New WNBA president sees time at Duke as turning point

WNBA president Lisa Borders applauds at a Seattle Storm news conference April 21 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
WNBA president Lisa Borders applauds at a Seattle Storm news conference April 21 in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) AP

The new president of the Women’s National Basketball Association regards her time as a Duke undergraduate as a turning point, both for the athletic program and for herself as a basketball aficionado. “That was the beginning of the era, if you will, for basketball,” Lisa Borders says. “The men’s team, if you recall, was just on the precipice of turning into the phenomenon it is today.”

Forty years after she enrolled at Duke, that connection with the university, and her knowledge of the game, helped land Borders, 58, her job directing the WNBA, which commences its 20th season this Saturday.

In 1976-77, the Blue Devils finished last in the ACC for the fourth consecutive season. Then they added freshmen Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard to a ’78 lineup led by all-conference veterans Mike Gminski and Jim Spanarkel, and catapulted overnight to the NCAA championship game against Kentucky.

By the time Borders, an avid fan in that pre-Cameron Crazies era, graduated in 1979, she was immersed in the game’s nuances, in no small measure due to her offcourt involvement with Banks. “I had a lot of girlfriends all over the place, but she was my heart,” says Banks, the 1978 ACC rookie of the year and a three-time All-ACC forward. “We have a special friendship. I’ll take a bullet for her.”

Lisa Borders knows basketball inside and out. She knows basketball probably better than many owners of NBA teams today.

Former Duke basketball player Gene Banks

Together the pair studied scouting reports, videos and assignments that coach Bill Foster and staff provided to their young star, the first prominent African-American recruit in Duke history. In the process Borders learned the game’s terminology and strategy as well. “I guess you could say I did teach her a lot, but moreso she really wanted to learn it,” Banks says. “Lisa Borders knows basketball inside and out. She knows basketball probably better than many owners of NBA teams today.”

Fixture at courtside

Back home in Atlanta, Borders pursued a successful career in health care, real estate and philanthropy. Then in 2004, motivated by what she describes as a family background “deeply rooted in the civil rights movement,” she was elected to one of 15 seats on the Atlanta City Council. Voters soon elevated her to serve as council president. “I loved working with Lisa,” says Ceasar Mitchell, a former colleague and the president of the council since Borders lost a bid for mayor in 2009. “She was always very professional, always very positive.”

As president, the equivalent of vice mayor, Borders helped to land a WNBA franchise for her city. In 2008 the Dream began play, and Borders became a season ticketholder, exposing her to a sport that eluded her notice as an undergraduate. “I cut my teeth on the game at Duke,” Borders says, “but I learned more about the women’s game at the professional level, when I had the opportunity to help bring a team to the Atlanta market.”

She quickly became a fixture at courtside, interspersing shouts of encouragement to members of the Dream with loud second-guesses directed toward officials.

“Any referee that’s ever refereed in Philips Arena will tell you I know the game as well as any player,” insists Borders, keen to dispel the notion she’s a basketball novice because she didn’t play. “I am an active, engaged fan. I’m going to actually have to tone it down as president, and cheer for all of the teams.”

That intense interest in the women’s game made the opportunity to serve as the league’s fourth chief executive seem almost preordained when it intersected with Borders’ devotion to Duke.

Borders long harbored a secret fantasy, one she insists she never shared with anyone: She wanted to be a trustee at her alma mater. So when, out of the blue, Duke president Richard Brodhead phoned last year to inform Borders of her nomination for a position on the Duke University Board of Trustees, she admits: “I was absolutely stunned. Humbled. Honored. Delighted. Thrilled. And now I have the privilege and pleasure of serving.”

“Very direct”

Oddly – or perhaps not – Duke’s governing board is awash in people with close connections to basketball. The six-story Schwartz-Butters Athletic Center adjacent to Cameron Indoor Stadium is named in part for Alan Schwartz, an alum who serves on the board of directors of New York’s Madison Square Garden. Trustee Steve Pagliuca is managing general partner and co-owner of the Boston Celtics. Janet Hill is the mother of former Duke and NBA player Grant Hill, an owner of the Atlanta Hawks.

The personable Borders quickly impressed her new colleagues. “She’s very open and friendly, but she’s very direct,” says Schwartz, a trustee since 2005. “She tells it like it is.” That directness stood Borders in good stead during a dinner conversation last December at Brodhead’s home. She was seated with Adam Silver, another alum and fellow newcomer among the trustees. Silver is the commissioner of the NBA, of which the WNBA is a subsidiary.

“We were teasing each other at the time, we were like two little kids sitting at the table,” Borders recalls. “He began to tease me about Coca-Cola, where I was working at the time. I began to tease him about the ‘W’, and saying what’s going on with the W, I know you’re looking for a new president.

“And that joking around with each other led to a serious conversation. What would you do with the W, and how would you do it? One thing led to another, and here we are today with me having the opportunity to lead it.”

Bolstering the marketing and financial strength of the WNBA is an immediate concern. “This is fundamentally a business, and that’s how I’m going to treat it,” says Borders, most recently chair of the Coca-Cola Foundation and vice president of Global Community Affairs.

Room for improvement

The WNBA has demonstrated rare staying power for an American women’s pro league, yet enjoys uneven success. “It’s actually doing better than its brother did at the 20-year mark,” Borders insists. The NBA was founded in 1946, before the spread of TV, cable and the internet.

An immediate priority for Borders is strengthening the relationship between the WNBA’s players and the colleges that trained them. “We see that as a natural linkage in terms of fans and awareness and attendance,” she says.

There’s plenty of room for improvement in all those areas. When the WNBA draft was held last month it raised barely a ripple of interest in basketball-besotted North Carolina, which hosted one of the league’s original eight members. The Charlotte Sting folded in January 2007, shortly before Atlanta realized the Dream. No expansion is contemplated in the near future.

Even in the 12 markets where WNBA franchises exist, interest has waned. Where the league drew nearly 11,000 fans per game in 1998, last season’s average attendance dipped to 7,318, lowest in history. The average hasn’t exceeded 8,000 since 2009 across the four-month regular season. In 2015 viewership on ESPN declined too.

Borders aims to secure the base, then reach wider. “This is just like a campaign in politics in many ways,” she says of promoting her league. “It is like hand-to-hand combat every day. You’ve got to knock on 10,000 doors to get a thousand votes. We have to do exactly the same thing for the WNBA.”