During his ascent in the NBA, deputy commissioner Mark Tatum was inspired to ‘dream big’
He’s proud of his Black and Asian heritage and his role in the NBA draft, which leads him back to his native Brooklyn
NEW YORK – Hours before taking the stage at the NBA draft to announce the second-round picks on Thursday night, Mark Tatum took part in his annual tradition of taking the subway from near the NBA’s offices in Manhattan to the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center station – a return to his roots.
The NBA deputy commissioner’s parents still live in his childhood home, not far from the Brooklyn Nets’ arena outside this subway stop. Tatum fondly recalls how this area used to be an old railyard before the arena opened with a Jay-Z concert in 2012.
“This feels great. I never lose perspective of where I came from,” Tatum told Andscape while riding the No. 2 train to Brooklyn. “I just feel so blessed. I am just this kid from Brooklyn. I love the fact that we’re doing the draft in Brooklyn. My hometown.”
The 52-year-old Tatum, who has been deputy commissioner since 2014, has been riding the subway from Brooklyn to all parts of New York since middle school. He took the 2 from the Church Stop in Brooklyn to Atlantic Avenue at 7:30 a.m. to take the 20-minute ride before walking five minutes to Brooklyn Tech High School. He also took the train in uniform and with equipment to go to baseball fields for practice and games.
Although Tatum has access to a private car through the NBA’s office, he would rather go down memory lane on a 20-minute subway ride than be stuck in New York’s challenging traffic for 60 to 90 minutes.
It was easy for Tatum to reminisce about his youth while riding the train.
“I would read. Take a quick nap. I would do my homework,” Tatum said. “It was a time when I could think and just be alone. It also helped me to always be observant. I always kept my eyes looking around. When you’re on the train with grown people, you pay attention to things.”
Tatum, who was wearing an NBA mask, loves the anonymity he believes he has while riding the train – but he was actually recognized by two people. Tatum also added that “Brooklyn has its own flavor” and upon arrival to Atlantic Avenue one could buy fruit, jewelry, churros, souvenirs … and also tip a man playing the 1966 Percy Sledge song “When a Man Loves a Woman” on a saxophone.
“It’s very convenient,” Tatum said. “I’ve always felt comfortable taking the train to Brooklyn.”
Tatum’s youth in Brooklyn was filled with mostly beautiful memories, but his family endured challenges that came with having Black and Vietnamese-Chinese heritage.
Charlie Tatum, Mark’s father, emigrated from Jamaica with his mother and sister in 1963 when he was 18 years old. Two years later, he decided not to go to the Army after passing the needed tests to get into the Air Force.
Several U.S. and Australian military units were stationed in Vũng Tàu, Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. It was there that Charlie Tatum served in the late 1960s, and he married a Vietnamese woman whose family had emigrated there from China. Mark Tatum was born to Charlie and Kim Tatum in 1969.
“I know one thing, there was no way I was going to leave Mark there. This may sound cold, but I told his mother that if you’re not coming with me, he is. So, make your mind up. And she came.”— Charlie Tatum
Charlie Tatum said one of his senior military officers initially wouldn’t recognize his marriage, and that there were white commanding officers who told him they didn’t believe in interracial marriage, including one who refused to sign his marriage document.
It was also suggested to him that he leave his son behind. But Charlie Tatum, who served in the Air Force for four years, six months and 27 days, did two extra stints in Vietnam to make sure he was able to get the needed paperwork to bring his family back to the U.S. In the spring of 1975, U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam, leaving behind an estimated 50,000 children fathered with Vietnamese women.
“I know one thing, there was no way I was going to leave Mark there,” Charlie Tatum said. “I had a lot of resistance. I had her family, who wanted him to stay. There was no way I would leave him in Vietnam or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. This may sound cold, but I told his mother that if you’re not coming with me, he is. So, make your mind up. And she came.”
Said Mark Tatum: “There were so many kids left behind. I am so blessed that my father didn’t do that to me.”
Tatum’s family moved to Brooklyn when Mark was 1 year old and settled in a predominantly West Indian community in the East Flatbush neighborhood.
“My grandmother also lived with us growing up and helped to raise me and my brothers,” Tatum said. “We always had the oxtail rice and peas, curry chicken, curry goat.
“To this day, oxtail rice and peas, fried plantains are my favorite dish, and that’s because my grandmother made that for me growing up. And that was always part of our household. But then on my mom’s side, being Vietnamese growing up in Vietnam and ethnically Chinese, we had that Asian flavor as well, whether it was pho soup or different rice and noodle dishes.”
While Tatum is proud of his Vietnamese-Chinese side, the Asian influence on Tatum was minimal, as his primary connection for much of his childhood was only his mother. Charlie Tatum attempted several times to bring more of his wife’s family members to America before finally getting her mother and some siblings cleared to come.
“All of my family, with the exception of my mother, that I grew up with were Black West Indian,” Tatum said. “My mom didn’t get her sisters and mother over to the United States until I was a teenager. My mom practiced Buddhism, so I have that exposure to the Asian culture through her, but the vast majority of my childhood was growing up Black West Indian.”
Mark Tatum’s appearance often drew questions and racism during his youth because he looked more Asian than Black.
“And when you’re a kid, the last thing you want to be is different. All my family is Black, but outwardly people didn’t see that right away. And so I was oftentimes as a kid very conflicted.”— Mark Tatum
Tatum said he was often called racist names during his childhood and faced fears of violence while being bused from East Flatbush with other Black and Hispanic students to a predominantly Italian American middle school in Bensonhurst. He said he regularly ran home from school when he feared that he could get beaten up by older white classmates who threatened him.
“Kids can be cruel,” Tatum said. “And I remember walking to P.S. 181, and I got called names. I got called ‘Bruce Lee.’ I had kids slanting their eyes at me, making fun of me. And that was tough because there weren’t too many people that looked like me at that time. This is in the ’70s.
“And when you’re a kid, the last thing you want to be is different. All my family is Black, but outwardly people didn’t see that right away. And so I was oftentimes as a kid very conflicted.”
Tatum and his friends played basketball, shooting at a crate placed on a lamppost. But baseball was actually Tatum’s first sports love. In 1984, the huge New York Yankees fan starred on a Brooklyn Tech High School team that played in the New York City public school championship at old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. He still has a bag of dirt he took from the stadium. Tatum also was a second baseman at Cornell University.
“I wanted to play second base with the New York Yankees,” Tatum said. “I put a lot of time and dedication into it. I spent a lot of time on those fields just working hard. And I got to have a pretty good glove. So defensively, I was good. And my nickname was ‘Hoover’ for being the human vacuum cleaner because I would suck everything up coming in that area. I loved the game growing up.”
Said Charlie Tatum: “He couldn’t run, but he sure could field.”
While Tatum had lofty professional baseball dreams, he would end up making more of an impact off the field.
Tatum’s parents were much more interested in their son receiving a great education than becoming a baseball star. He received a bachelor’s degree in business management and marketing in 1991 from Cornell, where he was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. Tatum also earned an MBA in 1998 from Harvard Business School. He was interested in working in sports, so he sent his résumé to the NFL, MLB, NBA, NASCAR and to the Yankees.
After graduating from Harvard in 1998, he was hired by MLB in its corporate sponsorship department.
“My parents always focused on education,” Tatum said. “They always said, ‘You get a good education, you get a good job.’ I took that to heart.”
In 1999, Tatum interviewed with then-NBA commissioner David Stern for a director of partnership position. Tatum recalls Stern challenging him strongly during the interview, but by the time he got home he had the job.
“I remember going into that interview and saying, ‘This will probably be my first and last time ever meeting David Stern,’ because he was a legend at that time,” Tatum said. “I’ll never forget, I sat in his office, and he said, ‘I hate you Harvard Business School guys.’ Before talking to him, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be confident and I’m going to be ready for whatever he said.’ And I responded, ‘Really? For somebody who hates Harvard Business School students or alums, you sure have hired a lot of them.’ He said, ‘Yeah, like who?’ And I named every Harvard Business School [alum who] ever worked at the NBA. He goes, ‘OK, you’re right.’ And that was it. That was a Friday.
“By the time I walked back to my office to Major League Baseball, the NBA head of HR left a message for me. And I said, ‘Uh-oh, I don’t know if this is good.’ When I called him back, he said, ‘I don’t know what you told David Stern, but he said to hire you right away.’ ”
Stern, who died in 2020, retired from the NBA in 2014 as the longest-tenured commissioner in the history of major North American sports leagues. Stern was replaced as NBA commissioner in 2014 by Adam Silver.
With Silver’s appointment, Tatum was promoted to NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer. In the process, he became the highest-ranking minority executive in an American professional sports league. His responsibilities include technology advancements, launching the Basketball Africa League, and developing programs in China and India.
Tatum said he’s very thankful to the “brilliant” Silver for giving him the opportunity.
“One of the great things Adam does is he listens so well and he’s a student,” Tatum said. “He always has insights and learnings that others just don’t pick up on and don’t have, so I’ve learned so much from him. And he’s the one who gave me my opportunity. He could have picked any number of people to put in that role and to put in that position, but he chose me. And I’ll forever be grateful for him for having the confidence in me and having the courage, quite frankly, because I’m not a lawyer.”
Silver told Andscape: “Mark is a great partner and plays an important leadership role for the league, particularly around our efforts to grow NBA basketball outside of the United States.”
The NBA has been holding the draft in Brooklyn since 2013, except for 2020, when it was held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. From Stern to Silver, the crowd has playfully booed both when they have hosted the first round of the draft. Tatum, on the other hand, mostly gets a round of applause from his hometown crowd when he takes over the stage in the second round.
“Every time I’ve done the draft, it’s been in Brooklyn,” Tatum said. “And that’s where I grew up, right at Atlantic Avenue, that’s the stop I used to get off at to walk to my high school around the corner, Brooklyn Tech. And I just think about that, and I think about the kids whose names I’m calling. The draft is one of my favorite nights of the year because I think about these kids who had this dream of playing in the NBA. They worked all their lives, they worked hard to achieve that dream.
“And that’s the night when they hear their name being called, and their dream comes true. And I can’t even imagine the pride. And you see the pride of not only the kids, but the families around them and the people around them. It truly does take a community of people to get these kids to that night.”
Tatum said that he and Silver practice about 100 prospects’ names for a couple of weeks heading into the draft, using pronunciation cards and audio. Tatum’s most challenging name of his first draft in 2014 was Athanasios “Thanasis” Antetokounmpo, the brother of Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was selected by the New York Knicks with the 51st overall pick in the second round.
“Normally during [the NBA draft] combine and things like that, we’ll get the audio of the kids saying their own name and then we have links to that,” Tatum said. “And we also have it written down in the pronunciation. I’ll never forget, the first time I saw Thanasis Antetokounmpo’s name. I remember saying, ‘There’s no way I can get that name right. There’s like, 40 letters in this name and a whole bunch of vowels.’
“This is before Giannis really became Giannis where everybody now can say his name, but I was nervous about that. And I remember just practicing and practicing and practicing and saying it because I wanted to get his name right. And when I had that opportunity to call his name in the draft, I felt good that I played it back the same way he would’ve said it and his family would’ve said it. And to this day, every time I see Giannis, he’s like, ‘Hey, man, you’re the guy who called my brother’s name.’ ”
Tatum’s parents and other family members were in his suite on the fourth floor of the Barclays Center for Thursday night’s draft. His father may have been more nervous for his son hosting the second round of the draft than Tatum actually was.
“It’s like butterflies. You get butterflies in your stomach. But you know he is going to do well. It’s always an honor to see him out there,” Charlie Tatum said.
Tatum’s signature moment as NBA deputy commissioner came last week during Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals when he made history by becoming the first person of Black and Asian descent to present an NBA championship trophy to a team.
Silver missed Games 5 and 6 of the NBA Finals after testing positive for COVID-19, but it was hoped that he could be cleared to attend Game 6. Tatum found out at around 3:30 p.m. on June 16 that he would need to stand in the commissioner’s place to present the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy if the Golden State Warriors eliminated the host Boston Celtics in Game 6. The Warriors won the NBA championship with a 103-90 victory.
Tatum said he got mentally ready for the presentation in the final minutes of Game 6 as it grew more apparent that the Warriors would win. Silver also texted him some words of encouragement before the final buzzer. Tatum calmly took the mic from ABC’s Lisa Salters on the championship stage and gave a speech off the top of his head.
“I thought that was one of the best moments of my life,” said Charlie Tatum, who watched on television in Brooklyn. “It made me somewhat teary-eyed. His mother was more teary-eyed than I was.”
The NBA, NFL, MLB and MLS all have commissioners who are white men. Tatum hopes that his position will inspire those who look like him, and inspire women, and show them an executive position in the professional sports world is possible.
“Dream big. When I was a child, I would’ve never even have dreamed that I would be in this position,” Tatum said. “And even when I was in business school, my dream was to be a VP of corporate sponsorship … because I didn’t see any people that looked like me any higher than that. So, my advice would be to dream big and that’s something that me and my friend [Toronto Raptors chairman] Masai Ujiri teach. He teaches people to dream big.
“And I would say that as a young person of color, that literally anything is possible. You work hard, you stay focused, you do what you need to do, and you dream big.”