How a slam-dunk PR machine hypes a winning team

“THEY ARE IMPECCABLE from top to bottom. It is like a blueprint.”

“They are a slick organization. They’ve looked at other clubs, other front offices and weeded out the bad, patterning themselves after the good. They are definitely service-minded.”

The comments of satisfied customers? A commercial for eye wear? Hardly. The subject is the Dallas Mavericks. The quotes come from sports journalists, a group not generally known for lavish compliments. In fact, in a profession where scandal sells, where the negative is positive, even local sportswriters have a hard time finding something bad to say about the Mavericks. And that says more about the Mavericks than Norm Hitzges and Jan Hubbard, quoted above, two media men who spend a lot of time in Reunion Arena. Hubbard is the Mavericks’ beat writer for The Dallas Morning News. If there is a guru of Dallas sports, it is the ubiquitous Mr. Hitzges, host of KERA’s popular “Sports Spectacular” and columnist for the Dallas Downtown News.

“Some organizations never learn that the press is there primarily to be used,” says Hitzges, a true realist who recognizes “use” to mean utilize rather than manipulate. “The Mavericks have done an incredible job with the press.”

Obviously the Maverick brass can’t tell a reporter what to report, but for this team, dealing with the press is not one of those painful extras that come with being in major league sports. The press is their friend; not only do they see the media as the fans’ access to the team, but they know it’s a two-way street: The press is also the team’s access to the fans, another way to project the Maverick image-one of success, of working within a design, of building a winner as well as a marketable entertainment product. The Mavericks know what some franchises seem to ignore: Writers are going to write and commentators are going to comment, so let’s work to make the coverage as positive as possible. Call it subtle manipulation if you will, but in a city where the entrepreneur is king, where business is recreation, it is smart-and may have something to do with the Mavericks’ inordinately large-by NBA standards-white-collar following. But then, a few lapses to the contrary, the Mavericks have always been smart.

STARTING AN NBA franchise in Dallas is stupid. So went the prevailing wisdom in early 1979, before Norm Sonju and Donald Carter began their quest to bring the NBA to Dallas. In June of 1979, they hired a head of player personnel, 10 months before they were notified by the commissioner’s office that their request for a franchise had been granted, and almost a year before they actually had any players.

The Mavericks were already establishing the components of their early success: unbridled optimism, an image of the scrappy underdog, a belief in their own destiny. This was followed quickly by three strokes of genius that immediately ingratiated the Mavs with the fans and allowed them a buffer period during which constant losing would not mean box-office defeat. First, they said that they would model their organization after the Cowboys. Whether they meant to or not is immaterial. Dallas loves the Cowboys; enough said. Second, they said they had a plan. They would build through the draft, establish a quality team that would maintain high standards and adhere to a strict salary structure. While gaining the respect of the fans, they were also encouraging them to be patient and promising a great show. Come watch us now, they said, and you’ll see the guys in green fight until they’re black and blue, busting their butts for 48 minutes. We may not win a lot, but we’ll be fun to watch. And we will improve. We’ll be contending for a playoff spot in five years.

The Mavericks’ third great move was hiring Dick Motta as head coach. Instant credibility: Motta had been successful wherever he had worked, winning the NBA championship in Washington in 1978 and finishing second in 1977 and 1979. The Mavericks were shouting to the fans, to the press, to the rest of the league, that they were not joking. They came into the league intent on winning.

THE MAVERICKS contended in their third season, falling just under .500 for the year, and made it to the playoffs in their fourth. They are entering their sixth season, playoff veterans of two campaigns, as one of the deepest teams in the league. Already their fans are legion and legendary among NBA cities, buying 98 percent of available seating during the 1984-85 season and splitting a few eardrums in the process. Prospective franchises are being told to talk to Dallas first, to find out how to do it right. And, the ultimate compliment: The press treats the Mavs with kid gloves.

According to Kevin Sullivan, the Mavericks’ director of media services (and twice PR Man of the Year in the Western Conference), the team’s good relationship with the media is based on three things: sufficient manpower in his office (a sign in and of itself that they take media relations seriously), service and location (their offices are in the Reunion complex, as is the Hyatt Regency hotel, where visiting teams stay). And that’s not all: Li ve television broadcasts are closely monitored by the team, and Alan Stone, the Mavericks’ director of communications and broadcasting, has a hand in all phases of production. (Some critics feel that Stone, who also does color commentary play-byplay reporting some for Mavericks games, is so involved that any semblance of objectivity is lost.) The organization handles its own advertising, and all promotional copy is written by a Mavericks employee. This kind of attention to detail pays dividends with sportswriters.

“Their accessibility is very good,” says the Morning News’ Jan Hubbard, who travels with the team to every NBA city. “Of course, here, I’m a local guy and they’re going to treat me well, but you’d be surprised how some teams treat you. Some of the traditional powers, especially in the East, don’t give you much. Norm Sonju put a phone in his car so as not to waste his driving time. If I need some information and leave a message, I will always get a call back. As much as anything their relationship with the press is spillover from the overall quality of the organization. Sure, they are slick, but they want to be viewed that way, to be seen as an organization like the Lakers, one that always makes the right moves, whose image is polished. You’ve got to remember that a lot of people felt there was no market here at all for pro basketball. Now they cut off their season ticket sales at 14,000. They must know what they’re doing.”

Norm Hitzges is even more enthusiastic. “Kevin Sullivan is great,” he says. “I can go in and talk to Kevin and really learn some stuff. Not, you know, who’s on drugs and who’s not, but whether a prospect’s value has dropped at a summer camp. Or whether the word is that a guy’s numbers in college were mostly junk points [points scored off tipped or loose balls or deep rebounds]. This kind of information is invaluable to someone like myself. It is my job to know, and Kevin informs.

“The Mavericks court this image,” Hitzges says. “They go out of their way to do it. The way they treat the fans, the press, the way they answer everyone’s questions. Right now they can do no wrong.”

THIS ISN’T TO suggest that the Mavericks have made no mistakes. But when they goof, the howls from the press are usually kept to a minimum. When a team has carefully laid the groundwork for positive media coverage, the nasties with the typewriters are not so caustic when the occasional slip occurs.

Take last year’s playoffs. Hitzges again: “Dick Motta did not do a very good job of coaching in the Portland series. He used three or four different lineups in trying to find the right combination. Nothing worked. Now if this were Chicago or L. A., he would have been crucified in the press. Here, nobody mentioned it. Everything is pro-Maverick.”

Of course there is the eternal Mavericks question that causes most of what negative talk there is: When, when will the team land the Big Man, the long-sought center who will take them to the top? Oddly, though, the talk is usually about the Mavericks not having the great center, as if that were some unfortunate fact of nature, and not about the mistakes the Mavericks have made in their efforts to obtain a productive veteran center.

Two major blunders were in drafting Bill Garnett (1982) over LaSalle Thompson, and not signing Pat Cummings before the 1983-84 season, the last year of his contract. Cummings became a free agent and signed a huge contract with the Knicks that the Mavericks elected not to match.

Where were the critics? Even when Morning News columnist Randy Galloway, the Prince of the Pejorative, brought up the Garnett gaffe, his comments lacked the acerbic bite he might use in lamenting a Danny White interception. Jan Hubbard talks about Mavericks’ blunders, but again, he seldom goes for the jugular.

Though they aren’t Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LaSalle Thompson and Pat Cummings are proven NBA players. Thompson’s stats per minutes played have always been impressive, particularly his rebounding, and he might have done even better under Motta’s tutelage. Cummings, though a true power forward, provides inside muscle and tenacity and a solid outside shot, two qualities absent from the Mavericks’ pivot men last year. Now the Mavs have Wallace Bryant and two rookies at what might be the NBAs toughest position.

Meanwhile, the Mavericks’ center problems continue. Their signing Bryant to a two-year contract is proof enough of that. Although Bryant may someday develop into a solid back-up center (a commodity not to be underestimated in the NBA), he’s no panacea-but he’s all the Mavericks have right now.

Even with Bryant at his best, the Mavericks’ rebounding problems remain acute. In their first meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers this year, all the Maverick players who took a turn at center-Bryant, Sam Perkins, Kurt Nimphius and the Ube Blab-were outrebounded by L. A., 37-9, in the second half alone. And the damage was not done entirely by Kareem. A.C. Green, a Lakers rookie forward, snagged 12 boards by himself-more than Bryant and Perkins combined.

“We were eighth in the league last year in wins,” a worried Dick Motta says in the team’s current press guide. “There were 15 teams behind us, and I honestly believe 14 had better centers. We’ve been carrying that position for a long time.”

Last year Motta went on endlessly about the importance of netting a Pat Ewing or an Akeem Olajuwon in the draft. After all, Dallas had the rights to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round draft pick, and if the Cavs finished last, as they were sure to do, Dallas would pluck the Big Man. When Cleveland’s dramatic turnaround dashed the Mavericks’ hopes, the complaining grew worse. Word around the league was that teams were tired of having the Mavericks come into town and win, then poor-mouth about not having a real center. At least one coach, the Lakers’ Pat Riley, went public: “They come in here and whine about their center situation, then go out and kick your butts. I’m sick of hearing it.”

Just how long will Dallas fans be willing to wait for the Mavericks to make the jump from very good to elite? By courting the press and by winning on the floor, the Mavericks have done wonders at molding fan expectations, but the job may be getting tougher. Even without that coveted center, the Mavericks have outlived the underdog role. Their climb has been so rapid that seeing them improve by only one game last season may have some fans overreaching this year. Their Reunion Rowdies, famous for their decibels, were noticeably tamer during the 1984-85 season.

The Mavericks will be better. That is a given. Their players are young and still improving. But will it be enough to sate the appetite of hungry fans and a press that could turn skeptical if the Mavs’ progress stalls? Will the pressure to win 55 to 60 games a year, battle the Lakers for the Western Conference championship, then beat a Boston or Philadelphia in the finals be so intense that the front office panics and grabs for a quick fix, trading away a Mark Aguirre or Rolando Blackman for a proven Big Man like Boston’s Robert Parish or Seattle’s Jack Sikma?

DON’T BET ON it, for the simple reason that the Mavericks are much better at shaping public opinion than succumbing to it. They didn’t choose the Cowboy model by accident. It may take the Mavericks another three years to make the conference championship series, but they will be there. Signing Blackman and Aguirre to long-term contracts was management’s way of ensuring their presence here for years to come-and of maintaining the salary structure, something other NBA franchises should seriously consider if they hope to survive. In two years look for Sam Perkins to be offered a similar deal.

If there is something to dread in the Mavericks’ future, its portent is found in the team’s pre-season press guide, wherein Dick Motta says that last year he grew as tired of saying the Mavericks didn’t have a center as the media was of reporting it and the fans were of hearing it. See the threat? By mid-season we will be so tired of hearing how tired we all were of hearing that we didn’t have a center that it will be, well, tiring. If the Mavericks follow the course they’ve so carefully set, that may be the only cloud on their horizon.


Year Record Position Playoff record

1980-81 15-67 6

1981-82 28-54 5

1982-83 38-44 4

1983-84 43-39 2 4-6*

1984-85 44-38 3 1-3**

*Beat Seattle 3-2 in the first round. Lost to L.A. 1-4 in the second.

**Lost 1-3 to Portland in the first round.


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