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A Quick Study in Success : After a Brilliant Academic Career, Watts' Terdema Ussery Becomes Head of the CBA

June 16, 1991|MIKE DOWNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Terdema L. Ussery II--they call him "T"--went hunting for the man who had shot his father. He had no idea what he would do if he found him. His law degree from UC Berkeley couldn't help him now. Nor his undergraduate degree from Princeton. Nor his master's degree from Harvard. No, this was strictly street stuff. This was one part of his Watts background that T couldn't shake. Somebody gets you, you get them.

The cops had closed the case. Said there was nothing more they could do. Said bad things happened in bad neighborhoods. Suggested T pry his father out of there, move him someplace else.

But nothing doing. Neighbors and friends had depended on the little Country Farms grocery for so long. The store meant the world to T's father. That's why he saved up every penny he could until he could buy the place, go into business for himself, be the boss.

This was the store where young T got the news that he had been accepted by Princeton, hopped atop the liquor counter and screamed. This was the store where he would return from an exclusive Ojai boarding school with his lacrosse stick over his shoulder, bringing him a razzing from everybody on the block. This was the store caught amid the summer of '65 Watts riots, when all a 6-year-old understood was that having fire and gunfire and National Guardsmen around sure did seem like a lot of fun, like something out of a Hollywood movie.

There were nothing but fond memories inside that corner market until the day some crumb strolled in and put one in T's dad.

So he set out to find the guy, got people to point him out, although they couldn't be positive he was the one. T searched everywhere. Couldn't find him anywhere. Put aside the starched white dress shirt and power necktie and briefcase that had become standard equipment in the 39th-story office where he practiced L.A. law.

"What would I have done if I had found the guy?" he asks, four years later, formal executive attire back in place, lunching in Sherman Oaks, now the ranking black executive in professional sports. "I don't know. I truly don't know.

"Nothing good."

A tornado was brewing in Texas, and hundreds of local basketball lovers were huddled outside the locked doors of D. L. Ligon Coliseum, looking off in the distance at darkening skies. It was the last week of April and they were waiting to be let inside for a game between their hometown Wichita Falls Texans and the visiting Quad City Thunder from faraway Rock Island, Ill., for the championship of the Continental Basketball Assn., the NBA's minor league.

Terdema L. Ussery II took one look at the situation upon arriving and sought out a security guard.

"Unlock the doors," he said. "There's a tornado coming."

"Who are you?" the guard asked.

"He's the commissioner," one of T's aides said.

At 32, Ussery is a take-charge kind of guy who has taken charge. His future seems unlimited. Educated, eloquent, law-degreed, distinguished . . . no telling how far he might go. Yet the last thing he expected was to have a future in sports.

His specialty in the Los Angeles office of the San Francisco-based firm of Morrison & Foerster was corporate and entertainment law. The only reason he connected with the basketball league was that the CBA commissioner who preceded him was a fellow member of a constitutional rights foundation.

Sports? What did T Ussery know of sports? Oh, sure, guys he knew from the neighborhood--David Greenwood, Darrin Nelson, Roy Hamilton--had been great jocks. And his dad occasionally took him to UCLA to see Henry Bibby play basketball, or to USC to see the Juice run with the football, and even once to Anaheim because Reggie Smith was in town. When T was a kid, everybody on his block partied into the night on the day Reggie Smith was called up by the Boston Red Sox, and he can still recall Reggie bringing him an autographed bat.

But sports? As a career?

"I hate to admit this," T says, laughing, "but if my brothers knew my time in the 40-meter dash, some of them wouldn't speak to me."

Ussery is being somewhat modest, which is another of his many assets. He did compete in athletics at the Thacher boarding school in Ojai--including, yes, lacrosse. At Princeton later, he was a walk-on on the football squad. But he was always more comfortable with a law book than a playbook.

At Berkeley, he became executive editor of the California Law Review, and also externed under Supreme Court Justice Allen E. Broussard. At Princeton, he earned an undergraduate degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1981, graduating with departmental honors. At Harvard, he received his master's from the John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1984. He was no jock.

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