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Basketball

Inside Mavs Vault, the State Fair’s Treasure Trove of Dallas Mavericks Basketball

How did 42 years of history get distilled into a display at the Hall of State? Through the Historical Society, a Mavs fanatic curator, an 18-wheeler, and Taylor Swift.
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The exhibit contains plenty of hidden treasures. It also features the Mavs' greatest prize of all. Photo courtesy of Dallas Mavericks.

The list of parties responsible for Mavs Vault, the State Fair exhibit commemorating the 42-year history of the Dallas Mavericks, includes but is not limited to: an 18-wheeler of memorabilia, the Dallas Historical Society, a curator who doubles as a lifelong MFFL, and many generous lenders. Also, Taylor Swift.

Such is the scope of the village required to distill decades of history into one exhibit hall. And it worked. Mavs Vault strikes the right balance of immersive without being overwhelming, an experience that can be blazed through in 10 minutes or savored for far longer, especially if you tack on the accompanying 30-minute movie produced by Mavericks Vice President of Content Mike Marshall. All the expected items are on display: the Larry O’Brien Trophy from Dallas’ 2011 championship season and the accompanying banner, Dirk Nowitzki’s 2007 MVP award, a commemorative basketball from the team’s first game in Dallas. But so are curios only a diehard could appreciate, like the Kurt Nimphius jersey dug up from the early ‘80s. It’s a mini-museum that successfully appeals to every sort of fan.

The process began in January, when Karl Chiao, executive director of the Dallas Historical Society, was introduced to Ronnie Fauss, the Mavericks’ chief strategy and innovation officer. By then, Chiao had already begun pondering the Historical Society’s mandate since 1939: how to fill the Hall of State during the Fair. In 2022, that comes with an added challenge. After the Fair concludes on October 23, the Hall will host a celebration gala commemorating the Fair’s 100th anniversary, which requires the exhibit space to be cleared out faster than usual. Consequently, whoever Chiao and the Historical Society tabbed for this year’s secondary exhibit had to possess the knowhow and resources to curate their own display as well as the capacity to build and deconstrcut everything on their own.

Not every organization can operate with those parameters. Once Fauss assured Chiao that the Mavericks could, they were an easy choice. Chiao says the appeal calls to mind one of the Historical Society’s most successful exhibits at the Fair—2016’s “The Taylor Swift Experience,” which he says drew 220,000 people over its three-week run, most of them the sort of audience that never would have been exposed to the organization and its mission otherwise. He believes that the Mavericks, among the most popular teams in one of the nation’s biggest sports cities, have potential to attract a similarly untapped audience.

“Young girls between the ages of 7 and 20, they don’t usually come to the Historical Society events,” he says of the Swift exhibit. “This is kind of that same theory.”

Once the selection was made official in April, Erin Finegold White, the Mavs’ senior vice president of corporate communications, content, and events, got to work. In a sense, she and the Mavs had been preparing for a moment like this since 2019, when the team partnered with an organization called Heritage Werks to create a historical archive. Two parts of that process stand out. First, interviewing employees and team luminaries to create an oral history. Second, jamming decades of memorabilia into a big rig that was relocated to a warehouse just outside Atlanta.

So the tough part was already done when the opportunity to build Mavs Vault arose. Then came the second-toughest: whittling a collection estimated to span more than 15,000 pieces (both physical and digital) down to about 120.

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Photo courtesy of Dallas Mavericks

Enter John Southard, a brand historian for Heritage Werks and a Fort Worth native whose “heyday of Mavs fandom” dates back to the Three Js era of Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn, and Jim Jackson. Southard’s process began by working backward. What had to be included? The championship season, first and foremost, so he started there.

Then, rather than build chronologically, he organized the exhibit by eight themes: #MFFL, Origins, New Look, We Are The Champions, International Mavericks, Threads, Fun & Games, and Mavs Magic. What Southard didn’t have on hand, he borrowed: he believes roughly 60 percent of the exhibit is comprised of pieces the Mavs own versus items that had to be borrowed, like Nowitzki’s MVP trophy (one of several artifacts Dallas’ favorite German volunteered to display). But he had plenty to work with from the warehouse, including the Three Js poster emblazoned with the words “Nothing But Action” that he, perhaps unsurprisingly, calls his favorite item on display.

The finished product spans every era of Mavs basketball, from tipoff in 1980 all the way through the so-called Phoenix Sunset—the Game 7 upset victory of the top-seeded Suns that defined Dallas’ 2022 Western Conference Finals run.

In the end, Southard and Finegold White hit only one conspicuous roadblock. Head over to the “Threads” themed section, where the team’s jerseys through the years are displayed, and you’ll notice a conspicuous blank spot where the infamous metallic silver “trash bag” uniforms, worn just once in 2003, were intended to be. “We heard they were all burned,” Finegold White says, a mischievous smile on her face.

Even Mavs Vault has its blind spots, it turns out. Chances are you’ll see more than enough to go home happy anyway.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

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