The person charged with the task of putting people in seats during Washington Bullet home games seldom has time to take one herself. Here she is, at tip-off in the Capital Centre, searching for crushed ice for guests in a skybox suite. Ten minutes later she is directing a lost boy to his seat. Next she conducts an admonishing discourse on the concourse with a man wearing a Chicago Bull jacket ("You're missing an E and a T," she said). Susan O'Malley, president of the Washington Bullets, is hardly kidding when she says, "I have never seen the Bullets play at home."
She's lucky. Last season Washington had the third-worst record in the NBA. Still, thanks largely to O'Malley, the Bullets set team records for attendance (an average of 13,641) and sellouts (20). Since being named president on May 9, 1991, at the age of 29, the five-foot 92-pounder has been the team's most tireless promoter, not to mention its most visible personage in the media. Last fall when the Bullets accidentally oversold the season's home opener with the Orlando Magic by 1,200 tickets, the horde stranded outside the Cap Centre chanted, "We want Susan O'Malley!"
Which, of course, brings up the question of why Abe Pollin, the Bullets' owner, gave her the job of running his franchise. O'Malley will be the first to tell you that the reason she was initially hired by the Bullets in 1986 as director of advertising has more to do with her last name than her first. Her father, lawyer Peter O'Malley, was the president of the NHL's Washington Capitals for three years. He is also one of Pollin's best friends.
Explaining Susan O'Malley's meteoric rise to the presidency, Pollin says, "Susan is a tremendous achiever. She has done more for the Bullets in this short stretch than anybody I've ever had in 29 years of owning this team."
On the evening of Nov. 7, 1981, O'Malley, then a junior at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., celebrated her 20th birthday by locking herself in her dorm room and putting together a list of 10 goals that she wanted to achieve before turning 30. Among them: own a home; own a sports car; work in professional sports.
On the evening of Nov. 2, 1991, O'Malley locked the door of her Columbia, Md., town house (which she has since vacated for a waterfront house on 18 acres of nearby Kent Island) and drove her red Miata to the Capital Centre for the Bullets' home opener against the Boston Celtics. It was her first home game as team president. Washington won in overtime.
To fully appreciate O'Malley's unique position, one must ask what other NBA executive has been part of a Jeopardy! clue ("The first woman president of an NBA club, Susan O'Malley became head of this D.C.-area team in 1991"), and appeared in Cosmopolitan (February 1993), and gotten a call from a player (former Bullet Tom Hammonds) asking for advice on buying shower curtains, and would dare to phone Magic Johnson to give him a tongue-lashing.
"Two summers ago Magic agreed to appear at a roast to be held for [Bullet coach] Wes Unseld," she says. "We had sold a lot of tickets because people expected to see Magic. Then he called and said that he couldn't make it."
Forthwith O'Malley launched a verbal assault on Magic that made the NBA's all-time assist leader do a triple double take. He showed up. At the dinner he turned to Unseld and, gesturing toward O'Malley, asked, "How do you work with her?"
The night after he appeared at the Unseld roast, Magic held a charity basketball game at the Capital Centre. Realizing the market value of the players' jerseys and hoping to donate proceeds from their sale to a team charity, O'Malley entered the locker room while Johnson and Charles Barkley, among others, were changing after the game and asked, "Guys, may I please have the jerseys?"
Her request was met with surly grunts. Nobody seemed willing to surrender his keepsake. Except Magic. "Listen," he advised his teammates, giving O'Malley the shirt off his back, "it'll be easier if you just give her the jerseys now."
She's small, but players don't look down on her.