1981 was the year Donald Sterling bought the then San Diego Clippers. It was also the year I turned 13. I spent part of that summer in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. There, in the tiny town of Speculator, on the shores of Lake Pleasant, is Camp-of-the-Woods. Camp-of-the-Woods, or COW as many people shorten it, is beautiful Christian family camp. In addition to all the sporting activities for the guests, it ran a one week basketball camp for kids. For three straight years I went to the camp. It was run by Norm Sonju. There is an interesting connection between Sonju and Sterling.
Before the Clippers became the L.A. Clippers they were the San Diego Clippers. Before that they were the Buffalo Braves. For their last two years of existence, Norm Sonju was their General Manager. In 1978, the Braves owner, John Y. Brown, the future Governor of Kentucky, wanted to move the team. Sonju thought the best city to move to was Dallas. At one point Sonju actually announced the team would move to Dallas and become the Express. But obviously that didn’t happen.
What did happen is this: Brown and Boston Celtics owner, Irv Levin, swapped franchises. Brown got the Celtics and Levin got the Braves. A young attorney named David Stern brokered the deal. Levin then moved the team to San Diego and for the 1978-79 season they became the Clippers. Three years later Levin sold the Clippers to Sterling. Sonju didn’t go to San Diego with the Clippers. Instead he and Texas businessman, Don Carter, helped create the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks joined the NBA in 1980.
While the team that Sonju used to work for, the Clippers, stunk up the court, the Mavericks quickly became a playoff team. Their first year was dismal but by their 4th year of existence they made the playoffs. Then during the 87-88 season they lost in the Western Conference finals 4 games to 3 to the L.A. Lakers. For years Sonju’s Mavericks were the model for how to create a successful sports franchise from scratch. Sonju eventually left the Mavericks in 1996.
I’ve already discussed on this site the dismal record of Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers. It seems to finally be coming to an end after 33 years and 27 losing seasons. It’s hard to say at this point what Sterling’s legacy will be. He is, after all selling the team for a 15,900% profit. Not bad. But thankfully a man’s legacy is not determined by money. I’ve never met Donald Sterling, but everything I’ve read about him has been negative. Plus, watching the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his departure from the league is telling.
I have met Norm Sonju. I remember him as a kind and generous Christian man. By all accounts he is a very well respected by his peers in the NBA. While running the COW basketball camp he invited numerous Mavericks players and others in and around the league to come help. Pat Williams, the one time general manager for the Philadelphia 76’ers and Orlando Magic was there. So was Mavericks assistant coach and future Clippers head coach (and future litigant with Sterling) Bob Weiss. Players like Swen Nater and Mark Aguirre also came. NFL hall of famer Raymond Berry was also a Sonju friend and camp counselor. These and many other showed up at the camp because Sonju asked them to.
I also met another young man in 1981. He was a camp counselor at Camp-of-the-Woods. His father was a friend of Sonju and he became, for that week, a good friend of mine. His name is Donnie Nelson. You may know him as son of legendary NBA coach, Don Nelson. He is also the current general manager of the Dallas Mavericks. I’ll never forget shaking his hand when he left camp. He was in his car getting ready to drive halfway across the country to Wheaton College in Illinois. I was sad to see him go. I haven’t seen him since.
It’s also sad that guys like Donald Sterling get so much publicity and guys like Norm Sonju get far less. But, I would imagine that’s just fine with Sonju.
Sterling’s legacy is one of losing and lawsuits. Sonju’s legacy is far greater and will last far longer. He dedicated much of his time sharing two of his passions – Christ and basketball – with young kids. In 1981, I was one of them.