Behrens gets players involved in community
Kathy Behrens is an NBA executive who doesn’t negotiate media deals, peddle sponsorships or handle labor relations, but as senior vice president of community and player programs, she wields considerable influence among the league’s top dealmakers.
She is responsible for fulfilling NBA Commissioner David Stern’s edict of social responsibility. Her job indirectly also speaks to the league’s image by getting players involved in charitable efforts while raising the players’ social awareness.
Behrens travels the globe overseeing and coordinating the league’s community programs that send players all over the world while spreading the NBA gospel along the way. The league recently announced a major new caused-related marketing program called NBA Cares. Other major initiatives include programs such as the Read to Achieve and Basketball Without Borders efforts that were created in 2001.
It takes a combination of political savvy, salesmanship and a deep sense of community to do her job and to get NBA players to buy into the league’s social responsibility. Behrens has to work with all factions of the league, from its teams to the National Basketball Players Association, and there is a large corporate component to link the league’s outreach efforts with companies.
“Nothing is more important to us than our social responsibility efforts, and she is our ace there,” Stern said. “She brings a hard-nosed, get-it-done approach to charitable work and social responsibility, and she has a keen understanding of how to use athletes to get that done.”
And after last season’s Indiana Pacers/Detroit Pistons brawl that marred the NBA season, the league and its players need all the good will they can get.
“You can’t be around this league and not know how important the community outreach is,” Behrens said. “But the internal frustration is that people, the media and the general public want to pay attention to bad things instead of the good things. It is not the full picture of the NBA and its players.”
As executive director at New York Cares, Behrens, a Bronx native, was introduced to the NBA’s social responsibility efforts when she teamed with the league for charitable events during the 1998 All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden. Before joining New York Cares in 1995, Behrens worked for former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo in a variety of jobs, including executive director of the Friends of Cuomo Campaign Committee during Cuomo’s unsuccessful 1994 re-election campaign.
In 2000 the NBA, drawing on Behrens’ political and community experience, offered her the job of vice president of community programs. This past spring, she was promoted to senior vice president, a top-level role that she could hardly have predicted when she graduated in 1985 from the University of Hartford with a degree in special education. “I was a special education major, but I was also president of student government and got involved in politics, and when I left Hartford I knew I didn’t want to teach,” she said.
Behrens is vigilant about exposing NBA players to community service. Before every draft, players are lined up with local community events as part of their introduction to the league. The players may be newly minted millionaires, but Behrens makes sure they understand there are obligations that come with their newfound wealth.
NBA and WNBA players have drawn praise for their “Operation Rebound” program that raised $2.5 million for victims of Hurricane Katrina. On the same day of the hurricane relief effort announcement, the players also announced a “Feed the Children” campaign in South Africa.
“The players embrace it more and more,” Behrens said. “Even the younger players know about what we do. Our commitment is to do more, both in our team and non-team markets. We want to try to have a presence that just doesn’t promote the game of basketball.”
Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.