gas."
God and the Air Force set him straight, as did his mother, Mary Crowley, and her burgeoning Home Interiors and Gifts retail business. But basketball didn't come into his life until his courtship of wife-to-be Linda, a former high school player who insisted that he take her to the Duncanville High tournament.
Adkins began representing Home Interiors, Mary Crowley and Don in 1970.
"It became a giant company within five or six years," Adkins says of the Mary Kay-type business that by 1981 had 30,000 employees nationwide. "It just had a vertical arrow on its growth chart."
By 1979, while Dallas' oil and gas moguls reeled from the second energy crisis in six years and 20 percent interest rates waylaid the real estate and banking industries, young Carter's wealth was relatively insulated.
In mid- to late 1978, a man from California phoned Adkins, said he was in Dallas on business and wondered if Adkins would meet with him about becoming his legal counsel.
Near the end of the two-hour meeting, the man mentioned that he was trying to raise capital because he was interested in moving an NBA team to Dallas.
"I said, 'Who in Dallas are you going to see?'" Adkins recalls. "He said, 'Well, the first person I want to talk to is Don Carter.' I said, 'Well, you can just sit down and I'll put on my other hat.'"
Says Carter: "The idea of basketball was not to buy a team here. These people were wanting to sell me a portion of a team they were going to move here. And it was going to be a gift for my wife."
The deal fell through, Carter says, "but I had gone and told my wife about this gift. From that point forward, it was about fulfilling the sparkle in her eyes when she was told that we would have part of an NBA team."
Linda Carter, Dallas thanks you. But what about the man from California? Adkins says his name was never made public, until now: Garn Eckardt.
Carter covered the expenses incurred by Eckardt and his group. And in 1987, when Seattle hosted the NBA All-Star Game, Adkins recalled that Eckardt had moved to Seattle.
"By this time he had multiple sclerosis, was in a wheelchair, didn't live long after that," Adkins says. "But Don brought him back to the dressing room, introduced Mark Aguirre to him and said, 'Mark, if it were not for this man, you wouldn't be standing here.'"
Scouting out Dallas
Unknown, initially, to Carter and Adkins, Buffalo Braves president and general manager Norm Sonju had already studied the feasibility of an NBA team in Dallas.
With the Braves in financial straits, owner John Y. Brown enlisted Sonju to scout potential relocation cities.
Sonju became intrigued with Dallas, especially after meeting Mayor Bob Folsom, the moving force in getting Reunion Arena constructed. Sonju even opened a temporary Dallas office.
But in July 1978, Brown and co-owner Harry Mangurian stunned Sonju by pulling an end-around. They and Celtics owner Irv Levin agreed to swap franchises, with Levin moving the Braves to San Diego, where they became the Clippers.
Sonju went to San Diego to help the Clippers' startup but soon after moved to Dallas to lead the city's efforts to land an expansion team.
It was Folsom, who had been one of the Chaparrals' owners and the club's president, who introduced Carter to Sonju. It also was Folsom who introduced Carter to NBA commissioner O'Brien.
"I don't think Bob Folsom ever got enough credit," Adkins says. "Especially after the negative publicity he took in building Reunion before there was a team."
But as Carter, Adkins and Sonju were starting to find out, the NBA wasn't beckoning Dallas with outstretched arms.
Oh, franchises were definitely attainable, at bargain-basement prices, but getting one to Dallas was another matter.
Carter and Adkins recall clandestine negotiations for the Kansas City and Milwaukee franchises. Either, Adkins says, could have been had for less than the $8 million the NBA initially told Dallas it would take to acquire an expansion franchise.
Milwaukee owner Jim Fitzgerald (whose team had an up-and-coming coach named Don Nelson) told Carter he could have the Bucks but would not agree to make the deal contingent on Carter's ability to move it to Dallas.
"So we went hush-hush around to find out if we could," Carter says.
Carter also recalls flying the Kansas City owners to Dallas, but there was doubt whether the Kings could get out of their Kemper Arena lease. Ironically, the collapse of Kemper's roof in June 1979 may have opened a legal loophole for the team to leave.
But Carter says that by then, he had applied for an expansion team by sending the league a $100,000 cashier's check. Washington owner Abe Pollin, chairman of the expansion committee, found out about the Milwaukee and Kansas City deals and put the kibosh on them.
It had nothing to do with Dallas and everything to do with money. The sale and move of an existing franchise would be a windfall for one owner, whereas an expansion fee would mean money in the pockets of all 22 owners.
On Feb. 3, 1979, the day before the All-Star Game in Detroit, O'Brien announced that the league would expand by two teams for the 1980-81 season.
He said seven cities were under consideration but that only Dallas and Minneapolis had made formal bids. Three weeks later, Carter hired Sonju as general manager, and Dallas indeed looked like a frontrunner.
Carter asked Sonju to divide the potential franchise into 24 units (4.13 percent per unit) and to find investors to purchase the leftover units.
What the public didn't know at the time: Negotiations between the NBA and the Carter/Sonju/Adkins group unraveled, leaving a major mess in Sonju's lap.
Minnesota's potential owners got cold feet and no other city stepped up. Instead of $16 million in expansion fees to spread among themselves, NBA owners were left with the prospect of getting half that.
So the expansion committee upped Dallas' franchise fee to $12 million.
"I said, 'Y'all can go fly a kite,'" Carter says.
Sonju says that for about 10 months he was on his own, couching Carter's status with other investors by telling them he was still one of the partners.
At one point, Sonju had about 18 investors, including singers Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell and actor James Garner. But as the economy worsened (exacerbated by the Iranian hostage crisis that began in November 1979), his investor group rapidly dwindled.
Then in February 1980, at an expansion committee meeting in Washington, Sonju was informed that the ante again was rising.
Instead of the No. 1 pick of the '80 draft, Dallas now would get the 11th pick. Rather than other teams protecting seven players for the expansion draft, they could protect eight.
Instead of paying 29 percent of the $12 million franchise fee up front, Dallas' owners would have to pay 50 percent. Rather than 0 percent interest, the balance had to be paid at 7 percent interest.
"My Texas partners were mad as heck at the NBA for changing the terms," Sonju says. "For some of them, their way of getting back at the NBA was by dropping out. The problem is, it hurt one person. Me."
After returning to Dallas, Sonju had five investors drop out on a single morning. He glanced around the kitchen table at wife Carole, 10-year-old daughter Lynne, 8-year-old Scott and 3-year-old David, opened his Bible and read from Deuteronomy, Chapter 4.
"I was a Christian and stuff, but I'll be honest with you: I recommitted everything to the Lord that day," Sonju says. "I had a peace that was indescribable, even though everything was so tenuous."
Minutes later, the phone rang. It was Carter.
"Let's have breakfast," Carter said.
It was April 15, 1980. On a napkin at Coco's, they mapped out the terms that, two weeks later, landed Dallas in the NBA.
Carter and Home Interiors would cover the bulk of the $12 million, but instead of $6 million up front, Carter proposed $2 million immediately and $4 million at the start of 1981.
"Part of it was for Linda," Carter explains. "Part of it was giving something back to Dallas.
"We had an arena being built; Mayor Folsom had his neck on the line. And this town was awfully good to me and my mother and my family. We came here with nothing."
Happy belated 25th.
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