One measure of a human being is how different their life is from their parents.
A great generational leap forward is the most American of stories, which is the case of Cynthia Marshall, chief executive officer of the Dallas Mavericks. For most of us, being the CEO of an NBA team would be success enough, but that’s one facet of Marshall’s remarkable narrative.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Marshall—who goes by Cynt—and her family lived in public housing projects in Richmond, California. In her new book “You’ve Been Chosen,” Marshall paints a very mixed picture of her early life. She recounts her love and joy of school, the church, her mother, and five siblings.
Marshall also outlines the persistent beatings and abuse meted out by her “hustler” dad, mostly directed towards her mother, but sometimes the kids too.
When she was 11, Cynt saw her father shoot a man in the head on the doorstep of their house. When she was 15, her father broke her nose which would later result in serious health issues, in addition, to struggling to have children.
Still, Cynt Marshall carried on and thrived.
With encouragement from her mother and others, Marshall embarked on a lifetime of firsts. She became the first black student body president at her high school, and the first black cheerleader at Cal Berkeley—eight miles down the road from her home, which she attended on scholarship.
Marshall would later go on to become the first black woman senior manager at AT&T. (She is also on Yahoo's board of directors.) But while Marshall is proud of all that, she wants us to know her life is not only about firsts.
“I'm not the first person to get cancer,” Marshall explains. “I'm not the first person to go through chemotherapy. I'm not the first person who was the victim of domestic violence. I'm not the first person to be raised in a public housing project and to go to college. I'm not the first person to have second-trimester miscarriage or the first person to lose a daughter. So yes, I've been the first in a lot of ways, but a lot of people have gone through things that I've gone through as well.”
Very few have pulled themselves out of all of that and succeeded to the degree Marshall has. How did she do it?
“The words I live by are ‘dream, focus, pray and act,’ which were instilled in me by my mom, who was just a wonderful woman, and my teachers and people at church,” she says. “Sometimes the path is a different path than what we have planned. But I’ve learned that every time I've been knocked down, somebody's always got me up."
Marshall describes her time at AT&T as positive, but not without its foibles, like the time she was told she needed to change to be promoted.
“My boss called to tell me I had been elected an officer," Marshall said. "And she told me she wanted me to change my hairdo. She thought I looked good in white clothes. And she told me she thought I should change my name. Instead of being a Cynt, I should be Cindy or Cynthia. She told me to stop talking so loud, that I was going to have to probably kind of keep people out of my office because the open-door policy wasn't good. And she said I can't use words like ‘blessed.’ I need to say ‘lucky’ instead.
All those moments, the pain and setbacks, and the laughter and triumphs helped prepare Marshall for where she is today, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks, owned of course by Mark Cuban. Marshall's relationship with Cuban is mostly informal—beyond quarterly operational reviews—but continuous.
Before Marshall arrived, a February 2018 Sports Illustrated investigative story revealed that the team had a toxic culture with rampant and systemic sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Cuban reached out to Marshall to pitch her the CEO job. Cuban was able to persuade Marshall to come down to the office and talk. How did Cuban convince her to take the job?
“It was a great conversation, just starting out getting to know a little bit about each other,” Marshall says. “And then he talked to me about the kind of cultural transformation and leadership that he wanted for the business side of his basketball team. He wanted to create a great place to work for his employees. He was very transparent, very candid, honestly emotional about what he was learning about the organization."
Culture is just one facet of the CEO’s job. There’s also the P&L and winning, which is all of a piece ultimately. Some say, you have to sacrifice one piece for another, but so far it doesn’t look like that's the case as the Mavericks’ winning record has risen every year since Marshall’s arrival.
“Excuse me, but we were one of the top four teams in the NBA," she says. "Last year we went to the Western Conference Finals, so I will let our record speak for itself. It is early in the season. I am optimistic. We were excited to be in the top four teams and will be excited again.”
What does Marshall think about diversity and antisemitism issues and the NBA?
“We still have a lot of work to do as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she says. “Especially the actual inclusion piece, making people comfortable and inviting them. Not just inviting them to the party, but asking them to dance and accepting the dance moves that they bring. It's about not just counting numbers, but making the numbers count."