Posted many moons ago, but just in case someone missed it.
Mothering the Pacers—
Kathy Jordan knows NBA from two angles
by Shari L. Finnell
For the past 16 years, Kathryn Jordan has been an enigma to Indiana Pacers' fans. Many of them are curious about the woman who is front and center, cheering at virtually every basketball game, or is somewhere nearby while the towering players make public appearances for their awestruck fans.
Al Harrington, Pacers forward, has introduced Jordan as "his mother away from home." Guard Reggie Miller describes her as a surrogate aunt. Point guardTravis Best willingly obliged when she told him to take off his cap before appearing on Ahmad Rashaad's TV show Inside Stuff.
Although she's been described as a sister, a mother, and an aunt in Pacers circles, Jordan, 43, officially is a vice president — the first and only female v.p. with the Pacers, and one of the few in the league.
"Years ago, the kids would ask, ‘Is that your wife?' ‘Is that your agent?'" says Jordan, reflecting on how she, in many ways, grew up with the Pacers because of her lengthy career with the team. "When I first came, I was about the same age as the players. You work very closely with them. They're your buds. Your big brothers. Now that I'm older, some of the kids are asking, ‘Is that your mother?' One day I crossed that line," the easy-going Jordan says with a laugh. "I remember thinking, ‘When did that happen?' "
As vice president of communications, Jordan's responsibilities are far-reaching. She oversees advertising, public relations, corporate relations, media relations, community relations, web site issues and facility marketing.The busy v.p. is responsible for coordinating the demanding schedules for players' public appearances and community involvement, which amounts to a massive amount of correspondence related to endorsements, speaking engagements, interviews, and television appearances for the increasingly popular team. She participates in the organization of public service projects.
Additionally, she is founder and current president of the Pacers Foundation, an organization created to expand the community outreach of the team throughout Indiana. Jordan's role with the Foundation consists of developing future growth plans and public speaking engagements.
Jordan also interfaces with the WNBA, where she performs the same functions. Because the women's division shares the same city, franchise and building, it works in partnership with the men's division.
Despite her hectic schedule, which includes staying busy as the single parent of her 14-year-old son Evan, Jordan doesn't hesitate to perform the most simple of tasks. When Pacers forward Derrick McKey was greeting fans at a cable TV convention Downtown earlier this year, Jordan was busy unfolding Pacers' calendars so that he could quickly sign autographs. Last season, Jordan noticed that a little boy had dropped his cotton candy during a basketball game. She made sure he got another one.
Perhaps Jordan's most significant role is her relationship with the players. She's among the first people that new players and their families meet. She gives them practical information, such as where to live and where to eat, and hands out plenty of "motherly" and advice to younger players, as former Pacers player Chuck Person puts it.
Miller says, "She's very protective. Very, very protective."
"Sometimes I do get a little too motherly," says Jordan, who laughs easily and exudes calmness. "I have to realize they're grown men. People say I can be too protective."
However, from the players' perspective, Jordan is indispensable. What she does behind the scenes to keep their lives less complicated eventually translates into how the Pacers perform on the court, says Miller. "It's somewhat of a trickle down effect."
Person says Jordan goes beyond the call of duty when it comes to making the players' lives easier. "Whatever you need her to do, she will try to get it done."
"When people want players to do something or speak at some event, she has to be the bad guy if they can't. It takes the pressure off the players and she's more than willing to do it. She really protects the players."
The players also say she's quick to defend them and takes it personally when they're criticized. "I see the human side of them," she says. "I get upset when I see negative things printed about basketball players. The general public doesn't know what these guys are going through."
Besides being committed to her job, there are other reasons why Jordan is so defensive about protecting basketball players, their wives, and families. She knows first-hand what it's like to be the spouse of an NBA player.
"It's brutal," says the ex-wife of Purdue University standout and former NBA player Walter Jordan. "Everybody think it's pretty glamorous, but it's not fun at all. It's tough when your husband is on the road all the time." She says the wives of basketball players often get shoved aside while everyone clamors for the attention of their spouses.
She had met Walter at Purdue University, where she studied sports education. They married shortly after graduating, then traveled from city to city, while he endured a series of trades and disappointments involving his professional basketball career. Eventually, a serious ankle injury forced him out of the game.
Jordan had such a distaste for the NBA and how it treated its players during the late '70s and early '80s — they were constantly traded back and forth merely as commodities, she says — that she's surprised that she's now working for the league. However, she points out, the league is a lot different now. "That was during the very early days of the NBA. Things have changed an awful lot. Owners and general managers now understand that these are human beings. They're people."
Jordan landed her job with the Pacers during the 1983-84 season, shortly after Melvin and Herbert Simon bought the team. But she first worked with her brother, Charles Williams, for Indiana Black Expo.
Neither job was necessarily her first career choice. While her husband continued to travel with the NBA, Jordan had decided to get her master's degree and try to pursue her own career goal as a teacher and coach. However, when the1974 graduate of North Central High School returned to her hometown of Indianapolis she found a tight job market. The school systems were cutting teachers from their rolls, not adding them.
Indiana Black Expo, which was much smaller and struggling financially at the time, needed to hire its first full-time employee. The work was demanding. The pay and benefits were virtually nonexistent. "My brother told the staff, ‘Hey, my sister can work here. She's married to a professional basketball player; she can work for free.' So here I had a master's degree, making $100 a week before taxes."
Even when she later accepted a position as promotions assistant for the Indiana Pacers, Jordan had no intention of sticking around there, either. "Its purpose was to get me to do something else until I could teach. I would love to be able to teach, to this day. The intent was not to stay. I thought at some point the educational thing would turn around."
However, she did stay with the Pacers — for 16 years and running. During that time she advanced in ranks, working in promotions, community relations, game operations, special events, and special advertising before eventually earning her current title: vice president of communications.
Her reaction to the promotion? She pauses, then laughs. "I thought, ‘It's about time.' " Reflecting further, she says, "I thought it was a major step on the Pacers' part. There aren't very many women in leadership in the NBA." Although she acknowledges the NBA is definitely a man's environment, she says her co-workers always have been very respectful toward her.
The walls of Jordan's office reflect her history with the Indiana Pacers. Dozens of photographs of her with current and former basketball players and with staff members share space with posters, banners, jerseys, plaques and other Pacers paraphernalia. One photograph shows her during a game, feeding Evan, only about 3 months at the time and dressed in a tiny Pacers outfit. Cutouts of Pacers coach Larry Bird and mascot Boomer stand guard on opposite ends of her desk. About a dozen of her employee IDs from previous years are lined up along her computer terminal.
A photograph of comedian Bill Cosby stands out like a sore thumb in this blue and gold shrine, but even he has a connection to the Pacers. Cosby goes back to the days when the Pacers booked entertainers in a marketing effort to lure people to their basketball games, she explains. Working for the team back in those days was particularly gritty, she says. Only about 3,000 people would show up in the 16,530-seat Market Square Arena to watch the struggling team, which had recently switched from the ABA to the NBA. Behind the scenes, the small Pacers staff of 12 worked mightily to come up with strategies to get more people to see the Pacers, who seldom made it to the playoffs.
"We practically had to give tickets away," says Jordan, who also helped book the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, B.B. King and the Temptations to perform in post-game concerts in MSA. "The idea was to buy a concert ticket and, while you're there, see a basketball game," Jordan says. "It served its purpose — it got people in the door to see the team. People started coming in and looking at the product."
During those early days, Jordan and the rest of the staff often would work 12-, 14-, 16-hour days. Some workdays blended into the next workday. Although the staff is now much larger, the work still is demanding, says Jordan, again disputing the perception that a career in professional basketball is glamorous. "You have to have the right reasons for wanting to be here. You can't want to be here because you might be around Michael Jordan," she says. "You're not hobnobbing. It's not a 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday work schedule. The work is nearly as hard as being a player."
Jordan's assistant, Kelli Towles, describes the atmosphere as a "calm crazy. There's a lot of stuff going on at once. But it's very organized." She says Jordan manages to stay above it all. "She's very focused. She doesn't get rattled too easy."
Because of her demanding work schedule, Jordan took her son practically everywhere she went, from the time he was an infant. "If I needed to bring him to work, I did," says Jordan, proudly looking at images of Evan, in different stages of his life, flashing on a computer screen saver. "That's my heart."
Many of the players have been big brothers and father figures to Evan because of the close relationship among the staff and players. "It's like a family," Reggie Miller says. "It's tight-knit."
Because of the close relationships that are developed among the players and staff, it's been difficult when the changing needs of the team disrupt the Pacers family. When Wayman Tisdale was traded, Jordan says she and her son cried. "I asked Donnie Walsh, ‘Did you really mean to do that? How could you trade Wayman?' My son was really close to him. He's a great guy," she says.
Then Herb Williams, another good friend, was traded. Antonio Davis was traded. Her son was devastated again when Chuck Person, who was like an older brother, left. "It's tough," Jordan says. "But it's a business. I've learned to always find the positive in things. I still have the friendships. It's not like you're never going to talk to them again or see them again."
That positive attitude has helped Jordan in perhaps one of the most challenging points of her life. Last year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and continued with treatment throughout this year. "I was in shock. Denial," says Jordan of the doctor's diagnosis after she had discovered the suspicious lump.
Her faith in God helped her get through the difficult time, she says. She underwent a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments. She stopped smoking, read literature that stressed the benefits of positive thinking, and had "conversations with God every day. I do have a strong faith. I tend to chalk up my faith to my mom," says Jordan, a member of Witherspoon Presbyterian Church. "She always had a very strong faith and passed that on to her children. She would pray to God about everything. When we were children, she would tell us that she had prayed for two children, a boy first and then a girl — with long hair. As a child, I would think, ‘Oh, wow. This prayer thing works.'
"My relationship with God has gotten stronger because of this. All the little cliches like ‘Don't sweat the small stuff' make more sense to me now," says Jordan, who only missed 10 days of work during that time.
Her brother, Charles, says the cancer diagnosis was devastating for the family. But he knew that she would beat it because of the strong fighting spirit that has characterized her over the years. "She was afraid, of course, but she had the determination to fight back, fight the disease, and not let it beat her," he says of the sister who often golfs and bowls with him. "I knew she would overcome it, and she did."
Jordan, who started self-breast exams after participating in the NBA's campaign to promote breast cancer awareness, stresses the importance of performing self-breast exams, and encourages women to keep track of changes in their bodies. She says she wasn't as aggressive about taking care of herself as she should have been. "It's a blessing from God that my OB-GYN said, ‘Let's take a look at it.' I probably was too passive about it. If he had said, ‘Come back later,' I would have said, ‘OK. I'll be back in six months.'"
These days Jordan has a lot to look forward to. She's helping to get things rolling for Indiana's WNBA team, which she considers an amazing accomplishment in the history of women's sports. "We've come a long way. A lot has happened in 20 years." She recalls limited opportunities for girls when she was in high school.
And, of course, she's looking forward to a winning season for the Pacers. "It gets very personal for me." She equates watching the Pacers play to watching her son play. "I get so emotional. The cheerleader in me comes out. When you see a dirty play and the refs don't call it, I'm out there yelling, ‘Hey!' When they get hurt, I'm somewhere with a tear in my eye."
Jordan says last season particularly was emotional. "I felt for the guys, especially this year, because they wanted it so bad and they worked so hard. They took responsibility for it. They apologized to the fans because they felt they let the fans down. It really hurt to see the hurt in the guys. You could see it in their eyes."
Jordan's long-term aspirations vary from realizing her dream of teaching to owning a production and television business. "I don't have any aspirations of being general manager of a team. There's too much stress," she says. "I thought about it when I was in my 20s. Now that I'm 43, it's not that appealing." In the meantime, she plans to continue on the same path she has forged during the past 16 years — providing that invaluable extra line of defense for the Indiana Pacers.