SBJ/May 8-14, 2017/Opinion

WNBA’s leader rises over every hurdle smarter, stronger

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Lisa Borders had to prove herself her entire life. It started growing up along Auburn Avenue in Atlanta in the 1960s.

“My father and mother wanted me to be an entrepreneur, because I was black and you needed to work twice as hard for half the respect. Period, ” Borders told me recently while sitting in her office overlooking 51st Street in Manhattan.

That guiding principle has followed Borders along her 59-year journey of life, which has included the streets of Atlanta, the hallways of Duke University, the Atlanta City Council and, now, in her second year as president of the WNBA.

“If my father were alive today he would say it at the end of every sentence: ‘You know I love you. You’re black and you’re a woman — you must work twice as hard for half the respect.’ I understood what he meant. Because then you could work for yourself. No one could fire you. You would never fire yourself. You would just work hard. Make a good living. Be a productive citizen and have a productive family. It wasn’t meant to be mean. It was meant to give guidance.”

Borders brims with energy, which I noticed immediately when I first met her at the 2016 NBA All-Star Game in Toronto. She was just about to join the WNBA full time, but you could sense her enthusiasm despite taking on the daunting challenge of leading the women’s league.

Her first year was eventful: She dealt with controversy of player protests around the Black Lives Matter campaign and players questioning the fines that were levied but eventually withdrawn. At our Game Changers conference last September, she connected with the audience with her dramatic life story and confident nature in proving herself time and again. One attendee was so moved, she tweeted “Lisa Borders for President.” Now, as the WNBA sets for its 21st season, she’s hoping to prove herself again.



Borders’ childhood was shaped by segregation and the civil rights movement in the South.

Her grandfather, the Rev. William Borders, was an influential pastor at the Wheat Street Baptist Church for 53 years.

“I didn’t understand the impact of his work. Dr. Martin Luther King would sit in my grandfather’s church so he could practice his own oratory. The cadence and rhythm of speaking. I grew up with the King children — it was Martin Luther King III and Yolanda and Bernice and Dexter. They were my playmates. I didn’t understand their father was who he was, either. When Dr. King was shot, I remember his casket coming down the street, with the wagon and the American flag draped over it. Everyone was really quiet. You could hear the wheels turn on the wagon and there were just throngs and throngs of people.”

“We lived in a segregated environment. As kids, you don’t understand what that means. You just have your fun. You have your church. You have your grocery store. You have your shoeshine person. They were all family. That was one of the most affluent black communities of the town because you had black entrepreneurs. Everybody that was African-American at that time spent time on Auburn Avenue. ”

Photo by: MARC BRYAN-BROWN
Borders’ parents — her father a doctor and mother a homemaker — understood the challenges their four children faced in the South of the 1960s, and while Lisa went to a public school through sixth grade, it was in seventh grade when her parents enrolled her at Westminster School, where she helped to integrate Atlanta in 1969.

“There were seven African-American kids before me. I was No. 8. It was the first kindergarten through 12th grade school in the Southeast to integrate. It was 1969. It was a difficult time.”

The 12-year-old was an easy target for her fellow students, and while shewas upset about having to attend the new school, her parents emphasized it was the best thing for her.

“I remember people calling me names and thinking, ‘Why do I have to be here?’ And my mother said, ‘Because it’s the best school and you have to get an education. You’re black and you’re a girl, so you’ve got to get the best education possible.’ They weren’t taking me out of school.”

She found it hard to find friends during her teenage years — either at school or in her neighborhood.

“At school, the white kids would ask, ‘Why are you here? You don’t belong here.’ But black kids at home would say, ‘You think you’re too good to go to school with us?’ So as a kid, I was really in no man’s land — between the African-American community and the school community.”

Devoid of social time, she focused on her studies.

“I didn’t have a lot friends. I studied. That’s what you were there for. The way to the next level of accomplishment was through education. It was stressed that if you got a good education, that will open the doors of opportunity for you. Go to school and study. I did do well. Was it fun? No, it was not fun, and I was called a racial slur almost every day that I was there.”

Despite the challenge of being an outsider, she tried to integrate with school norms.

“I didn’t do sports. I was a black cheerleader. People laugh, but that was quite an accomplishment at that point. I was president of my junior class. But when it came time to run for president of my senior class, I ran, but lost. My classmates did not want me to speak for them at graduation, which is what the senior class president did. Some classmates told me, ‘You can’t speak for us at graduation, you’re not one of us.’”

But her success academically proved to her — and others — that she belonged, and results led to greater opportunity.

“Two of my classmates were calling me names who were not in any schools, and I’m accepted early admission at Duke. That gave me the greatest satisfaction to say, ‘I did it. I came here. I achieved like you did. In fact, maybe better.’”



She chose Duke because of its reputation and proximity to Atlanta. She started as a chemistry major but ultimately graduated with a French major. (“I liked medicine, but I didn’t love it. You need to love whatever you do in life.”)

She admits she didn’t have a career plan after Duke.

“I got married, and we moved to Boston. My then-husband was a medical student at Tufts University and I worked at New England Medical Center at the hospital, where I translated for the Haitians who were having medical procedures.” They moved back to Atlanta, but a few years later, they divorced. Naturally, the split made Borders reassess her life. “I was a single parent of a child who was 4. And I decided, ‘All right, I can probably take care of one child, but I’m not sure if I can take care of any more. I’m not having any more kids.’ And I made that pledge. I didn’t have any more kids. I put all of my attention into my son.”

She worked for a large medical clinic and got her master’s degree in health administration at the University of Colorado. In 2004, she ran for Atlanta City Council and served for seven years as council president. Her formative years prepared her well for the rough and tumble world of politics.

“When I ran for office, people called me names. But it wasn’t a racial slur, it was ‘Republican,’ which in Atlanta is the kiss of death. I was like, ‘That’s all you got? I’ve dealt with worse. I don’t care what you call me. I’m running for office.’”

It also brought new appreciation for public service.

“Running for office is hard. It’s like starting a business, and running it for like 90 or 120 days and then shutting it down. So I got my taste of entrepreneurship because you have to raise money. You have to spend it wisely. There’s a lot of discipline you must demonstrate to run for office. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I lost 30 pounds.”

In 2009, she ran for mayor and lost, and she took it hard.

“It was very tough. When I lost the mayor’s race, it felt personal for the first three days. On the third day, I realized I was having a pity party. Get over it. There’s so many more things to do. If you really believe the people are the most important in serving, and they have the best voice, well, they voted for someone else. Period. I said, ‘Let’s go. Let’s find another place to add value.’”



Staying in Atlanta, she led philanthropy efforts at the Coca-Cola Foundation for three years, serving as vice president and chairman, which included trips all over the world. Then, in December 2015, she found herself sitting next to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, as they were part of the same trustee class at Duke. “We started talking about the WNBA, and I said, ‘It doesn’t seem like it’s progressing. What’s going on?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re looking for a new president.’ He knew I was a fan. He knew that I helped bring the Atlanta Dream to the city. He asked, ‘What do you think we need?’”

Over dinner, Borders tested Silver’s commitment to the league, and by the end of it, Silver offered the challenge. “If you think you know so much, why don’t you come help?” he said. He gave her his card and said, “Call me Monday.”

Borders reflected over a weekend, but it didn’t take long to reach a decision.

“I was perfectly happy minding my business at the Coca-Cola Co. Beautiful job. Historic company for me. My family had worked there. But once I thought about it, it was a very easy decision for me,” she said. “I had been a season-ticket holder for the Atlanta Dream for 10 years. I’m a fan. He didn’t have to convince me how to spell basketball, what the rules were. I knew basketball.”

She doesn’t flinch at the challenge of growing the league, and while she sees progress, she’s struck by the lack of awareness of a product entering its 21st season.

“Awareness is the issue. The product is fantastic. I’d rather have an awareness issue than a product issue. The product is superb, so now it’s just having people come and see it. Come and try it.”

Borders with hall-of-famer and NCAA championship coach Dawn Staley at the 2017 WNBA draft in New York.
Photo by: NBAE / GETTY IMAGES


During her first year, she hit the road, visiting markets to understand the issues.

“At the team level, this is hard work when people are unaware that you exist. If you can get people into the arena to try the product and to see a game, they are absolutely floored by the athleticism. They are amazed at how much fun it is. And when they think about the cost of the ticket relative to other entertainment options, the value proposition is much higher. We’ve just got to get more people through the door.”

It’s easy to sense her confidence in leading the league and it aligns with her leadership philosophy.

“There are three attributes to a good leader. Competence, confidence and compassion. You have to be competent in whatever you’re doing. You need to have the confidence that says when you make a mistake, admit it, learn from it and move forward. Finally, if you’re not compassionate, if you don’t understand that no one gets anywhere by themselves, if you don’t understand that you’ve got to take care of those that are around you, you’re never going to make it as a leader.”

She admits she has come a long way in her leadership, as in her early years, she was all about command and control.

“I had to do everything. I had to do it to get it right. I was terrible at delegating. So I was written up every year for not delegating. I was exhausted because I was trying to do everything or someone else would do it and I would do it over. I had to stop that. One day the light bulb went off — ‘OK, I’ve got to take a breath. I’ve got to try this.’ And it worked. You have to learn to trust people. You have to learn to let go. Being a single mom broke that habit because there’s just not enough hours in a day for you to raise your child, work, do your family obligations. It’s a sign of strength that you are mature enough to ask for help. Growing up, I often thought that asking for help was a sign of weakness. It’s actually a sign of strength.”

But while she’s better at delegating, she’s still impatient, and when she doesn’t see colleagues carrying their weight, she’ll quickly move.

“I’m quick to fire. You can’t change people, really. You can try and develop people. If they don’t want to learn whatever skill you’re trying to teach them or that the team needs them to have, you can only go so far before that becomes dead weight and the rest of the team becomes resentful.”



When asked about the dearth of women in leadership positions in sports, she jumps back at me and says it’s consistent with every industry she’s seen or worked in. That’s why, for her, it’s all about results.

“I tell women to deliver. Just deliver. If you deliver every time you say you’re going to do ‘X,’ that becomes an irrefutable fact. That’s not anyone’s opinion. It becomes quantifiable. It becomes clear that you are a performer. And when people see a performer they tend to be less judgmental because it’s not, ‘Do I like her? Is her hair brown?’ No, it’s, ‘Did you see how many houses she sold last month? Did you see what she added to the bottom line?’ That’s when people stop and forget what color you are, how tall you are and what religion you are. When you can deliver people pay attention. If you deliver, that becomes a fact and that’s not fiction. That’s not anyone’s opinion. That’s fact.”

Borders acknowledges her nontraditional and winding path, but doesn’t regret any step along the way. It’s still about proving herself and results.

“One of my mentors — Ambassador Andrew Young — has often said to me, ‘There are no coincidences in life. Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.’ Nothing that has happened to me or that I have been involved in was an accident. I take everything that has happened as a learning experience. All of it.”

Now her focus is on the WNBA, and charting the blueprint set by Adam Silver.

“Whatever Adam asks me to do, I’m going to do everything I can to do it better than anyone else and get to the next level. That’s just how I’m wired. It’s born out of this experience where I had to prove myself on a daily basis. But if you demonstrate enough results, people can’t ignore that. You get respect.”

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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