Franchise Players

Terdema Ussery can easily be spotted at a Dallas Mavericks home game. Standing behind the scorer’s desk in a business suit, the CEO’s attention regularly shifts between the on-court action and the goings-on in the arena itself — aware of the game and his environment. This came in handy during game four of the NBA Western Conference finals when the shriek of a fire alarm echoed throughout the arena, piercing the din of 20,000 fans anxiously awaiting tip-off.

Ussery quickly directs security and other personnel to ensure that spectators at the sold out arena make an orderly exit. He pinpoints the source of the alarm — a minor kitchen fire. It is quickly extinguished. Crisis averted, he turns his attention toward getting fans re-seated and players warmed up so that the game can begin.

A few days later, Steve Mills sits in a conference room surrounded by the heads of marketing for the New York Knicks, Rangers and Liberty — the teams Mills oversees. The challenge at hand for the president of operations for Madison Square Garden may not be as dramatic as a pre-game arena evacuation, but it is nonetheless critical: boosting season ticket holder renewal rates after disappointing seasons for the Knicks and Rangers — neither of which made it to the postseason.

One strategy includes sending out personalized letters to subscribers to generate excitement about the upcoming season. Another includes a small pin commemorating the number of years the subscriber has been a season ticket holder and a payment plan so that subscribers don’t have to lay out several hundred dollars in one lump sum for their tickets. Yet another allows season ticket holders to go online and sell tickets to games (at face value) they cannot attend.

Ussery and Mills represent two African Americans who have successfully ascended the National Basketball Association corporate ladder to become the highest-ranking front office executives in the league. In addition to running the Mavericks, Ussery is CEO of Dallas-based HDNet, the nation’s first high-definition television network. In the Big Apple, Mills oversees $700 million in assets, as estimated by Sports Illustrated. For their achievements and diverse responsibilities, BLACK ENTERPRISE has selected Ussery and Mills as co-Executives of the Year for 2003.

Truth be told, both executives have the business savvy and leadership skills that could someday land them the league’s top job — commissioner. In a league noted for its progressive hiring practices and diversity among every level of its ranks, it’s not hard to imagine an African American running the league. In fact, both Ussery and Mills have much in common with Commissioner David Stern. The commissioner has a background in law, as does Ussery, and graduated from an Ivy League institution, as did both Mills and Ussery. After receiving his undergraduate degree from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey (which lies about 20 miles from Ussery and Mills’ alma mater, Princeton), Stern went on to study at Columbia Law School. Ussery began his career in law similarly to Stern. Ussery even served as general counsel and