Paul L. Caron

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Dallas Mavericks: The NBA Basketball Team Created To Represent God

Christianity Today:  The Basketball Team Created to Represent God, by Paul Putz (Faith & Sports Institute, Baylor Truett Seminary; Author, The Spirit of the Game: American Christianity and Big-Time Sports (2024)):

Mavs PlayoffsThe Dallas Mavericks were intended to be the first Christian team in the NBA.

At the time, 1980 did not seem like a great year to launch a new professional sports franchise. Interest rates were high. The Iranian hostage crisis dominated national attention. A presidential election loomed. There was a general feeling of pessimism and uncertainty for many Americans.

But Norm Sonju had a vision—inspired by God, perhaps, but also from data and market analysis that showed Dallas had untapped potential as a National Basketball Association (NBA) city.

For two years, Sonju had worked to make his dream a reality. Now, in 1980, when his plans looked like they might be crumbling, he turned to two Bible verses he had learned from his mother as a child: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3), and “Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

“The truth of God’s Word made such a difference in my attitude in those hectic days of starting the franchise,” Sonju would write a decade later. “I knew that God was in control even when things looked hopeless.”

Sonju’s Christian faith was more than a source of comfort. It was the central force behind his efforts to bring the NBA to Dallas, fueling his hopes for what the team could become and providing the point of connection with the owner who had the money to animate his vision. ...

[T]he origin of the Dallas Mavericks was not just an effort to create and build an NBA franchise that included Christian players. It was also an effort guided by Christian values. ...

To get a team in Dallas, however, Sonju needed money. He found it in Donald J. Carter.

The son of Mary Crowley, an evangelical businesswoman who built Home Interior and Gifts into a direct-sales empire and served on the board of Billy Graham’s association, Carter made his fortune by investing in and managing his mother’s business. He followed his mother’s Southern Baptist faith too, attending Dallas’s First Baptist Church and supporting evangelical ministries. ...

As Sonju and Carter embarked on their project, they spoke of putting together a “team full of Roger Staubachs.” The star quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, though a Catholic, was a strong supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a prominent cultural symbol representing conservative moral values.

But while baseball and football had developed a cohesive network of outspoken Christian athletes like Staubach, the NBA lagged behind. There were Christians in the league, but they were not organized as part of a movement, and evangelical sports ministries did not have a strong presence. This was due in part to the disconnect between a predominantly Black league and a Christian athlete movement led primarily by white evangelicals.

Recognizing that he could not simply fill out a roster with Christian players, Sonju thought strategically. He was especially excited about his first player acquisition after the expansion draft: the signing of Ralph Drollinger. The seven-footer had been a back-up center for UCLA in the 1970s before turning down opportunities in the NBA to play for Athletes in Action (AIA), an evangelistic basketball team sponsored by Campus Crusade for Christ. ...

[Sonju] knew Drollinger would not be a star player, but he thought the center could be a leader within the team while helping to galvanize the evangelical movement in the league.

Drollinger would later recall that the Mavericks “told me they were going to be the first Christian team in the NBA.” A young reporter in Dallas named Skip Bayless also took note, wondering if “you had to be a born-again Boy Scout” to join the Mavericks roster. “These guys can speak at First Baptist, but can they play?” he asked. ...

With their focus on building a positive culture and cultivating a family-friendly environment, Sonju and Carter found a winning formula that attracted fans. Led by players like Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre, and Derek Harper, the Mavericks’ record gradually improved each year, culminating in five straight playoff appearances between 1983 and 1988. ...

[W]hile some Dallas locals took to calling the team the “First Baptist Mavs,” and a local magazine described the Mavericks as “the most Christian-influenced organization in pro sports,” the team’s religious reputation did not receive widespread national attention.

In an era dominated by the Lakers’ Magic Johnson, the Celtics’ Larry Bird, and the rise of Michael Jordan, Dallas could not break through on the big stage. By 1996, when Carter sold the team and Sonju retired, Dallas had not become the NBA “city on a hill” that they had envisioned.

But their efforts were not in vain. As Carter and Sonju brought their personal Christian faith into the work of building an NBA franchise, however imperfectly, they learned to adapt to the pluralistic culture of sports. And by creating a shared Dallas cultural institution for fans of all faith traditions to enjoy, they offered a testimony and witness of its own.

Editor's Note:  If you would like to receive a weekly email each Sunday with links to the faith posts on TaxProf Blog, email me here.

Faith, Legal Education | Permalink