UPSTATE N.Y. SPORTS LORE: Sonju brought the NBA to Speculator
Forty years ago, Upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountain Region was put on the International sports map when the 1980 Winter Olympics took place in Lake Placid.
American speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals, while setting four Olympic records and one world record on the Lake Placid Speed Skating Oval that still sets in front of the village high school. And on Feb. 22, 1980 the United States men’s Olympic ice hockey team captured the hearts of America when its group of mostly collegiate players beat the World Champion Soviet men’s hockey team made up of experienced, older professionals. Team USA would beat Finland two days later to capture the gold medal, dethroning the Soviet teams reign of having won the previous four Olympics in men’s hockey. For many years the site where this took place was known as the ‘Olympic Center Ice Rink,’ but was renamed the ‘1980 Rink — Herb Brooks Arena’ in 2005 in honor of the teams coach Herb Brooks. Both historic sports sites continue to draw significant numbers of sports fans to them each year.
Unbeknownst to many sports fans, just two hours South of Lake Placid, the small village of Speculator, population 302, has quietly amassed a similar sports history with deep connections to professional basketball and one of the most iconic NBA All-Star game weekends ever held. From 1963 through 1996, Speculator hosted 54 professional athletes, coaches and general managers. Five are enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and two were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
The story starts in 1953 when a 14-year-old trumpet player from Chicago, Ill., Norm Sonju was brought to CAMP-of-the-WOODS on the shores of Lake Pleasant in Speculator. CAMP-of-the-WOODS is a Christian family retreat center, founded by George ‘Pop’ Tibbits in 1900, as a place for families and groups to focus on Jesus Christ, through spiritual growth, relaxation and recreation. Sonju was recruited by the CAMP-of-the-WOODS music director, Bill Stanley, who directed two Chicago area orchestras that Sonju played in. He personally drove several musicians, including Sonju, to Speculator each summer from 1953 through 1955, to serve on his music staff. Upon graduating high school in 1956, Sonju attended Grinnell College in Grinnell Iowa, where he played basketball and participated in the orchestra. When he played trumpet solos, he was often accompanied by Herbie Hancock, who became a world-class pianist and composer, winning 14 Grammy Awards including the 2008 Grammy Award for Album of the Year — River.
While initially brought to the camp to play in the band, he returned for the summers of 1958 through 1960 as the CAMP-of-the-WOODS athletic and recreation director.
In 1960, Sonju graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics from Grinnell College and then moved to Detroit, Mich., where he served in the Michigan Air National Guard, (Air Force). After having survived a serious head-on car collision in 1964 in Lincoln Park, Mich., he enrolled at the University of Chicago full-time, pursuing his MBA in Economics and Marketing.
In 1963, Sonju and NBA stars Paul Neumann and Don Nelson conducted the first CAMP-of-the-WOODS Basketball Clinic on outside courts located on the backside of the CAMP-of-the-Woods grounds, used today for boat trailer storage. Sonju had met Neumann in Detroit in 1962, and he and Neumann enjoyed realizing how close they had come to becoming teammates on ‘Venture for Victory’, a Christian basketball team that toured the Asia in 1960. Sonju had been contacted by Coach Don Odle to play, but instead helped at CAMP-of-the-WOODS that summer, while Neumann toured with the team. Neumann had recently completed his second NBA season playing for the Syracuse Nationals, and after spending summer 1963 at CAMP-of-the-WOODS, he and the Nationals relocated to Philadelphia, and the team became the 76ers.
Midway through the 1964-65 season, he along with Connie Dierking and Lee Shaffer, were traded to the San Francisco Warriors (became Golden State Warriors in 1971) for Wilt Chamberlain. Sonju and Don Nelson became friends back in summer 1957, when they worked out together daily at Camp Willabay in Williams Bay, Wisc.
In 1963 Nelson had just finished his first year in the NBA playing for the Chicago Zephyrs (now Washington Wizards). He was Chicago’s third-round pick in the 1962 draft, and enjoyed a 15-year career as a player (Zephyrs, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics), in which he scored 10,998 points, had 5,192 rebounds and 1,526 assists. Sonju recalls Nelson being at Norm’s parent’s home in Chicago after being released by the Lakers in 1965.
According to Sonju “while Nelson was at my childhood home, he talked with Red Auerbach from the Celtics, who invited him to fill in for Sam Jones, who had a hand injury. Nelson thought it may be a short-term opportunity, yet he remained there for 11 years. This is one of the greatest examples of seizing the opportunity when it comes.”
He was part of five World Championship teams with the Celtics (1966, 1968, 1969, 1974, 1976), and his No. 19 was retired by the Celtics in 1978. From 1976 to 2010, he coached the Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks and Dallas Mavericks. He was the NBA Coach of the Year three times and all-star game head coach twice. His teams won 1,335 games, the most in NBA history, and he was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
The summer of 1963 marked the first of summers of this unique basketball clinic that would see 54 different professional players, coaches and general managers serve as instructors to the young athletes, most coming from New York and New Jersey. The clinics included a week of basketball drills, teaching, competitive games, and the special “Pro Game” in which the staff and coaches played for the enjoyment of the town folks, many of whom had never seen NBA players in person. Special autograph cards were created for their enjoyment as well. The attendees were also introduced to hikes in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains, and had private chapels and small discussion groups each day. Hamilton County youngsters were quietly given scholarships to attend the camp for free, courtesy of Sonju.
Just one day after graduating from the University of Chicago in 1967, with an MBA degree in Economics and Marketing, Sonju married Carole Lynne Thiesen, on June 10, at South Park Church in Park Ridge, Ill.
The wedding party included Don Nelson, and NFL Hall of Famer, Raymond Berry, Baltimore Colts. Sonju and Berry had become close friends a few years earlier when they were speakers at an event in Detroit.
One afternoon in July 1966 Berry and Sonju swam and chatted in Auger Falls, located near Speculator, where Raymond provided godly counsel to Norm regarding whether he should marry Carole. His counsel proved wise as they have been happily married for almost 53 years, and Raymond served as best man at their June 1967 wedding. Also in attendance was NFL Hall of Famer, Willie Davis, who was captain of the Green Bay Packers at the time, and had attended the University of Chicago where he and Norm were pursuing their MBA’s. After their honeymoon, they spent the rest of the summer at CAMP-of-the-WOODS, where Norm again served as the Recreation Director, and directed his basketball clinic. Willie Davis also came to Speculator that summer and served on Sonju’s clinic staff. Davis would return again for the clinics in 1968 and 1969.
That fall, Sonju joined ServiceMaster, Inc., in Downers Grove, Ill., where he had been personally recruited by Marion E. Wade, the company’s founder. Sonju headed several of their divisions, including CarpetMasters and Contract Services, Inc.
While Norm enjoyed the business world, he kept his interest in basketball alive by returning to Speculator each summer to direct the CAMP-of-the-WOODS basketball clinics, and being with his many NBA friends. In 1972 Sonju was recruited and coerced into becoming a college basketball coach, one month before the 1972-73 basketball season was to begin. Dr. Cliff Holmes, dean of George Williams College, (now Aurora University), and a neighbor of Sonju, presented the school’s desperate need to find a head basketball coach quickly, as theirs had unexpectedly and abruptly quit. Sonju was asked to take over as head coach, even though everyone knew that he was an executive at ServiceMaster, overseeing a few thousand employees and multiple offices throughout the country. Sonju agreed to coach for two seasons, but needed special accommodations. He needed a full-time assistant, (making Sonju the only ‘part-time’ head coach in college basketball with a full-time assistant). He also had to have practices in the evening instead of afternoons, plus he needed a second non-paid assistant, John McLendon, Jr., a legendary coach who also lived in Downers Grove, Ill., at the time. McLendon agreed to coach whenever Sonju was out of town for ServiceMaster business.
Though, at the time no one recognized just how great a coach McLendon was, as he is now one of only two who were inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame twice. He was first inducted in 1979 as a contributor, and again in 2016 as a coach. McLendon is recognized as being the first African-American basketball coach at a predominantly European-American university, as well as being the first African-American head coach in any professional sport. In addition, he greatly contributed to the development of the modern game of basketball and is credited with inventing the full-court press and the four corners offense. Coach McLendon became close friends with Sonju and served on his basketball clinic staff for 25 of the camps 33 years.
The NBA brought three new teams into the league for the 1970-71 season, the Buffalo Braves (Buffalo), Portland Trailblazers (Portland, Ore.) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (Cleveland, Ohio). The Braves played at the Buffalo Auditorium and had to share dates with the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabres, (also a 1970 NHL expansion team), and the Canisius College men’s basketball team. Unfortunately, the Braves were third priority in game dates, so they played some home games at the Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Canada, home of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs at the time.
In August 1976, John Y. Brown, Jr. purchased 50 percent of the Buffalo Braves from Paul Snyder. Brown was an astute businessman from Louisville, Kentucky, who in 1964 had purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from its founder, Harland Sanders.
After turning the company into an international success, Brown sold the company for 285 million dollars in 1971. He then invested in other restaurant chains, as well as the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association (ABA).
In 1977, Brown had the option to buy the remaining 50 percent of the Braves from Paul Snyder, but needed someone to be in Buffalo looking after the team.
Based on a strong recommendation by prominent professional sports executive, Jerry Colangelo, Brown pursued Sonju. Brown offered Norm a position running the team, telling him that he would not make the investment in the rest of the franchise unless he agreed to join the Buffalo organization as its president and general manager. He also sweetened the offer with a 7 percent ownership option.
Sonju recalls, “I was surprised and intrigued, but knew that I could not accept such an offer unless my non-sports loving wife, Carole, agreed, and the timing was not ideal. Our youngest son, David, had just been born, I was recovering from knee surgery, and my father had died recently, and we were renovating an apartment for my mother. Yet, John Y. Brown, Jr. as busy as he was, flew to Chicago, came to our home and talked with Carole alone. They met in the kitchen, and when she came out she said, ‘Honey, I think we ought to go to Buffalo’. So, I left ServiceMaster, Inc., and joined the Buffalo Braves in March 1977. And Brown Jr. then purchased the remaining 50% of the team.”
In December of the 1977-78 season, he sold 50 percent of the team to Harry T. Mangurian, a horse breeder, originally from Rochester, with homes in Ocala and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Brown remained as managing partner.
When Sonju arrived in Buffalo, he soon realized that there was deep resentment simmering against the team by the fans and the city of Buffalo.
By the time Norm got to Buffalo during the later part of the 1976-77 season, he realized that key players had been traded away, e.g. Bob MacAdoo and Tom McMillen, etc., and that there had been an ugly injunction by the City of Buffalo to prevent the team from relocating to Hollywood, Fla., the year before. He had not been told about that, and had been personally so busy wrapping up affairs with ServiceMaster, selling his Downers Grove, Ill., home, and relocating to Buffalo, that he was unaware of the severity of those events.
Throughout Norm’s first season in Buffalo, he’d hear daily rumors that the owners wanted to move the team from Buffalo, which made it tough for Norm and his marketing team. Mangurian wanted to move the team to Hollywood, Fla., meaning less travel for him. Brown wanted to move the team to Louisville, Ky., as he was eyeing running for Governor, and felt that bringing an NBA team there would help his chances. Later, he did in fact become Governor of Kentucky from 1979 to 1983. Despite these challenges, Sonju was committed to market the team as if the team would be there forever, and along with Brown Jr., served on the NBA’s Board of Governors.
Brown, to his credit orchestrated a big trade for Nate ‘Tiny’ Archibald, prior to the 1977-78 season and if Tiny could have played, the team had the potential of making the playoffs.
However, Nate ruptured his Achilles tendon, and missed the entire season. In February of 1978, he approached Sonju to try to play again, but the risk of another injury was so great that the team didn’t allow him to try. His delayed return to the NBA allowed his leg to later heal wonderfully, and he won a Championship with the Boston Celtics in 1981, was MVP of the 1981 NBA All-Star game, and was elected to basketball’s Hall of Fame in 1991. Without the services of Archibald (who had led the NBA in both scoring and assists in 1972-73) the Braves finished the season 27 – 55.
With the poor finish on his side, Brown then exercised a contract clause allowing him to break the Braves lease with the city of Buffalo for its use of the Buffalo Auditorium for the following season. The two majority owners did not come back to Buffalo, so Sonju had to make all of the public announcements. It was apparent that the majority owners wanted to relocate, so Sonju hired BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association), and Gardner McBride, to do studies of potential markets, which could be attractive for relocation. The studies showed Orange County, Calif., as the best potential market followed by Dallas, Texas. However, Dallas led by Mayor Bob Folsom, was building an arena, while no arenas were in the process of being built in Orange County at the time.
In 1978, Sonju was in the process of presenting to the NBA Expansion Committee at the del Coronado Hotel in San Diego, the case for allowing the Braves to relocate to Dallas for the 1978-79 season. The committee emphatically said that ‘Dallas was not for relocation, but was open to expansion.’
That data became invaluable to Norm later when he worked to get an expansion team in Dallas in 1980. At those same meetings, NBA General Counsel, and future commissioner, David Stern brokered an amazing swap of franchises between Irv Levin, Boston Celtics owner, and John Y. Brown, Jr. majority owner of the Buffalo Braves.
Levin had dreamed of operating a team in California, but knew that the NBA would never allow him to move the iconic Celtics franchise away from Boston. It was not an easy swap as the Braves had only been in existence for seven seasons while the Celtics had already won 13 world championships. So in order to facilitate the exchange, several Braves players were sent to Boston, e.g. Nate Archibald, Marvin Barnes, Will Jones, Billy Knight, etc. The exchange quietly took place on June 28, 1978, and the league voted 21-1 to allow the Braves to relocate to San Diego.
Levin now owned the Braves, while Brown and Mangurian would own the Boston Celtics. Nine days later (July 7, 1978), Sonju facilitated the move of the Buffalo franchise to San Diego and ran a contest with the San Diego Union newspaper to rename the team, the San Diego Clippers. In 1982, Levin sold the team to Donald Sterling for $12.5 million, who then relocated the team to Los Angeles in 1984. The team became the Los Angeles Clippers. That same franchise was sold in 2014 for a record $2 billion dollars to former CEO of Microsoft, Steve Ballmer.
After helping get the team settled in San Diego, Levin offered Sonju the President/GM position, but did not want any of his Buffalo employees.
Norm turned the position down and incredibly was offered the same position with the Detroit Pistons. Sonju flew to Chicago and met with Bill Davidson and Oscar Feldman, Pistons owners, who wanted Norm to fly with them to Detroit to make the announcement. Norm shared three important necessities for his coming, and the next day the owners did not think that they could agree to his recommended changes, so he turned down that offer as well. Ironically, they eventually did all three things. Throughout this time, Brown was also asking Sonju to come to Boston to run the Celtics, as it looked like their General Manager Red Auerbach was going to the Knicks.
However, Auerbach stayed with the Celtics, so Sonju returned to Buffalo without a team to run. He was still paid by the Celtics during the 1978-79 season. He also gave up his 7 percent ownership option in the Celtics so that Brown and Mangurian could own the team outright. Today, he still receives four payments a year from the Boston Celtics. Brown soon left to run for Governor, and Sonju to try for an expansion team in Dallas, so Mangurian became the solo owner of the Boston Celtics. Sonju returned to Buffalo to help his former Buffalo Braves employees land new jobs, and taught an adult Bible class at ‘The Chapel’, then located in Buffalo, and another for the Buffalo Bills players and wives.
Because of his earlier research of potential markets to move the Braves, Sonju recognized that Dallas was the best market for an expansion NBA team. During this time, Texas businessman Don Carter had been separately trying to buy an existing team and relocate it to Dallas, not knowing that the NBA would not allow that. Carter ran the successful ‘Home Interiors and gifts’ decorating accessories business that his mother had started in 1957.
Prior to meeting Sonju in February 1979, Carter had previously attempted to buy the Kansas City Kings, and the Milwaukee Bucks, thinking that he could relocate them to Dallas. However, Sonju knew from the previous NBA meetings when trying to move the Braves, that the NBA would never allow an existing team to move to Dallas, but were open to an expansion team locating there. So Sonju shared those realities to Carter when he met him in 1979.
In February 1979, Norm joined forces with Don Carter, trying to get the NBA board of Governors to vote to allow Carter to purchase an expansion team for Dallas. Norm was to work for Carter, as President/GM once the team was allowed, and as the point person directing the efforts until then. Norm realized that no one in the league knew Carter, so he created a helpful booklet introducing Carter, and presenting the salient reasons why Dallas was prime for an expansion franchise. Sonju then made visits to 20 of the 22 NBA owners, mostly at their home offices, trying to get them excited about Carter and Dallas.
Though Carter now realized that expansion was the only way to get a franchise in Dallas, he was still determined to use the lesser dollar amount that he knew that he could purchase an existing team for, though Sonju knew that would be rejected summarily, which it was. So Carter became mad at the NBA, and in July 1979, he dropped out of pursing a franchise. That also ended the franchise quest for those who had initially got Carter interested in pursuing an NBA team. Sonju was now left alone to keep the dream alive, but he could not let the media, the NBA or anyone know that he was on his own. Sonju knew that down deep, the NBA really did not want to expand in 1979, and several owner friends had told him privately that they were willing to support his expansion idea only because they cared for him.
Sonju could not purchase a team himself, so had to create a partnership from scratch that would have 24 partners, each with a 4.13 percent ownership stake. He hired a big five accounting firm, and a large Dallas law firm to create the circular. Neither had ever written such a circular before, so Sonju literally had to teach them how to proceed step by step, while he was paying them their large hourly fees. Sonju then met individually with 146 different potential investors during difficult times in our country, as interest rates grew and peaked at 21.5 percent in April 1980, and many of Sonju’s investors received margin calls on other loans.
During these months, February 1979 to April 1980, Sonju took no salary and paid all expenses personally, including the hotel and airfares for the attorneys and accountants who accompanied him to the February Board of Governor meeting’s in Washington, D.C. It was there that the NBA went on record saying that Sonju had a franchise, if his partners accepted the NBA’s latest terms.
However, one morning five of Sonju’s limited partners dropped out and things looked bleak. Yet, remarkably, a little more than a month prior to the May 1st drop-dead date, Carter rejoined Sonju’s efforts to get a franchise by providing the necessary financial backing of Home Interiors and Gifts, Inc. Sonju then took everything that he had already accomplished and shown in his circulars, and contributed it to the new partnership that had to be formed, which then made it possible to get the franchise. Carter became Sonju’s hero, because without his financial support at that time of insane interest rates, when so few others could afford to invest, it couldn’t have happened without him.
On April 28, the NBA Board of Governors voted 20-2 to grant Sonju and Carter a NBA franchise. The next day, May 1, 1980, in the Pullman Room of Union Station in Dallas, Norm announced that Dallas was now the NBA’s 23rd franchise.
At that same press conference, Sonju announced the team’s nickname, Mavericks, logo and team colors. The Mavericks became the first pro basketball team in Dallas since 1973, when the Dallas Chaparrals left the old ABA and moved to San Antonio to become the San Antonio Spurs. The official expansion price was $12.5 million dollars. Twenty seven days later the expansion draft took place in Los Angeles, Calif., and the new franchise acquired one player from each of the other 22 NBA teams. Sonju had hired Rick Sund, a young basketball man from the Milwaukee Bucks, and instructed him to try to trade each expansion player for future draft picks, if possible.
Incredibly, they acquired four draft picks from Cleveland, including three of Cleveland’s own picks. Those players were instrumental as to why the Mavericks won 124 games in their first four seasons, more than any of the other expansion teams since.
The Mavericks played their games in the then brand new Reunion Arena, and compiled a record of 15-67 in their inaugural 1980-81 season. The season was considered a great success, as they generated a profit, which 18 of the league’s 22 teams had not done the previous season. What made this even more impressive was that they did this in a sports market previously dominated by the Dallas Cowboys. In 1984, the Mavericks made the NBA Playoffs for the first time, and Sonju was named runner-up for the NBA Executive of the Year, ahead of third-place winner Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics. Sonju had also been the runner up the prior season. The Mavericks would make the playoffs five straight years (1983-84 to 1987-88) and again for the 1989-90 season. Their best season under Sonju was making the Western Conference Finals in 1987, and losing to the champion Los Angeles Lakers in the deciding 7th game. The Lakers went on to beat the Detroit Pistons to win the 1987-88 NBA Championship.
The 1985-86 season was an especially memorable one for the city of Dallas as Sonju was successful in bringing the NBA All-Star Weekend to the Mavericks home court in February of 1986. NBA Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik had committed it to Sonju two seasons earlier. The NBA brought in a special maple floor created by Horner Flooring Company, Inc., Dollar Bay, Mich., for the first time for an All-Star Game.
Sonju worked closely with Bill Winn, the designer of the Mavericks logo in 1980, to create a special center court graphic that included the NBA logo, and the words, ’36th Annual All-Star Game, Dallas, Feb, 9, 1986,” outlined in the shape of the State of Texas. The weekend’s events included a slam-dunk contest, the inaugural 3-point contest, and the Sunday All-Star Game that Magic Johnson said was the greatest display of fast-break basketball in NBA history.
The Slam Dunk Contest featured the unlikely 5-7 Spud Webb of the Atlanta Hawks defeating his teammate Dominique Wilkins, who stood 6-7, and was the defending champion. The 3-point contest was introduced to the weekend festivities for the first time. Boston’s Larry Bird had walked into the locker room and asked who was going to finish second, and then went out onto the court and won the event. He also won the event in 1987 and 1988.
The game itself began with Ralph Sampson throwing down a Magic Johnson alley-oop 12 seconds into the game, and continued as fast and as exciting as it started. The West team was led by Hall of Fame head coach Pat Riley, and featured future NBA Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Ralph Sampson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adrian Dantley, Alex English, Clyde Drexler, Akeem Olajuwon and Artis Gilmore.
The East Team was led by Hall of Famer K.C. Jones, and future NBA Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Kevin McHale, Dominque Wilkins, Maurice Cheeks, Robert Parish, Sidney Moncrief, Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing. Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing did not play due to injuries. The East team made a dramatic come from behind effort and won 139-132. Isiah Thomas was named the game’s Most Valuable Player after scoring 30 points, with 10 assists and five steals.
When the weekend was over, Sonju inquired as to what was to become of the special floor that had been brought in for the weekend’s events, as this was the first time that the NBA had brought in a floor just for the All-Star weekend. Bill Gappy, of Horner Flooring Company, Inc., told him that it would be sold to a college for $50,000, and that they would sand off the All-Star Game Logo and re-paint their schools logo. Sonju had spent too much time working with Bill Winn creating the logo, so agreed to pay full price, and had it shipped to CAMP-of-the-WOODS in Speculator. Because mostly young kids would be using the floor in the future, he asked Bill Gappy to cut it down by 10 feet to 84 feet, but to protect the original All-Star Game markings. Today, the floor is kept in a special gymnasium at CAMP-of-the-WOODS that Sonju had built to hold it. Several of Norm’s NBA owner friends contributed towards the cost of the gymnasium, including Mark Rattner and Marv Wolfensen, owners of the Timberwolves; Bill Davidson and Oscar Feldman, owners of the Detroit Pistons (whom Norm had turned down in 1978); Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Phoenix Suns; Don Carter, Horace Ardinger, Hal Browning and Lindsey Embrey, investors with Norm in the Dallas Mavericks. It was ready for the summer of 1986.
In the 1980s, Sonju was the chairman of the NBA marketing committee, and also served on the NBA expansion committee that helped bring the Charlotte Hornets (now the New Orleans Pelicans), Miami Heat, Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves into the league. To thank him for his special role in helping the Charlotte Hornets become a NBA team, they presented him with the team’s very first personalized jersey at their initial home game in 1988, in front of 24,000 fans at the Charlotte Coliseum.
The 1994-95 season was another special one, not only for the city of Dallas, but also for all of the aspiring young basketball players who attended the CAMP-of-the-WOODS Basketball Clinic in the summer of 1995. The Mavericks had selected future Hall of Famer, Jason Kidd, out of the University of California with the second pick in the 1994 NBA college draft. He played brilliantly and earned Co-NBA Rookie of the Year honors with Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons. Just a few weeks after winning the prestigious award, he was in Speculator, working alongside of Sonju giving basketball instructions to the young athletes of Upstate New York.
As word got out that he was in Speculator, fans from as far away as New Jersey showed up trying to get his autograph. Because of this, Norm had Kidd and Lucious Harris, Mavericks guard, stay at his nearby Speculator home, instead of in the CAMP-of-the-WOODS accommodations where the pro staff and Sonju were usually headquartered.
When Jason and Norm saw each other again at the February 2020 All-Star Weekend, they laughed recalling having to push their car out of a muddy back road near Crane Mountain after a hike. Remembering how the co-rookie of the year and the Mavericks co-founder must have looked all covered with mud, laughing and loving the moment, which brought back some great memories for them.
Another amazing memory was when the very first NBA lockout occurred while Kidd and Harris were staying at Norm’s home that same summer. While Sonju and the players knew that tension was brewing between the NBA owners and the players association as the previous collective bargaining had expired after the 1993-94 season, all three were engrained in the clinic and cut off from the world outside of Speculator. It was not until late in the week that they learned of the lockout while Norm’s wife, Carole, was fixing them breakfast. Although Kidd and Harris were at CAMP-of-the-WOODS to help Norm with 132 young kids, and not as Mavericks employees, the legalities of them being there made everyone feel uncomfortable. Though they didn’t want to leave, Norm asked them to exit CAMP-of-the-WOODS early, which they did, in order to avoid substantial fines which could have been levied. Yet, in hindsight many years later, it was truly another unique experience for Sonju and Kidd that happened in Speculator.
On May 16, 1996, Don Carter sold his majority interest in the Dallas Mavericks to H. Ross Perot, Jr. (who subsequently sold his majority interest to Mark Cuban in 2000).
Before the actual sale, each of the prospective buyers had to meet privately with Sonju at his home. Sonju helped facilitate the sale and was asked by Perot to stay on during the transition.
After the transition, Sonju retired in June of 1996 as the only President/General Manager in Dallas Mavericks history.
Under his leadership, the community of Dallas grew to embrace and support the Mavericks, and the organization was profitable each of their 16 seasons with him at the helm.
In addition, Sonju is credited with having mentored and launched many of his employees into major positions throughout professional sports. His hires became team presidents, general managers, and directors’ of marketing and communications of sports franchises.
One became a television network executive and even headed communications in the Bush White House. The one common thread with all of Sonju’s hires, other than Rick Sund, was that they all came to Norm without any prior NBA experience. Sonju encouraged growth and helped his employees succeed, often times making the initial calls to help them get bigger jobs.
Sonju has been retired from the NBA since 1996, yet still has more than a dozen former hires in key sports positions, including one who is in Major League Baseball as Executive Director of Communications for the New York Mets. Some of the 4.13 percent partners that Sonju had lined up initially before Carter came back into the final partnership in 1980, remained even after Carter sold out to Ross Perot. Jr. and Cuban had bought the team. The Forbes valuation for the franchise is now 2.4 billion dollars, which is truly an amazing investment success story.
A few weeks after retiring in 1996, Sonju returned to Speculator to direct his final CAMP-of-the-WOODS basketball clinic. Ralph Larsen, then Chairman/CEO of Johnson & Johnson, and a fellow board member, shared that he felt the CAMP-of-the-Woods ministry was in financial difficulty and needed help quickly. Sensing that for the first time in his career, Norm now had free time, he asked Sonju if he would take over the ministry to help save it from possible demise. Sonju accepted, and for 22 years took no salary and paid all of his own expenses. Sonju served as Chairman/CEO until Jim Hammond was hired in 2005, and then as Chairman of the board until June 2018.
For more than 60 years, Norm has dedicated countless hours and energy towards serving and revitalizing the wonderful CAMP-of-the WOODS Ministry.
These efforts include presiding over $30,000,000 in needed renovations, which included a state-of-the-art sports complex. The complex features four basketball courts, including the All-Star Gym that houses the floor used for the famous 1986 NBA All-Star Game in Dallas Texas, in which 22 NBA Basketball Hall of Famers played. The sports complex also offers a state-of-the-art indoor climbing and bouldering wall, a family style game room, meeting rooms and an outdoor basketball court that is transformed into an ice skating rink during the winter.
The sports facility was formally dedicated to Sonju on June 28, 2009 and now is named the “Sonju Sports Complex.”
Guests at the dedication included Raymond Berry, Pat Williams (Orlando Magic General Manager), Jerry Colangelo, Jeff Mullins (1964 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team and Golden State Warriors), Randy Pfund (former Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach and President of the Miami Heat), Broadway stars Mark McVey (Jean Valjean in Les Miserables), and Laurie Gayle Stephenson (Christine in Phantom of the Opera), and many former clinic staffers, and former clinic kids, who are now adults.
Today, Norm splits time between his condo in Lancaster, Pa., and his home in Speculator, with his wife Carole. They have three grown children, Lynne and husband, Hutz Hertzberg, Glenview, Ill/, Scott, and wife Amy Plano, Texas, and David and wife Joy, Harrisburg, Pa., and nine grandchildren.
While he is no longer on the board or has any leadership roles with the CAMP-of-the WOODS ministry, he continues to care for it, and appreciates that under Jim Hammond’s solid leadership, it continues to honor our Lord with its outreach impact.
Although he has been out of professional basketball since 1996, Sonju was honored during the All-Star Breakfast put on by the NBA Retired Players Association/AIA at the February 2020 NBA All-Star Game Weekend in Chicago,
The breakfast was held at the Grand Sheraton Hotel, and Sonju received the 2020 ‘Jerry Colangelo Award’ that recognizes a person in NBA management who lives an exemplary life on and off the basketball court, and in the community, and who does so while expressing high character, leadership and faith. Basketball Hall of Famer Jerry Colangelo himself presented the award, and recognized Sonju as a role model to him.
Today, the history of Sonju’s career and the incredible NBA connection to Speculator is on display at the Sonju Sports Complex, located on the CAMP-of-the-WOODS grounds.
In addition to the 1986 All-Star Game floor that thousands of young basketball players have had the honor of playing on, a trophy case contains items from the NBA Buffalo Braves of the late 1970s up through the Dallas Mavericks. Items include; team photos, books about John McLendon Jr., Raymond Berry and Norm Sonju, game used equipment, including jerseys of Mark Aguirre, the 1st pick in the 1981 NBA college draft, and Swen Nater, the only person to ever lead both the ABA and NBA in rebounding, a jersey and sneakers worn by Basketball Hall of Famer Jason Kidd while with the Mavericks, and the first ball used during the 1986 All-Star game played in Dallas.
There are also special cases with photos of the 54 professional players, coaches and GM’s, who assisted at Sonju’s basketball camps from 1963 through 1996. Five are basketball Hall of Famers, including; John McLendon Jr., (twice), Jerry Colangelo, Darryl Imhoff, Don Nelson and Jason Kidd. Two are Football Hall of Famers, Willie Davis and Raymond Berry who coached at the clinics. Everything is permanently displayed ensuring that the rich NBA and NFL connections that Speculator possesses will live on for generations to come.
A special ‘thank you’ goes out to Speculator’s Charlie Orr for his hospitality and research assistance in writing this story. Orr was a young camper at two of those 33 summer clinics, including the 1995 clinic with Jason Kidd and Lucious Harris. Orr and his children, Carter and Macy, attended all of the February 2020 NBA All-Star events in Chicago as guests of Sonju.
Another special ‘thank you’ goes out to Mr. Sonju, who helped me document not only the inner workings of his career and connections to Speculator, but also to some inside basketball history that was previously untold. Without his generous assistance, this story would not possible.
Mike Hauser is the founder of the Fulton County Baseball & Sports Hall of Fame in Gloversville. If you have story ideas, old articles/photos or would like to nominate someone for the HOF, he can be reached through the organizations website at www.fchof.com, email; firstname.lastname@example.org or call (518) 725-5565. If you enjoyed this story and want to learn more about other sports history topics, look for Hauser’s “Hometown Sports Heroes” series on www.amazon.com, search; ‘Mike Hauser Hometown Sports Heroes.’