By David Mullen
Money doesn’t buy modesty, principles or common sense.
No better example of that can be found than among owners in the world of professional sports, where ego often takes a front seat. Throughout the years, there have been some real characters.
In football, there was Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders, who once sued his own league so he could move his franchise to Los Angeles only to move it back to Oakland barely a decade later. His son Mark has followed in his footsteps by inking a deal to move the gloried franchise to Sin City in 2020. Owner Jerry Jones, when he bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, announced that he would be involved in every aspect of the franchise from “jocks to socks.” He had early success, but his Cowboys have yet to return to the Super Bowl since 1996.
In baseball, there was Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, who treated her pet Schottzie and her players like dogs. Bill Veeck, an owner of various teams including the Chicago White Sox and who would drink beer out of his prosthetic leg, put his team in shorts part of one season. He may be most famous for hosting Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park between games of a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers. Disco records were placed just above second base and blown up with dynamite, which led to an unplayable field and a forfeit of game two. And Oakland A’s owner Charles O. Finley, who put his team in white shoes, would bring out a “Charley O. the Mule” before the games, held Hot Pants Day where women in short shorts got in for free and then modeled them on the field, and introduced an orange baseball.
In basketball, there was Franklin Mieuli, owner of the Golden State Warriors, who in the stodgy 1960s would wear a Sherlock Holmes hat and ride a motorcycle. Former Cleveland Cavaliers owner Ted Stepien once traded every first round pick he controlled in the 1980s. Donald Sterling, former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, had to relinquish his franchise for blatant racism despite being part of an African American-dominated league. And of course, there is the Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban who is as unpredictable and opinionated as any owner in sports.
There are dozens more examples of eccentric team owners. And as luck would have it, I grew up with Davis, Finley and Mieuli owning my beloved local teams. Mieuli was harmless. Davis and Finley were diabolical. When I moved to Dallas, I immediately embraced the Mavericks. They were an up-and-coming team, having won 43 games in 1983-84 after seasons of 38, 28 and 16 wins in their expansion 1980-81 season. I was familiar with head coach Dick Motta, who had previously coached the ill-named Washington Bullets. I knew of general manager Norm Sonju, who had run the Buffalo Braves. But who was this smiling, low-profile owner Donald Carter?
I was not accustomed to smiling, low-profile sports owners.
Carter grew up poor in Arkansas. But he was a hard worker, an ethic he learned from his mother. Later, he accumulated wealth through the family business, Home Interiors and Gifts, which his mother started.
With some creative financing, Carter was able to come up with some of the $12 million franchise fee to pay the NBA and bring NBA basketball to Dallas. He had some other good fortune. Dallas had just built Reunion Arena. The NBA allowed Carter, with the help of Sonju, to make a down payment and pay out the start-up fee over time. Seen at home games in his signature cowboy hat, a white cowboy hat became part of the Mavericks logo for years. No Wizards or Raptors like the logos of today.
“Mr. Carter” (as he was affectionately known), with his wife Linda always by his side, was a religious man. He would take care of his players to a fault, even at their lowest moments when their careers appeared to be lost. He was conservative. I remember that when the Carter-owned Mavericks introduced cheerleaders. They looked more like the Kilgore Rangerettes than the “Fly Girls” of today.
But he was a cheerleader on his own. He sat in the front row, willing on a team that never brought him an NBA championship.
He sold the Mavericks 16 years later for $125 million, while maintaining a minority interest. The Mark Cuban-owned Mavericks today are worth an estimated $1.9 billion.
When the Mavericks won the NBA championship in 2011, Carter was at the victors’ podium. In a move that combined gratitude and class, Cuban (right, with Carter) handed Carter the Larry O’Brien Trophy so he could be among the first to hold it.
Donald Carter died on Feb. 14 at 84 years old. Mavericks and NBA fans everywhere should give a tip of the cowboy hat to the man that not only brought basketball to Dallas, but did so without a sense of self. He leaves being remembered for his big hat and a big heart.