Feature Stories

As the Mavericks Rebuild, New CEO Cynthia Marshall Cleans Up the Front Office

illustration by Shenho Hshieh
Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall
Can’t touch the net, or even dream of dunking.

If named head coach, promises the team would have started the season 0-8.

Admits to being only a 50 percent free throw shooter.

Nine months ago, didn’t know the name Mark Cuban.

Despite that flimsiest of basketball résumés, Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall is the Dallas Mavericks’ most important acquisition since they drafted future Hall of Fame player Dirk Nowitzki in 1998.

As the organization’s new CEO, Marshall is in charge of doing what owner Cuban couldn’t — or wouldn’t — for almost 20 years: Save the Mavericks’ front office from itself. The basketball team’s rebuilding project from NBA lottery back to the playoffs belongs to head coach Rick Carlisle and young, potential superstars Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic.

But in the wake of shocking revelations of rampant sexual misconduct, lewd behavior and an ensuing seven-month investigation confirming a toxic corporate culture, the challenge of transforming the Mavericks’ business culture from worst to first belongs to Marshall, now the second-most powerful woman in DFW professional sports behind only Dallas Cowboys Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer Charlotte Jones-Anderson.

“I own the team, but Cynt runs it. I’m giving her carte blanche.” – Mark Cuban on ESPN

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“I own the team,” Cuban said recently on ESPN. “But Cynt runs it. I’m giving her carte blanche.”

Marshall grabbed the reins in February, armed with zero basketball experience but armored by life lessons: impoverished upbringing, domestic violence survivor, even a major health scare.

“This job is somewhat similar to when I had colon cancer,” she said last week in her office at Mavericks’ headquarters across Interstate 35 from American Airlines Center. “I could’ve undergone all the chemo in the world, but with that tumor still in me, I’d be dead. We’ve made a lot of progress in removing the tumors here, and we’ve done it ahead of schedule. Right now, I think we are a pretty clean organization.”

As revealed in the startling report by Sports Illustrated just after Valentine’s Day, the Mavericks had long been operating as one of America’s dirtiest sports franchises.

Ironically, they were founded in 1980 by Don Carter, a conservative, Christian owner who cringed at scantily clad dancers gyrating on the court and alcohol in the stands, and always removed his trademark Stetson inside Reunion Arena because Mama taught him respect. But somewhere along the way under Cuban — camouflaged by their magical run to the franchise’s only championship in 2011 — they regressed into the Mavwrecks, the Harvey Weinstein of the NBA’s #metoo moment.

“It was very disappointing, to say the least, to read what was happening to our franchise, to my franchise,” said Nowitzki, the organization’s all-time best player and enduring face, heart and soul. “It was heartbreaking. Shocking. Disgusting.”
click to enlarge The Mavs dancers dance at the Reunion Lawn Party last summer. - RODERICK PULLUM
The Mavs dancers dance at the Reunion Lawn Party last summer.
Roderick Pullum

The Culture

Since humbling LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and lifting the trophy seven years ago, the Mavs’ on-court product steadily declined. The front office, meanwhile, had been mired in even deeper, darker decay.

The SI investigation suggested a “corrosive workplace environment” where then-CEO Terdema Ussery was a serial sexual predator with 15 female victims from 1997 to 2015, and where male employees kept jobs despite allegedly watching porn in the office, taking inappropriate photographs of the team’s female dance squad and being arrested for domestic violence. (The allegations — corroborated and continued by media outlets such as The Dallas Morning News and Deadspin — were contained to the team’s business personnel, not spilling into the basketball operations.)

Even in a 21st-century narrative of women speaking out against unwanted male sexual advances in the corporate and entertainment worlds, the Mavs’ decadent details were disturbing. The reports — and eventual independent investigation — heaped the blame on four culprits: Ussery, top salesman Chris Hyde, website writer Earl K. Sneed and, eventually, longtime team photographer Danny Bollinger.

Though the investigation confirmed Ussery repeatedly touched, kissed and propositioned numerous female employees for sex, no record of his misconduct was found in personnel files maintained by since-fired human resources director Buddy Pittman. Ussery, who left the Mavs in 2015 for an executive position at Under Armour, was initially investigated for sexual allegations (and cleared) by the Ross Perot Jr. ownership group in 1997.

“I am deeply disappointed that anonymous sources have made such outright false and inflammatory accusations against me,” Ussery said in a statement responding to the SI story. “I believe these misleading claims about me are part of an attempt to shift blame for the failure to remove employees who created an uncomfortable and hostile work environment within the Mavericks organization.”

Smack dab in the uncomfortable intersection of ignorance and complicity, Cuban claimed to be unaware of, well, anything regarding his CEO. Not the prior investigation. Not the habitual sexual missteps. Nothing.

“I had a CEO that I deferred to,” Cuban said. “That was a mistake. I wasn’t there to oversee him. My company. My fault.”

Amidst a sexual harassment allegation, Ussery resigned from Under Armour after three months. After the allegations surfaced, he resigned as director of Chicago-based TreeHouse Foods and is currently listed as the principal of Dallas’ 1 Blakely Consulting.

Sneed, once the lead writer at Mavs.com, was retained by the team despite multiple episodes of domestic violence. He was arrested in 2011 for an altercation with his then-girlfriend in which she suffered a fractured wrist. Allowed to keep his job by Cuban, in 2014 Sneed began a relationship with a Mavericks co-worker, who after being involved in an incident with him, arrived at work with a swollen face and made a report to Pittman.

Again pleading naivete, Cuban said he never read the 2011 police report until alerted to its gritty details by media last February.

“That one’s ridiculous, and totally on me,” Cuban said. “I should’ve fired him on the spot. I took Earl’s word on the series of events, but I couldn’t have made a bigger mistake.”

Fired by the Mavericks in February, Sneed remains active on social media, tweeting often about the NBA in general, the Mavs in specific and, recently, about his attendance at a show by comedian Kevin Hart at the Mavs’ AAC home.

Outside the players and Cuban, Hyde was one of the Mavericks’ biggest “stars.” The account executive’s revenue was so immense and his connections so vast — he was the Mavs’ go-to when a star like Kim Kardashian needed last-minute tickets — he was awarded privileges such as riding on the team’s private jet and officiating team scrimmages. In a Morning News article, he was accused of openly watching porn at his desk and once dropping a used condom from his pants near a company bathroom.

Reached by the Observer, Hyde, who has taken another sales job in DFW, adamantly refuted some details of the charges but refused to comment further.

Ussery, Sneed and Hyde were the center of the scandal until, surprisingly, after the investigation.

On Sept. 19, 20-year New York prosecutor Evan Krutoy and former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram released their investigation’s findings at a press conference at AAC. Seven months. 43 pages. 215 interviews. 1.6 million documents reviewed.

The exhaustive look into a Boys Gone Wild culture uncovered no new bad actors or bad actions.

Cuban accepted the gory, fact-checked details and agreed to donate $10 million — four times the maximum he could have been legally fined by the NBA — to various women’s groups. Cuban (with a net worth of $3 billion, according to Forbes) talked. He apologized. He avoided personal suspension or basketball-related penalties and left the job of cleaning up the biggest front-office mess in DFW sports history to Marshall.

But before the darkest episode in team history closed, more clouds. Good news: Marshall’s newly implemented, robust ethics process and “speak up” hotline worked. Bad news: more complaints.

In the days after the investigation press conference, two sources who were interviewed told the Observer that investigators brought up Bollinger. They were miffed at his omission. Current and former female employees who had volunteered to investigators details about their run-ins with Bollinger also were surprised and dismayed that he wasn’t included in the report. Some called Marshall. Others called the Morning News.

Bollinger is a forever friend of Cuban. They met playing pickup basketball at the old Premier Club across Central Expressway from SMU. He introduced Cuban to his eventual wife and was in the owner’s wedding.

While Bollinger accompanied the team on a preseason trip to China in early October, Marshall conducted her own in-house investigation stemming from the new complaint calls. Almost simultaneous with her decision to fire Bollinger, the Morning News released its story with four anonymous women claiming he took inappropriate shots of Mavericks dancers’ bodies and repeatedly solicited another team volunteer for sex.

Bollinger was flown home from China and promptly fired. His video interview with Marshall from March was posted on the team’s website as recently as mid-October. During an interaction with the Observer at Life Time Athletic (new home of the old Premier Club), Bollinger declined comment.

On Page 5 of the report, there is a footnote that mentions: “ … other misconduct that fell outside the scope of our investigation … ”

Said Marshall in response to the Morning News story, “We responded fully to the findings of the independent investigation and took immediate and complete action.”

But if Bollinger committed offenses that were ultimately worth firing him, and if multiple employees both volunteered information and were asked about the incidents in interviews with investigators, why wasn’t Bollinger — like Ussery, Sneed and Hyde — named in the findings?

“I don’t know,” Marshall said. “I can’t speak for [the investigators].”

“In hindsight, this was all staring me in the face and I missed it. I didn’t know, and I don’t have an explanation. But I don’t run away from my mistakes. I’ll fix this.” – Cuban

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Despite being a micromanager of some of his micromanagers, and a star of a “Shark Tank” show in which he gives expert business advice to entrepreneurs, Cuban was, other than being dinged for “serious errors in judgment” in retaining Hyde and Sneed, absolved by the report:

“We find credible Cuban’s assertion that he did not know about Ussery’s misconduct.”

Said Cuban, “In hindsight, this was all staring me in the face and I missed it. I didn’t know, and I don’t have an explanation. But I don’t run away from my mistakes. I’ll fix this.”
click to enlarge Owner Mark Cuban walks with new CEO Cynthia Marshall in February 2018. - COURTESY THE MAVERICKS
Owner Mark Cuban walks with new CEO Cynthia Marshall in February 2018.
courtesy the Mavericks

The Catalyst

Before negotiating, much less signing, one of the most important contracts in Mavericks history, Marshall started earning her compensation.

In 2017, she left a 36-year career at AT&T and launched her own consulting firm. She was living in Richardson and being wooed by a couple of universities to be their president when the phone rang, and then was supplemented by a text.

“I honestly didn’t know who Mark Cuban was,” Marshall says with a laugh. “But my husband and kids were like, ‘Ma, you have to call him back now!’ ”

The two spoke on the phone for almost an hour. The next day she went to Mavericks HQ to meet Cuban, greet employees and generally kick the tires. As she was walking out of the building, far from committed to accepting the job, she was approached by two female employees.

“They simply thanked me for being there,” she recalls. “They said they needed my help. For me, that was it. I was going home to pray about it, but that was my sign right there.”

The next day around 10 a.m., a pensive Cuban asked aloud if any of his employees had heard from Marshall. They informed him that she had been there since 8 a.m., conducting interviews with employees.

“I was doing one-on-ones before I formally accepted the job,” Marshall says. “At first I thought, ‘What woman in her right mind would want to work here?’ But after talking to Mark, he was genuine. He needed me to transform his culture and save his business. And I knew I was uniquely qualified.”

Born in Alabama, Marshall moved at a young age and grew up in a violent, shattered, public-housing home in Northern California. School and sports were her refuge. She excelled at track, earning the nickname “Cynt the Sprint.”

When she was 11, she watched her father shoot out an intruder’s eye with a pistol. At 15, Dad hit her so hard during a family fight he fractured her nose. The family briefly left to allow tempers to cool but returned to find only a mattress in an otherwise bare, broken home.

“He said we’d be hookers on the street without him,” Marshall says. “From that day on, I’ve always been motivated to make something of myself.”

It wasn’t easy.

One day when she wore braids and red heels to work, Marshall was scolded by a boss for being “too ethnic.” In 2010, she survived Stage 3 colon cancer, one lymph node from Stage 4. (Her father had died from the same disease 18 months earlier.)

Navigating the speed bumps with thick skin and thicker resolve, she received a scholarship to UC Berkeley, graduating with a degree in business administration and human resources management. In college, she dumped her boyfriend to focus on school, telling him she’d call when she graduated. She indeed ignored Ken for four years, but then, as promised, invited him to her graduation party. The couple has been married for 30 years.

Out of college, Marshall went to work for AT&T and steadily ascended the ranks to senior management. By 2015, she was the head of the giant company’s diversity program and was named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America” by Black Enterprise.

First in her family to graduate college. First black cheerleader at Cal. First black head of the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. First black female CEO in the NBA.

And, likely, the first person to have the mind-set — and moxie — to postpone a career as a college president or a retirement to spend time with her husband and four adopted children, to dive headfirst into the filthy, misogynistic backwash of a decade of good ol’ boys being bad ol’ boys.

“This is personal for me,” Marshall said. “I’m doing it for the sisterhood. I’m all in.”

click to enlarge Marshall's goal is to make the Mavs dancers' routines more wholesome. - MIKE MEZEUL
Marshall's goal is to make the Mavs dancers' routines more wholesome.
Mike Mezeul

The Cure

The Mavericks have been horribly bad since they were historically good.

After the 2011 title, they haven’t won a single playoff series. They went 24-58 in 2017-18 but are expected to at least flirt with a playoff berth this season behind Smith, Doncic, Nowitzki and interior force DeAndre Jordan.

A promising 2-1 start, however, was quickly muted by a six-game losing streak and the grim reminder that Smith and Doncic might be too young and Nowitzki (40 and sidelined from April ankle surgery) might be too old.

“We embarrassed those guys without our actions,” Marshall says. “It’s our obligation to make sure our side of things is right. We need to establish a professional, winning business culture and hope it translates to them out on the court. And we have. This thing is all but fixed.”

Before Marshall could repair the damage, she had to survey the source.

“I expected the worst as far as the sexual misconduct, and I got it,” she says. “But some of the other things I heard were just unbelievable to me. Inconceivable.”

Because Cuban always fancied himself as an anti-corporate renegade in blue jeans, his Mavericks likewise operated without a net.

“No business plan. No annual performance reviews. No mission statement. No core values. No infrastructure. Simple but vital elements that were just … missing.” – Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall

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“No business plan,” Marshall says. “No annual performance reviews. No mission statement. No core values. No infrastructure. Simple but vital elements that were just … missing.”

After speaking with all 140 Mavericks employees, she identified a philosophical flaw that could have fostered some of the problems.

“People kept telling me, ‘Look, this is not AT&T,’ ” she says. “I realized that even though the Mavericks had been around for 38 years and were worth $1.5 billion, folks still acted like they were in a seat-of-the-pants start-up. That attitude had to change.”

Marshall’s sweeping workforce reforms were jump-started by a 100-day plan. By the target date (June 30), she posted core values on the wall, established the complaint hotline and mandated respect-in-the-workplace training (required for players, coaches and even the owner). She hired two high-ranking HR staffers from her AT&T days, rewrote the organization’s employee handbook, established an advisory council and instituted a “zero tolerance” policy regarding sexual misconduct.

“It’s just a completely different vibe over there,” Carlisle said during the team’s media day in early October. “Things have changed so much — the mood, the atmosphere, the environment, the optics and the people. It’s been a great thing to see.”

Of course, what cultural transformation isn’t complete without meditation training from Tibetan Buddhist monks and a major uniform overhaul for the dance team?

Gone are the skimpy, two-piece outfits, replaced by comfortable, conservative athletic wear. Twirling is in. Twerking is out.

“We’re focusing on the dancers as artists and their skills, not on their sexualized bodies as eye candy,” Marshall says. “If someone brings a 10-year-old to the game, I don’t want them having to cover the kid’s eyes during performances.”

Carter, who passed away three days before the SI story was published, just rolled over in his grave. And smiled.

In fact, Marshall says she was recently approached by the Mavericks founding father’s granddaughters and has plans to attend church with them and Carter’s wife, Linda.

“I never got to meet him,” Marshall says of Carter. “But from all I’ve heard, he sounds like a wonderful man of character and morals.”

Marshall says her proudest achievement was also the organization’s biggest problem: diversity.

She has hired or promoted enough women and minorities into leadership roles that they now make up 47 percent of the executive wing, up from … zero. Of the team’s 17 executive business positions, eight are now filled with women or minorities.

"You make better decisions when you have a diverse group of people around the table. When you don’t, you’re risking your success.” – Marshall

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“I came to a company where women were not valued,” Marshall says. “There were no women in leadership and this was not a friendly place to work for women. Well, that’s changed. You make better decisions when you have a diverse group of people around the table. When you don’t, you’re risking your success.”

In assessing her own job performance, Marshall is encouraged but hesitant to call it the final score.

“From a standpoint of sexual harassment and misconduct, we’re pretty clean,” she says. “We’ve set the standard for other NBA teams, and we have in place an environment that is sustainable. Now, will problems arise in the normal course of running a business? Of course. But now we’re well-equipped to handle it.”

Says Nowitzki, “You try to see it as a positive. Try to see that something good came out of all this. I think we’ve changed the culture already in the front office with Cynt. She’s going to be great for us for a long, long time.”

Marshall, 59, will never be the Mavs’ head coach nor leading scorer, but she has bonded with Cuban.

“I’ve talked to Cynt more in eight months than I did in 15 years to Terdema,” Cuban says. “I’ve learned my lesson. She’s taught me.”

Her free throw shooting? Also a work in progress with lofty goals.

“I think today I could make half (of 10),” she says. “But someday soon, I’ll be able to make eight. I lost a lot of range of motion in my right arm when I got cancer. But it’s coming back.

“Around here, we’re all healing.”