There is an image that has been pounded into Terdema Lamar Ussery II's consciousness. It is of a fence that marks the boundary between two disparate worlds. At times the fence is fashioned from white pickets; at others, from barbed wire.
A few weeks after being named commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association in April 1991, Ussery was standing on the roof of Slauson Farms, the grocery store owned by his parents in Watts, perhaps the most troubled neighborhood in gritty South Central Los Angeles. A few weeks earlier Terdema and his father, Terdema Sr., had installed copper piping on the store's rooftop refrigerator units, but thieves had stolen the piping to sell on the streets. So the two men were laying down the barbed wire that had become a necessity. "The thieves then set the store on fire to get back at us for putting up the barbed wire," Ussery says.
Almost a year later, and a week after the store had reopened, Ussery flew to L.A. from the CBA offices in Denver. By chance it was the day the verdict was delivered in the first trial involving the four L.A. police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King. Ussery was in town to meet with Charles Grantham, the executive director of the NBA's players' association, and later with NBA commissioner David Stern at a Laker game. Instead he found himself driving through Watts with his parents, headed for Slauson Street to check on their store. "All my life I've been living in two worlds," Ussery says. "Sitting on a fence."
At the age of 14, Ussery left Watts for the genteel world of the Thatcher School in Ojai, Calif., 90 miles north of Los Angeles. Ussery, who had been offered a scholarship, joined seven other black male students at a school consisting of 212 white sons of doctors, lawyers and actors. He quickly realized that his Afro and his steel comb were unacceptable, as were the music he preferred and his manner of speaking. So he learned to fit in.
"When I came home from school after my freshman year, I had lost all of my friends," says Ussery. "It was the too-white syndrome. Before I left, they'd said to me, 'You're gonna be a white boy when you come back.' When I came home, a friend told me, 'You're in a different world. We don't want to hang with you anymore.' You pay a price. That's why it's been like silting on a fence. Not totally accepted over here, and not totally accepted over there."
When promoting the CBA Education Program, which offers players the opportunity to complete their college degrees free of charge, the commissioner uses a standard line: "I wasn't a great athlete, but I was able to overcome my circumstances through education." It becomes less of a clichè when Ussery's journey from there to here is plotted: from Thatcher to Princeton for a B.A., to Harvard for a master's in government, to Cal for a law degree, to Los Angeles for a job with the San Francisco-based law firm of Morrison and Foerster.
Faced with having to take a substantial pay cut as well as with the shifting fortunes of minor league basketball, Ussery needed a push in May 1990 to get him to leave the firm for the CBA, which was offering the position of deputy commissioner and legal counsel. He got a nudge from his father, who pointed out the job's potential, telling him, "You can run a company. I did."
Ussery took the job, but not because of happy memories of his father's business. Mention the family store to Ussery—whom the family calls Lamar and everyone else calls T—and his wide smile disappears. During an armed robbery in April 1986, Ussery's father was caught in gunfire. A bullet entered his left thigh and went through his right knee. "More frightening than the shooting was the fact that Lamar went to find the guy who'd done it," says his mother, Jean.
For three days Ussery and one of his cousins—"who always had something on him, a gun or a knife," Ussery says—drove around the neighborhood asking questions, letting it be known that they were after the man who had shot his father. All the while, reasoned voices in Ussery's head lectured to him: What the hell are you doing? You don't belong here. But angry voices spoke to him too, and for a few days they were louder: I want to find this son of a bitch. Finally Ussery gave in to the voices of reason.
Last summer, after much debate, Ussery persuaded his parents to sell their store. They now live in Inglewood, five miles from Watts but still not far enough, contends their son. Though he now lives in suburban Denver with his wife, Debra, and their 2½-year-old son, Terdema III, Ussery visits his parents frequently—and is still involved with youth groups in the old neighborhood. But he spends most of his time running his store.
When he talks about the CBA's potential, Ussery sounds much like a preacher delivering a rousing sermon at one of his parents' Tuesday night Bible meetings. The league, he says, has become a "cause," and to promote that cause means to "believe in the greater mission," and that mission is to "elevate the league." And indeed there are times when Ussery could use a little divine intervention, especially when battling the bush-league mage of the CBA. He wants everyone to know that this is no longer the Cockroach Basketball League, the court of last resort, he league of lost dreams. "I preach constantly that more than anything else, I want people to respect us," he says.
Before Ussery there were six CBA commissioners in six years, and franchises in the 47-year-old league turned over like lemons on a slot machine. Ussery has changed things by running the CBA as though he were a CEO. This season half of the league's 16 teams made a profit. More than 1.5 million fans attended CBA games in 1992-93, a gain of nearly 500,000 fans in the past five years.
While those numbers are impressive, Ussery is even more proud of the league's college-education and drug-counseling programs, both of which he started in 1991. Because of the latter, the CBA has earned a reputation as a second-chance league, in which a player like Lloyd Daniels (now in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs) or even a coach like Kevin Mackey (now the general manager of the CBA's Capital Region Pontiacs) is given another shot. For a troubled athlete seeking to join the CBA, the scenario is always the same: The player, his agent, league officials and lawyers sit in a conference room and discuss whether he should be allowed into the league. At the end of the meeting, Ussery asks everyone except the player to leave the room. He sits next to the player and engages in a little one-on-one. I know where you're coming from, man. I'm from Watts. If I let you into the league, you better not screw me.
One encouraging sign of the CBA's progress is the league's solid relationship with the NBA. Billed as the "official development league of the NBA," the CBA is becoming more like a traditional farm system, with each CBA franchise hinged to at least one specific NBA parent club. "No one realizes how good this league really is," says Marty Blake, the director of scouting for the NBA. In the NBA this season, a record 72 players, 35 referees and five head coaches were CBA alums.
Will Ussery be among the NBA's next call-ups? "Isn't that what the league's all about, to get to the next step?" says Utah Jazz president Frank Layden. "T is something special, and the next step would be a higher position in the major leagues. There are so few black men in executive positions. Now that we have a very bright black man in a key position in charge of a professional league, let's fight to get him up there." Up, and over the fence.
PETER READ MILLER
Ussery can identify with kids from his old neighborhood.