Mr. Behind-the-Scene

Terdema Ussery is in his office. He's talking on the phone in lengthy, measured sentences, answering every question with cool aplomb, which is odd only because he's stayed in one place long enough to conduct the interview. He ought to be out conquering the world, or at least his corner of it. That's his daily gig. Formally, he's the president and chief executive officer of the Dallas Mavericks and the CEO of HDNet, a high-definition TV network. Informally, he's Mark Cuban's rainmaker, the guy who, in both the basketball and television businesses, generates the deals that keep your favorite billionaire flush with cash. Earlier today, on behalf of HDNet, he reached an agreement with Japan-based NHK, a big-time television company in the Pacific Rim. (Which means the Japanese soon will be able to utilize their expensive high-def TVs while the rest of us curse their purchases. Great.)

"They're the 800-pound gorilla over in Japan," Ussery says. "It's pretty exciting. I love it all, everything I do, but the interesting thing about the HD side is that it's all uncharted. It's always a challenge; I'm constantly on the move."

Perhaps that's why you've never heard of him. Or maybe that's not fair. Maybe you're a big Mavs fan and you make it your business to know these sorts of things. Maybe you're a player in high society and you've caught word of his windfalls while commanding your valet to bring you another, bigger bottle of Cristal. More likely, you're a slob who knows the name but not the face; you know he's a somebody, but you're not sure why.

"Terdema has been invaluable to the Mavs' comeback and HDNet's rise," Cuban offers. "With the Mavs, he keeps everything people don't get to see on a day-to-day basis humming along, which has enabled our revenues to grow even more quickly than our ever-expanding Mavs payroll. One of Terdema's great qualities is the ability to connect with just about anyone. We can have him working with local community groups, with our employees or working with the Japanese to acquire content for HDNet. That versatility has been a huge part of our success and makes my life much easier on a day-to-day basis."

Ussery is the embodiment of a strange dichotomy--at once omnipresent and unseen. Along with honing his business acumen, he's a community darling, doing benefits for Boys and Girls Clubs, heart disease and whatever other charities need an assist on a given week, and all the while without finding, or embracing, the spotlight's warm glow.

"You know, there are advantages to living that way," Ussery says. "You don't get hit. It's cool to be acknowledged, but I think part of the reason why Mark and I work well together is that I try to stay low-key. It's his team, and it's his show. My job is to make it work--that's what he pays me to do. And my ego is such that it doesn't bother me that people don't really know who I am."

A shame, really, considering the back story there, the mettle that makes the man, is all kinds of interesting. He grew up in South Central Los Angeles, in a section of the city called Watts--the birthplace of gangsta rap and home to a healthy crime rate. He left that behind, went to Princeton and got a bachelor's degree; went to Harvard and earned a master's; went to California and became a lawyer. Since then, he's served as commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association and president of Nike Sports Management. Sports Illustrated named him the 21st-most influential minority member in sports, and Black Enterprise recently selected him as co-corporate executive of the year. He speaks "passable" Japanese and...oh, you know what? That's enough. All these accomplishments are making us depressed.

"I am proud of those things; you appreciate where you came from," Ussery says. "I like to say that I'm bi-/tri-lingual. I think that you can put me in any situation, boardroom or inner city, and I'll be able to converse. My past made me who I am and, I think, my experiences have given me a skill set that's, I guess, a little unusual."

 
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