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"I tell people who work for the Mavericks now, who haven't been there very long, what a big deal this team can be and will be again one day," Sullivan says. He wears a straight face. "You always think it's going to get better." Later, he mentions that you have to. Then, it can't get much worse.
The question is not why Sullivan quit the Mavericks now. He says that it was simply time to move on and that he was given a good opportunity to work as director of communications for the Dallas 2012 committee, which is charged with trying to lure the Olympics here. (There's a joke somewhere in there about leaving one losing cause for another, but that's better left to another day.) Rather, one wonders how he lasted so long.
Though he is loath to admit it, the past several years have not been easy ones. He recalls how, in the franchise's first years, he had to explain to people just whom he worked for; during the early 1980s, someone once asked him if the Mavericks were a soccer team or a female basketball team. And throughout much of this decade, he has endured so much grief from fans who demanded to know why so-and-so was traded, just what in the hell Don Nelson was thinking, what in God's name happened to Roy Tarpley, and so on.
There are probably worse gigs in pro sports than working for the Mavericks, but I bet you can't name one.
"Look, I loved it," Sullivan says. "Even when things are going bad, you have to do the job without regard for the performance on the court. If you don't do that, you'll go crazy. It is an emotional roller coaster, and you can't help it. I think I tried to bring a certain passion to my job, and you do ride the waves with the team, but when it comes to doing your job, you have to be focused on what the challenge is. If Jim Jackson's holding out, you can't fall apart and be all depressed and angry and bitter and complain about it. You figure out, 'How can we best get through this?' That's what you do. I always believed in the cause, and that's one of the reasons I stayed."
Sullivan quite literally grew up as a Dallas Maverick. He was one of the first employees hired by then-owner Don Carter and former chief operating officer-general manager Norm Sonju, a kid from Purdue University with a management degree and a rusted-out 1972 Mercury Comet that leaked oil and housed everything he owned. He had been working in Purdue's sports information office when he found out about an expansion team in Dallas in need of an eager kid to work in the public relations office. He interviewed over the phone several times, then flew to Dallas, at his own expense, to interview for the job when he discovered the club was talking to local candidates. That's how much he wanted the gig, and that's why he got it.
His original title was public relations assistant, working under former Channel 4 sports director Allen Stone, though Stone was hired two months after Sullivan. But Stone had little time to bother with the grunt work of keeping game notes or putting together the media guide and dealing with the press. Stone was there for his expertise, to lend the fledgling organization a little fast-track credibility. For a while the kid from Evergreen Park, Illinois, was the PR department.
Sullivan immersed himself in his job, to the point where "it was probably unhealthy," he says now, explaining why he stayed with the team so long. "It was such a big part of my life and more than a job. I loved it. I had a chance to be part of this thing: We're the local NBA team, and I'm in the middle of it. Growing up, dreaming about being the general manager of the Chicago White Sox, traveling with a pro team was a dream come true. Literally."
It is perhaps appropriate that Sullivan's fondest memory of his tenure with the Mavericks is tied to a loss, not a win. He mentions the team's Game Seven loss in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers on June 4, 1988. It is a date that forever defines this franchise: The Mavericks were one game away from going to the NBA Finals--and haven't won a single playoff game since that series.
"But we had said on [television and radio] what gate we were coming in to," Sullivan recalls. "Walking off the plane with the team and having 4,500 people in the terminal at DFW Airport waiting with signs, screaming, well, to be a part of it was the most overwhelming experience in my professional career."
Sullivan insists the ongoing lockout has nothing to do with his departure; it simply made his decision to leave easier to deal with, since he did not leave the Mavericks during a season. He talks about how he is ready for a new challenge, that's all, the opportunity to move in different circles and accomplish something else with his life. He says he will still go to the Mavericks' games, still root for the home team.