Tatum presiding over the NBA Draft Lottery in 2015.

For Mark Tatum ’91, the NBA Is his Dream Team

Former Big Red baseballer has helped the league navigate the pandemic and deepen its commitment to social justice

Mark Tatum ’91 vividly remembers the moment he relinquished his childhood dream of playing professional baseball. Two years earlier, his high school team had won the New York City championship—in iconic Yankee Stadium, no less. But as a sophomore infielder for the Big Red, he was in California over spring break—playing an early season game at a time when Ithaca still had snow on the ground—when reality set in.

“We were losing to Cal Berkeley, like, 21 to nothing,” Tatum recalls with a rueful chuckle. “I said to my teammates, ‘Give us a break: we just got outside, they’ve been playing all year ’round, and they’re rolling out their seniors on us.’ Then I opened the program—and it was their freshmen.”

Tatum playing baseball for the Big Red.
Tatum playing baseball for the Big Red. (Photo provided)

Tatum realized then and there that while the guys on the opposing squad might have a chance at the majors, he didn’t. “I decided that I was playing for fun—and that I’d better get cracking on my books,” he says. “It was sobering, but it happened at the right time.”

Tatum went on to major in management and marketing in CALS and to assume student leadership roles, including serving as president of his fraternity (Kappa Alpha Psi) and as a representative to the Student Assembly. And ultimately, he did join the pros, just not on the field of play: after working for consumer products companies like Procter & Gamble and Clorox and earning an MBA from Harvard, Tatum became a marketing executive at Major League Baseball.

Since 1999 he’s been with the National Basketball Association, currently serving as its deputy commissioner and COO. And yes: he gets to attend lots of games. “I still get so excited about it,” he admits, “because you’re seeing world-class excellence against world-class excellence.”

While baseball was Tatum’s main competitive sport as a youth, he’s no stranger to the paint: back in the day, he rooted for the Knicks as hard as for the Yankees. And, he says, “When you’re from Brooklyn, basketball is in your blood.” Despite a lack of accessible hoops in his East Flatbush neighborhood, he and his friends were avid street players. “On summer nights we’d cut the bottom out of a milk crate—this is a true story—and tie it to a lamp post on our block,” he recalls. “And we’d play until all hours of the night.”

When you’re from Brooklyn, basketball is in your blood.

In his current role, Tatum oversees the NBA’s business operations, including merchandising, corporate sponsorships, communications, and more. He was involved in planning the “Orlando Bubble,” in which NBA players, coaches, and staff were housed in isolation at Walt Disney World in Florida from July to October 2020 to prevent them from contracting (and spreading) COVID-19; he also spent six weeks living and working within it.

“I was there at the beginning, reassuring the teams that we had taken every precaution to make it a good and safe experience for them,” he says. “The bubble was our response to how you could operate in the midst of a pandemic; it required consultation with the world’s foremost experts on infectious diseases, including epidemiologists and virologists, to understand the science and the risks. And it does go down as one of the greatest accomplishments of the NBA in recent times—to do that without a single positive case.”

International scope

Tatum’s responsibilities also include the NBA’s minor league organization (known as the “G League”) as well as its international operations. During his tenure, the NBA played its first-ever preseason game in India (in October 2019) and its first regular season one in France (in January 2020). He also helped launch its Basketball Africa League, which debuted in May after more than a year’s postponement due to the pandemic, with 12 teams playing in a bubble in Rwanda.

Like many really successful people, Mark is a great people person. He’s got a lot of outstanding characteristics; he’s a good listener and he has excellent judgment.

Edward McLaughlin, the Robert G. Tobin Emeritus Professor of Marketing

“Like many really successful people, Mark is a great people person,” observes Edward McLaughlin, the Robert G. Tobin Emeritus Professor of Marketing and former interim dean of the Dyson School, who taught Tatum as an undergrad and has frequently invited him to speak to current students. “He’s got a lot of outstanding characteristics; he’s a good listener and he has excellent judgment. He’s ambitious and a hard worker, but he puts relationships and his family first.”

A commitment to equality

Tatum grew up in Brooklyn but was born in Vietnam; his mother is Vietnamese and his father is from Jamaica. As a person of color who is both Black and Asian, he has had a distinct perspective as the U.S. grapples with structural racism as a legacy of slavery, as well as with bias attacks spurred by COVID’s origin in China.

“Let’s be clear: although there has been much more of a focus on [opposing racism] since the murder of George Floyd, and with the many anti-Asian hate crimes that have taken place over the last year and a half, this is not a not new issue,” he says. “This is an issue that has been near and dear to my heart for decades—and to the NBA and our players for generations. You can point back to Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and countless other players who fought for equality and justice for historically underrepresented groups.”

Magic Johnson (left) and Tatum speaking to each other.
Tatum (right) chats with NBA great Magic Johnson during Kobe Bryant’s jersey retirement ceremony in 2017. (Photo provided)

Tatum points out that in 2020, the league and its players’ association launched the NBA Foundation to fund educational and employment opportunities in Black communities nationwide, with a commitment from the 30 team owners to donate $300 million over the next 10 years. Last year also saw the creation of the National Basketball Social Justice Coalition—Tatum sits on its board—to advocate at the national, state, and local levels, including in the areas of voting access and criminal justice reform.

“Fighting for these principles of equality and inclusion has always been a part of the DNA of our organization, and it aligns with my passions and values,” he says. “In a league where [the NBA and WNBA players] are 75 to 80% Black, do we feel the responsibility to speak out on these issues? Without a doubt. But it’s not a burden; it’s a privilege.”

Top image: Tatum presiding over the NBA Draft Lottery in 2015. (Photo provided)

Published October 5, 2021


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