INDIANAPOLIS — Dallas Mavericks President and CEO Terdema Ussery told an audience comprised mostly of athletic directors, coaches and compliance officers at the NCAA Inclusion 2013 forum Wednesday that why you want to be a leader is a more important question than how you get in position.
“We need virtuous leaders in the NCAA who are going to be transparent leaders, talking about sports and academics, who are going to have honest dialogue with all our constituencies and are about the business of the institution and not the individual that is running the institution,” Ussery said.
Ussery, who has a bachelor’s degree from Princeton, a master’s degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of California-Berkley, said he is particularly interested in the NCAA’s focus on graduation rates.
“One of the things that scares me about that is if you are doing that for optical reasons, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. In other words, if you want to be able to say to people, ‘We graduate 80 percent of our student-athletes, and therefore, there should be no heat on us,’ and if you’re doing it for that reason, you’re doing it for the wrong reason, and you’re going to get the wrong result. The objective should not be to graduate 100 percent of your athletes; the objective should be to educate 100 percent of your athletes on the way to graduating 100 percent of your athletes.
“If you’re only doing it for the optics of it, the educational piece is going to get in the way. If you say that someone graduated from an institution, but when you put a microphone in their face and they can’t put together a sentence, something is wrong.”
Ussery, in his 16th season with the National Basketball Association team and a fixture on lists of the most powerful executives in sports, readily admits that his achievements in education and success in the corporate world most likely would not have happened without the help of others at key times during his life. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles and his family experienced the rioting in Watts.
In the aftermath of the riots, the federal government put trailers at his elementary school and graduate students from UCLA volunteered to work with the youngsters in terms of academics and sought to identify those who exhibited the ability to excel. Ussery took advantage of those after-school sessions.
On the verge of attending high school, Ussery continued to excel in school but also was getting caught up in fighting, and the situation apparently was going to only get worse. Another mentor stepped in, helping him gain acceptance at a private school and secure a scholarship, as his family would not have been able to pay the tuition. After making the successful transition, Ussery was on his way.
“To me one of the obligations of being successful, being blessed, is to be a blessing to others,” said Ussery, who also has been the president of Nike Sports Management and commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association. “Ask yourself, who are you going to be a blessing to, because in the same way that someone helped you get where you are, there are a bunch of kids that need someone just to turn them one or two clicks to send them in the right direction.”
For Ussery, though, knowing where you want to go is trumped by what you intend to do when you get there.
“The power speaks for itself; … you will assume the power with the seat,” Ussery said. “If you want to be included because you want the right to exploit, to pillage, to pilfer just as those that came before you, then morally there’s something wrong. … If you buy into the construct that power and virtue are two separate things and don’t go together, and what you’re after is the power, you have no moral standing.
“Because for a long time in philosophy, the idea was that justice was simply the advantage of the strong. If that’s what it is, then we don’t need to include you. If all you want to do is come do what I’ve done, and you say I’ve done poorly; I’ve treated people wrong; what do I need you for?”