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Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Terdema Ussery, in better times
   Dallas Mavericks' founding father Don Carter was laid to rest Tuesday afternoon. Just hours later, he was rolling over in his freshly dug grave.
   Even for an outfit that was America's worst professional sports organization of the 1990s - a team that went 24-140 over a two-year span, scored a record-low two points in a quarter, traded away future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd, bestowed multiple forgiveness to chronic headache Roy Tarpley and endured the entire decade without a winning record or post-season sniff - this is the darkest day in the history of our Dallas Mav-wrecks.
   Sports Illustrated's expose on the Mavs' corrosive workplace environment has rocked the NBA, shaken MFFLs and breathed troubling new momentum into the #MeToo movement. What did owner Mark Cuban know and when did he know it? How were the serial sexual advances of former CEO Terdema Ussery toward female employees unchecked, if not altogether ignored? How was an employee with two domestic violence incidents on his record allowed to maintain a high-profile position? And what will become of the impending investigation: Hefty fine? Lost draft pick? NBA owners forcing Cuban to sell?
   It all starts with a broom.
   Carter was the Billy Graham of not just the Mavs, but all of Dallas sports. A faith-based, family-first man of character and principles, he refused to serve alcohol in the press room at Reunion Arena. Out of fear of exploiting women, he cringed at allowing scantily clad dancers at games. And he paid attention to every employee and every detail, once having original team general manager Norm Sonju demonstrate to the staff on how to properly operate a push broom, as to avoid injury to themselves or those around them.
   When Carter sold the team in 1996 to a group led by Ross Perot Jr., the restrictions were loosened.
   Enter Ussery, a Harvard-educated hotshot from Nike brought in to be team president, help minority marketing initiatives and be a prominent player in seeking support for a new arena, now known as American Airlines Center. He did that and, allegedly, much, much more.
   I always liked Ussery. Played basketball with him at the old North Dallas Athletic Club. During our numerous casual conversations - at games or otherwise - he always had a wandering eye for attractive women. It was overt but subtle, nothing approaching outrageous. A head nod in her direction. A raised eyebrow when she walked past. An under-the-breath "mmm" in the general direction of the woman in the provocative outfit.
   As a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I was in the perpetual mode of "see something, say something". I wasn't alarmed. But nor was I shocked when I got wind in the Spring of 1998 that the Mavs were conducting an internal investigation of Ussery's conduct, in reaction to numerous complaints filed against him by female staffers. That investigation, concluded in August 1998, didn't unearth enough inappropriateness for Ussery to be public reprimanded, much less lose his job.
   Perot Jr. wouldn't comment on the investigation's findings. Ussery issued a "focused on the organization's success" statement. And, poof, it all disappeared. With the Internet still learning to crawl, the underwhelming Mavs being a DFW afterthought and the #MeToo still 20 years in the future, big things had a way of remaining little things.
   But privately, there were changes. Or at least, as I wrote in 1998, tweaks to the employee handbook. The Ussery investigation led to the Mavs hiring a Director of Human Resources and implementing stringent guidelines for not only workplace conduct, but also the step-by-step process for reporting sexual harassment.
   Under Carter and his regime of respect, it was unwritten, common decency. With Ussery, they became known as the "T Rules".
   In the wake of the SI revelations, I contacted a former member of Perot Jr.'s front office.
   "We heard the whispers from Day One with T," the source said. "He was your typical skirt-chaser. Handsome. Charismatic. Powerful. You know. But the investigation didn't rise to him being disciplined. Just the T Rules."
   When Cuban bought the team from Perot Jr. in 2000, Ussery survived, and thrived. He won a Humanitarian Award from the Anti-Defamation League. He grew more powerful in the NBA, serving as the Mavs' alternate governor and sometimes representing the team at owners meetings. He remained close friends with David Stern, and at one point was even widely considered the favorite to become the next commissioner of the NBA.
   When I moved from the FWST to the Dallas Observer in 2005 I covered the Mavs not as a day-to-day beat writer, but merely from the periphery as a columnist. When I crossed paths with Ussery, I didn't think about him weathering some storm - much less still being in the eye of it.
   According to SI, in the 2000s his inappropriate behavior toward women continued, and perhaps escalated. He left the Mavs in 2015 to join Under Armour. The story also details team mouthpiece Earl Sneed, the lead writer for Sneed, according to SI, had two incidents of domestic abuse, once being arrested at the team's facility and eventually entering a guilty plea that prohibited him from traveling with the team outside the country, to play in Toronto, Canada.
   Which brings us to the Cuban quandary.
   One of the most thin-skinned, heavy-handed owners in the history of sports, he knows, well, everything about everything. But in response to the SI story, he claims to have been blindsided. The Mavs, he says, would never condone such abhorrent actions.
   There are only a few explanations, however, at how the owner of the Mavs would be totally ignorant of and oblivious to the actions of Mavs' employees. Because they knew each other's dirty little secrets, maybe Ussery covered for Sneed and shielded Cuban from the total truth. Or ...
   Forget it. There's no way Cuban didn't at least have a hint about Sneed's criminal problems. The depth of them? Maybe. But that they existed at all? Nope. Surely questions arose as the team flew to Canada multiple times with Sneed's seat on the private jet empty.
   Sneed says he signed a contract stating he would not interact with female co-workers. If true, the Mavs - and Cuban - not only tolerated his behavior, they accepted it and attempted to only quarantine it.
   Next come the investigations. If, as I suspect, Cuban is found to have knowingly turned a blind eye to at least some of the various misconduct by his employees, there will be radical repercussions:
   *A hefty fine.
   *A loss of draft pick(s).
   *NBA owners - as they did with the Clippers' Donald Sterling - forcing Cuban to sell the team.
   Cuban's ownership - like his potential 2020 Presidential run - is in serious limbo. (Or, who knows, in today's perverted political climate maybe this scandal will serve as his campaign's lift-off.) He's won his championship. Dirk Nowitzki is fading into the sunset. Before the Mavs have a chance to win again, they have to lose again, and again, and again some more.
   Maybe Cuban, who has a pretty keen eye for reading a room or forecasting an industry, just voluntarily walks away.
   "From afar Mark seems like a stand-up guy," the former Mavs' front-office staffer said. "But he had his hands full with T. When I read the headline (Ussery) was my first guess. Really wasn't a guess, either. I knew. Lots of people likely did. It's a real shame."
   At Carter's memorial less than 24 hours ago, guess who delivered a powerful eulogy?
   Sure enough, Terdema Ussery.
   Don Carter was one of the finest men I ever met. We'll miss him today, tomorrow and forever. 
   But, let's be honest, I'm glad Mr. C isn't around to see this shitstorm.


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  2. I am very upset to hear that all this has happened, but I will say this: While it was wrong of Cuban to retain the services of Ussery and Sneed for so long... I doubt he was wrong in his supposed fear that they would have just been allowed to continue their actions elsewhere had he let them go sooner. Let's not lose sight of the REAL big picture here: There is clearly a culture of harassment and abuse against women in this country in many facets of our society that no one was speaking up against until recently. And of course it is there in sports with how much machismo runs through there. This will not be the last time something like this will be revealed; the Mavs were just unlucky enough to be the first major sports team to be exposed. Cuban must bear the responsibility of this case. The question is, what's going to be done to fix the problem throughout the word of sports, especially when others come forward in other organizations?

  3. responsible are local Mavs beat writers in failing to bring this story to light over the past two decades? I'm (at best) a casual Mavs fan and the allegations against Ussery didn't surprise me at all. I thought his conduct was fairly common knowledge.

    1. As I said during radio interviews yesterday, all I knew is that Ussery had a wandering eye. But nothing to alarm me. You have to remember this about beat writers: 99.99% of their time/reporting happens at games or the practice facility. And 99.99% of Ussery's and Sneed's transgressions happened at neither of those venues, but rather at Sneed's home or, with Ussery, the team's front office headquarters.

  4. responsible are local Mavs beat writers in failing to bring this story to light over the past two decades? I'm (at best) a casual Mavs fan and the allegations against Ussery didn't surprise me at all. I thought his conduct was fairly common knowledge.