relax in his luxurious digs. With a staff of 150 people, he handles the teams’ payroll, finances, business planning and marketing issues — just about everything but the signing of players.
Mills’ basketball career began as a player. While attending Princeton University (where he met Ussery) he majored in sociology. He was also starting guard for the Tigers and helped lead the team to a league title in his senior year, 1981. After graduation, he played one season professionally in South America. “I had committed to myself that if I wasn’t good enough to play in the NBA, I wasn’t going to be one of those guys who spend years and years bouncing around playing semi-professional basketball,” says Mills, 43. “I thought it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences to continue to play and get some money for it, but I was only going to do it one year and then I’d go to really working for a living.”
That following year, Mills served as manager of new business development at Chemical Bank in New York City. While there, he received a call from Cecil Watkins, an old friend from his high school days who was working in the NBA. “He called me up one day and said there was a job selling sponsorships open at the NBA and asked would I be interested in interviewing,” recalls Mills. “I took him my rÃ©sumÃ© that night and interviewed with David Stern and [Deputy Commissioner] Russ Granik, and five weeks later I was working at the NBA.”
While Mills continued to sell sponsorships for the next few years, moving to bigger and bigger clients, the league was beginning to expand globally and was looking for ways to build a loyal following outside of the U.S. The league created a special events area that included the NBA draft, lottery, and corporate functions, as well as their promotional initiatives overseas. Mills was tapped to oversee the execution and development of these events — the first of which was the inaugural McDonald’s Championship where an NBA team (the Milwaukee Bucks) competed against a team from the former Soviet Union. “I’d go to Europe and negotiate hotel and arena contracts and television deals, so I was able to develop a skill set that touched every aspect of the business.”
By the late ’80s, the native New Yorker was looking for new challenges. He approached Stern and Granik to discuss where he wanted to go with his career. “It was a wonderful experience, but in the end, it was sort of the same drill in different locales. It was negotiate arena deals, interact with local broadcasters and teams, negotiate housing contracts,” recounts Mills. “You’re overseeing the same thing except one was in Paris, one was in Japan, etc. I loved it, but I was ready to do something different.”
After brainstorming with the league brass, where they identified some of the NBA’s needs, Stern and Granik created the position of senior vice president for basketball and player development. Mills assumed this position during