Ussery, Terdema, II 1958–
Terdema Ussery II 1958–
Tederma Ussery II is very good at rescuing floundering sports organizations. As commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association, he improved the league’s lackluster reputation, filling the courts with quality players and the stands with enthusiastic fans. Then, as president and CEO of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, Ussery reorganized and reinvented a team that had been lost in mediocrity.
Terdema Lamar Ussery II was born on December 4, 1958. He grew up in the tough neighborhood of Watts in South Central Los Angeles, known nationwide as a haven for drugs, gangs, and violence. As a teenager, Ussery experienced a clash of cultures that stayed with him long into his adulthood. At age of 14, Ussery left Watts on a scholarship to attend Thatcher School, located ninety miles north in Ojai, California. One of seven other black students in a student body of over two hundred, Ussery, the son of a grocery store owner, found himself studying alongside the white sons of lawyers, doctors, and actors. According to Kelly Whiteside in Sports Illustrated, “He quickly realized that his Afro and his steel comb were unacceptable, as were the music he preferred and his manner of speaking.”
As he learned to fit in, Ussery found himself straddling a fence between two races and cultures. Ussery spent the school year in a predominantly white environment with a strict attention to academia. In the summer and on holidays, he was surrounded by his community in Watts. “When I came home from school after my freshman year, I had lost all of my friends,” Ussery told Sports Illustrated. “It was the too-white syndrome. Before I left, they’d said to me ‘you’re gonna be a white boy when you come back.’ When I came home, a friend told me, ‘You’re in a different world. We don’t want to hang with you anymore.’” Ussery continued, “You pay a price…. Not totally accepted over here, and not totally accepted over there.”
Following Thatcher, Ussery attended Princeton University, earning a B.A. in 1981. He then went to work on a master’s in government from Harvard, graduating in 1984. Finally, Ussery obtained a juris doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1987.
Ussery faced a personal trial in 1986 when, during a robbery, his father was shot in the leg. Ussery, bent on revenge, began searching for the man who had shot his
At a Glance…
Born December 4, 1958, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Jean Hendrick and Terdema Ussery, Sr,; married Debra Hubbard; children: Terdema III, Elizabeth. Education: Princeton University, B.A., 1981; Harvard University, M.A., 1984; University of California, Berkeley, J.D., 1987.
Career: Morrison & Foster, associate, 1987-90; Continental Basketball Association, deputy commissioner and legal counsel, 1990-91, commissioner, 1991-93; Nike, head of sports management operation, 1994-96; Dallas Mavericks, president and CEO, 1996-.
Addresses: Dallas Mavericks, Reunion Arena, 777 Sports Street, Dallas, TX 75207
father. For days Ussery and one of his cousins, who, Ussery told Sports Illustrated, “always had something on him, a gun or a knife,” canvassed the Watts neighborhood, asking questions, looking for the shooter. As the search continued, Ussery was torn between two inner voices: one which told him what he was doing was crazy, and one that cried out for revenge. After a few days Ussery decided to heed the voice of reason and gave up his quest for vengeance.
In 1987 Ussery landed a job at the prestigious Los Angeles law firm of Morrison and Foerster. After three years as an associate at Morrison and Foerster, Ussery was offered the position of deputy commissioner and legal council to the then-fledgling Continental Basketball Association (CBA). The position, though it paid less, would enable Ussery to literally run a basketball league. His father, provided his son with some advice, saying, according to Sports Illustrated, “You can run a company. I did.”
Ussery accepted the job, becoming the youngest African-American head of a sports league. But the task ahead of him was a daunting one. The league was the laughingstock of the basketball community, especially compared to the NBA, with its flashy millionaire players and championship series viewed by millions. The CBA was home to players who were not talented enough to make it to the NBA and to aging NBA players put out to pasture. The CBA had six commissioners in six years and franchises in the 47-year-old league, according to Sports Illustrated, “turned over like lemons on a slot machine.” Many teams were struggling to make money. But Ussery was determined to make the CBA a success.
He worked tirelessly to shed the low-rent image of the league. And slowly, it started to work. After a year as the CBA’s deputy commissioner, Ussery became commissioner. In the 1992-93 season, more than half of the league’s 16 teams turned a profit. Additionally, attendance began to improve. For that year 1.5 million fans attended a CBA game, an increase of nearly 500,000 from the previous five years.
But attendance figures and bottom lines aside, Ussery’s proudest accomplishment in the CBA was the college education and drug counseling programs he started in 1991. These programs offered troubled athletes a second chance. The programs also helped some players in the league actually make it to the NBA and helped a couple of coaches move up within the league. The CBA developed a solid relationship with the NBA, becoming a farm system of sorts for the NBA. CBA teams were linked to parent NBA clubs and the odds of a CBA player making the NBA increased significantly. The CBA became known as, according to Sports Illustrated, the “official development league of the NBA.”
Ussery spent three years with the CBA before he was offered a job a Nike. In 1994 he began work as the head of Nike’s management operations. As such he represented notable athletes like Scottie Pippen, Deion Sanders, and Ken Griffey, Jr. While with Nike, Ussery brought brand identity to new levels, even advising Coca-Cola on how to handle its 1996 summer Olympics activities. In 1996 the Sporting News’ annual survey listed the Watts native as the 82nd most-powerful person in professional sports.
Ussery’s next career opportunity came in 1997. That summer, team owner Ross Perot, Jr. handed the operations of the Dallas Mavericks over to Ussery. Again, Ussery found himself at the helm of a struggling organization. Established in 1980, the Dallas Mavericks had wallowed in mediocrity during most of the team’s existence. Since its inception, the team had never made it to a league or conference final, never had a league MVP, and never had a player lead the league in any category until 7-footer Shawn Bradley led the league in blocks in 1997. And even then, he finished the season in New Jersey. The team was struggling with its image and having a hard time consistently filling Reunion Arena.
After Ussery assumed operations as president and CEO, things slowly began to change. The team took on a corporate structure. As CEO Ussery took responsibility for the bottom line while Don Nelson, the team’s general manager, Ussery told the Dallas Business Journal, was “in charge of putting the product on the floor.” Ussery told the Dallas Business Journal, “I’m concentrating on the growth of a $50 million company to a $100 million company. I’m a lawyer by training, and I find myself thinking about things from the same analytical standpoint.” Simply put, the money man was handling the bills and creating revenue, and the coach was tending to basketball matters.
With the proper people responsible for their respective roles, Ussery helped shore up the Dallas Mavericks program. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Mavericks were just short of pitiful as they competed against bigger teams with larger payrolls and evolving markets. After Ussery took over operations, the vibe in Reunion Arena began to change. Coaches sought out quality players and Ussery did what he knew best—he reinvented the team.
A new image was vital for the Mavericks. “It’s not just a matter of making fans feel good about spending money on Mavs’ tickets.” Welch Snuggs wrote in the Dallas Business Journal. “Instead, for Ussery, it’s a matter of making the franchise vital to Dallas’ downtown.” So Ussery created corporate partnerships and alliances dedicated to rebuilding the team. The fan base grew, the team started winning, and big name free agents no longer saw Dallas as the Siberia of the NBA.
At the end of the 1999 season, Dallas finished 19-31. In 2000, they finished the regular season with a 40-42 record, missing the playoffs by only four games Ussery’s team finished the 2001 regular season with its best record in club history. The 53-29 record was the fifth-best in the Western Conference. The Mavericks had finally found themselves in the playoffs after an 11-year absence. At the playoffs they beat Utah three games to two in the first round before being bounced by San Antonio, in the semifinals.
Ussery has journeyed from the treacherous streets of South Central Los Angeles to become the president and CEO of a professional basketball team. A man of undeniable business savy, Ussery has proven that he can handle any challenge that comes his way.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, Gale, 2000.
Dallas Business Journal Inc., August 1, 1997.
Fund Raising Management, June 1992.
Sports Illustrated, May 3, 1993.
—John Horn and Jennifer M. York
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