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Buffalo native Gail Hunter helped turn Warriors into NBA gold

OAKLAND, Calif. – Gail Hunter won a 10-speed bike through a Buffalo Braves promotion at the Aud. She was a teenager when the Braves moved away.

She never stopped rooting for her Buffalo Bills through four straight Super Bowl letdowns and 16 seasons without the playoffs. She felt the agony, watching another team skate around the Buffalo Sabres’ ice after an illegal goal.

Hunter’s hometown teams repeatedly broke her heart, as did the other teams that became close to her over the years.

In 1997, she worked for Major League Baseball, and her future wife was in the Cleveland Indians’ front office. They sat behind home plate that October and watched the Indians, two outs away from winning the World Series, surrender a lead in the bottom of the ninth inning and lose in extra innings to the Florida Marlins.

“The champagne was in the Tribe’s clubhouse,” Hunter groaned.

Hunter was with the Seattle Mariners in 1998 and 1999. Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson were on the marquee. They won nothing.

All Hunter’s life, championships eluded her.

This year, most NBA observers expect her to win a second straight championship and visit the White House again because of it. The girl who used to skip rope on Shirley Avenue is an executive with the NBA’s finest team and helps maintain one of the hottest sports brands on the planet.

But while her Golden State Warriors still were playing in last year’s semifinals and before advancing to the NBA Finals was certain, guess who was responsible for planning the championship parade?

“You’re very superstitious, having very secret meetings,” Hunter said. “No one can talk about it, but you want to scream, ‘Do you know what’s happening over here?!’

“It was a little freaky.”

Early parade plans aren’t presumptuous; such logistics are necessary for any club closing on a title.

So for three weeks, Hunter worried about double-decker buses and convertibles, about 7 miles of street barricades and another 3 miles of chain-link fence, about where to stash 3,500 pounds of confetti if the Warriors didn’t beat the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Heaven forbid word leak to the media that Golden State had plotted its victory before the series tipped off.

“There’s one thing I don’t want LeBron James reading,” Golden State President and CEO Rick Welts said, “that the Warriors were planning their championship parade.”

While she worked in the shadows on a hypothetical celebration, Hunter carried out her usual roles as the Warriors’ vice president of public affairs and event management. She’s deeply involved in the team’s $1 billion arena being built in San Francisco and oversees its community relations department.

Hunter did more than enough to earn her championship ring.

“There was something magical about last year,” Hunter said.

The Cavaliers won two of the first three games in the best-of-seven series, but Hunter didn’t need to sweat much beyond that. The Warriors dominated the next three games to win the franchise’s first title in 40 years.

Over a million fans jammed the parade route along Broadway and the Lake Merritt shoreline. They watched basketball deities Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the rest of the Warriors roll through blizzards of blue and gold confetti.

Welts called it “the most amazing day I’ve ever experienced.”

It should be noted that Welts made that statement a month before the Warriors met President Obama.

Hunter, wondering for decades what it would be like to win a world title, became the Warriors’ logistical point person for the White House. She put the group together, helped with security clearances, logged timing down to the minute.

“There were a million people at the parade. There were 40 of us in that room,” Hunter said. “The parade was exciting, but this was historic.”

Hunter, 56, stood with her team in the State Dining Room and waited not for just the president, but also the first African-American president. The door opened, and Obama walked in.

“I felt like I was watching a movie,” Hunter said, “but I’m in this movie. So as the president made his way around the room, personally saying hello to each one of us, I’m thinking, ‘This is happening to me. Right now. I am meeting the president of the United States.’

“I had to open my eyes, open my brain because I didn’t ever want to forget this.”

As she shook President Obama’s hand, he praised her department’s community outreach.

What a moment for Mamie Kirkland’s granddaughter. Kirkland, still sharp and mobile at 107 years old, made it to Buffalo after fleeing Mississippi with her family a century ago over fears her father would be lynched.

But Hunter, just two generations later, was planning parades and meeting the president.

“It’s absolutely extraordinary,” Kirkland’s youngest child and Hunter’s uncle, Tarabu Betserai Kirkland, said. “She’s managed to infiltrate an arena that has been dominated by men.

“Her ability to navigate through that terrain and excel has been really remarkable.”

Warrior DNA

A week before Christmas in Oracle Arena, the Warriors trailed the Milwaukee Bucks by 12 points at halftime. The Bucks had a .370 win percentage, while the defending champs were a whopping 25-1. That lone loss? To the Bucks six days earlier in Milwaukee.

Welts, the Warriors’ president and CEO, watched the end of the first half from the tunnel behind Milwaukee’s basket, then headed to a season-ticket lounge beneath the lower bowl. The space was a gussied-up, erstwhile storage area in Oakland’s antiquated arena, its first tenants the California Seals of the Western Hockey League in 1966.

“If you went around and talked to any of these season-ticket holders,” Welts said, “they would tell you there’s a discernible difference between how they are treated as fans today compared to four years ago before Gail got here.”

Hunter left her job as the NBA’s senior vice president of events and attractions because the Warriors had new ownership and are leaving their old barn, providing an opportunity to have a substantial role in a franchise’s next stake.

With the NBA, she ran the All-Star Game, the All-Star Jam Session, the NBA Draft, the NBA Summer League and the NBA Nation summer tour. Welts took over the Warriors in September 2011. He hired Hunter away from the NBA a year later, as the news release read, to “lead the organization’s community engagement efforts in San Francisco” for their new $1 billion Chase Center in the Mission Bay neighborhood.

“We were very lucky to have her as long as we did,” former NBA Commissioner David Stern said by phone from his New York office. “She had some other really great offers, but finally, the opportunity to go to Golden State with Rick and with a new arena was too much for her to turn down.”

Hunter oversees the game-day experience at Oracle Arena. She’s the Warriors’ contact with Alameda County and City of Oakland government officials, arena operator AEG and concessions vendor Levy Restaurants. She’s also executive director of the Warriors’ charity foundation.

“The lessons of what we’ve learned here and what she has been able to do here,” Welts said in the season-ticket lounge, “will be the backbone to what we want to do in San Francisco.”

Hunter was supposed to enjoy the game with her family in the stands. Yet she was in a headset on press row right before the game, mediating this, coordinating that and managing the other.

Earlier that day, she was in San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s office while he signed legislation for Chase Center. She later met with the Warriors community relations department about an “extreme makeover” project at Covenant House California for homeless youth and about packing 20,000 lunch bags for the Alameda Community Food Bank.

Hunter can’t hit 30-foot jumpers like Curry or chew out the locker room like Green (although she is in the Sacred Heart Academy and Fredonia State sports halls of fame). She doesn’t have a direct impact on the court.

Welts, nevertheless, insisted she has been integral in the team’s turnaround.

From 1991 to 2012, the Warriors won a single playoff series and went to the postseason once over an 18-year span. Now they’re champions and the favorites to win it all again in June after making a run at breaking the record Michael Jordan’s 1995-96 Chicago Bulls set for most wins (72-10).

“Our organization had a culture of losing off the court and on the court,” Welts said. “The first thing we had to do was talk to people about what we were going to become – not what we had done – and find out who could get on board and who believed we could accomplish what we wanted to.

“She’s someone who instills a lot of confidence in the people who deal with her. She has a lot of the traits of the players we picked: She’s unflappable; she doesn’t go off the deep end when something goes wrong; she has a very steady demeanor.”

Forbes magazine released its annual NBA valuations in January. The Warriors ranked sixth in the league at an estimated $1.9 billion, up 46 percent from the year before.

This month, Mayor Lee honored Hunter for San Francisco’s annual Women’s History Month Celebration, and she will be inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame. Women In Sports & Events named Hunter one of its 2012 Women of the Year.

Back in the lounge under the Oracle Arena stands, overhead lights flashed off and on to inform fans the second half was about to begin.

“If you watch our team and how we play the game, we don’t panic,” Welts said. “We know how to get the job done. We just keep at it until we get it done.

“She very much fits that profile. That’s our DNA.”

Golden State scored 36 points in the fourth quarter to defeat Milwaukee, 121-112.

Century of wisdom

Mamie Lang Kirkland’s memory is keen, her family insists, and not just for someone born in 1908.

She still can tell the chilling details of her childhood. The moments are etched into family lore. Mamie remembered that when she was 7, her father stormed into their home in Ellisville, Miss., shortly after midnight. Edward Lang told his wife to gather up their five children and get on a northbound train.

Lang said he and a friend, John Hartfield, had to leave immediately over threats they would be lynched.

“There was no time to tidy up and explain or discuss options,” Tarabu Kirkland said. “The next morning, my grandmother, my mother and her siblings packed up everything that could fit into bags and got on the train.”

The family fled to East St. Louis, Ill., but race riots over an influx of black laborers and scorched neighborhoods chased the Langs farther north. They settled temporarily in Alliance, Ohio, where Mamie recalled the Ku Klux Klan and torches.

The Langs stayed long enough for Mamie’s life to intersect with a boarder the family had taken in and of whom her father approved.

Mamie was 15 when she married Albert Kirkland, 21. They moved to Buffalo and had nine children. Kirkland worked for the Pratt & Letchworth Co., Bethlehem Steel and Pillsbury Flour Mills. He died in 1959. She never remarried.

The Langs later learned that Hartfield returned to Mississippi a couple of years after they fled, supposedly to be with his white girlfriend. Authorities claimed Hartfield assaulted her, though there was no trial.

The June 26, 1919, headline in a New Orleans paper announced Hartfield would be “lynched by Ellisville mob at 5 o’clock in the afternoon” and that Mississippi Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo said he “is powerless to stop it.”

Hunter expressed a deep appreciation for having her grandmother in her life for so long.

“It’s always been important to know what you’re made of,” Hunter said. “Where did all these pieces come from? All of that history of perseverance and survival and being fearful and yet being faithful just runs through us.

“We might hit a hurdle and think, ‘This is bad, but at least it’s not that. If Grandma was able to get through that and still raise this tremendous family, then let’s keep going.’

“She didn’t have Uber. She was escaping in the middle of the night on foot and looking over her shoulder. That’s real fear. Everything else is just being nervous.”

Tarabu Kirkland – Mamie’s baby at 66 years old – explained that his mother was unable to fulfill her wish of becoming a schoolteacher because she didn’t get past the sixth grade. So she emphasized education with her children and grandchildren. They listened.

Of her five living children, four have advanced degrees. Hunter’s mother, Juanita, is a professor emeritus with the University at Buffalo’s School of Nursing.

“She lived her educational dreams through her children,” Tarabu Kirkland said by phone from his home in Los Angeles, where Mamie spends the winter months. When in Buffalo, she lives in an apartment on Delavan Avenue.

And while Mamie certainly holds President Obama dear, she has no clue who Stephen Curry is.

“I don’t know anything about basketball,” Mamie Kirkland said with some help from Tarabu because she has difficulty hearing over the phone. “The success Gail has had, I know that it wouldn’t have been possible when I was a little girl to grow up and accomplish that.”

No, for when Mamie Lang was born, Dr. James Naismith had invented basketball only 17 years earlier. It wouldn’t become an Olympic sport until she was 27. The National Basketball Association was founded when she was 37.

When Mamie was born, slaves had been free for only 45 years. She was 57 when legislation overruled the last Jim Crow laws.

She and her husband established high standards for her children in Buffalo, values that were passed down and touched generations.

“It’s unbelievable,” Hunter said. “We talk about it – I have a lot of cousins and second cousins – and say, ‘You realize most people don’t have this.’

“It’s an incredible lineage, an incredible bond. We have this special figure in our family who brings us all together. She’s strong and faithful and has given that to our family for so many years.”

Buffalo-grown

Hunter fondly recalls horseback riding, hiking and learning to swim at the YWCA’s Beaver Hollow summer camp. She played piano and buried herself in Nancy Drew novels. She enjoyed kickball and jumping rope.

“I love that I’m from Buffalo,” Hunter said. “I’m sure people feel about their hometowns the way I feel about mine, but there’s a grittiness. I’m proud of the toughness and the snow and the cars with rust. It’s romantic in a way.”

Education was a given in the Hunter household. Juanita Hunter obtained a Ph.D. after her three kids got through elementary school. She became the first black president of the New York State Nurses Association. Hunter’s father, Archie, was a beloved civic leader who helped found the William-Emslie YMCA and served on the United Way’s board of directors. He had a master’s degree in social work and was a Buffalo State adjunct professor. He was 66 when he died of cancer in 1992.

Their oldest son, Jeffery, went to Bennett High and Dartmouth College before getting an MBA from UB and another master’s degree from the University of North Carolina. Their middle child, Wayne, went to Nichols School and Syracuse before getting his MBA from UB.

Sacred Heart productions of “Funny Girl” and “The Wizard of Oz” enchanted Hunter. She went to Fredonia to study theater arts and play sports. Upon graduating college, she took a fundraising internship with Studio Arena Theater, but didn’t feel quite ready for New York. She instead went to law school at North Carolina and gravitated toward sports.

She was a phenomenal volleyball player at Sacred Heart, but yearned to play basketball for legendary coach Sister Maria Pares. Hunter couldn’t make the team. That’s what made a conversation with Sister Maria so odd upon graduation in 1976.

“She told me ‘You should try out for the Fredonia basketball team.’ What?!” Hunter said, shaking her head in disbelief. “So I did. I made the team and ended up doing really well.”

Hunter was captain of Fredonia’s basketball and volleyball teams and set the university’s long-jump record.

In 2000, she and Pares were inducted into the same Sacred Heart Sports Hall of Fame class.

All-Star performance

On Saturday morning of NBA All-Star weekend five years ago in Los Angeles, Ski Austin had a stroke.

But few realized Austin, the league’s executive vice president of events, wasn’t around throughout a series of high-profile shows, including the three-point shootout, Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin jumping over a car to win the dunk contest and the 60th annual All-Star Game.

“Our employees and staff went through the rest of All-Star Weekend without even knowing that I was in the hospital for five days,” Austin said by phone from New Jersey. “That’s a testament to how smoothly Gail handled everything.”

Those who have worked with Hunter marvel at her organization skills and acumen for calmly executing complex, creative initiatives.

Stern, the NBA’s commissioner from 1984 to 2014, said Hunter “was button-down for all our events, and these are the events that came to define us: our Finals, our All-Star Game, our draft, our lottery, our international competitions.”

Hunter obtained her law degree in 1986, passed the bar exam and briefly considered becoming a sports agent. She attended a sports-law seminar and was struck by the lack of women in the industry. She took a job as assistant director of championships for the NCAA.

Two years later, she was Major League Baseball’s director of promotional events. Hunter developed and ran the popular All-Star Fan Fest.

She met Nadine Glinski, her future wife, at the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland. Glinski spent 16 years in the Indians’ front office and later worked as an NBA executive. They have two children: 11-year-old Olivia and 8-year-old Bryant.

Before the NBA, though, Hunter joined the Mariners in 1998 to manage corporate relationships and help them move from the Kingdome into Safeco Field.

“People usually are experts in one area, but Gail gets the entire picture,” said Kevin Martinez, the Mariners’ marketing vice president. “She understands so many facets of our business.

“She has this wonderful way of hearing everybody’s input but at the same time steering us down the path we need to go. I miss that presence and that energy.”

Hunter thrived in the NBA’s risk-taking promotional environment. As Austin described the league’s progressive approach: “If it isn’t broke, go ahead and break it anyway and see what happens.”

Hunter’s NBA role grew from fan engagement to include being the league’s liaison with government agencies and overseeing all global events alongside Austin.

Throughout her career, Hunter has encountered archaic theories about what should be allowed in sports business.

“Being a lesbian, female, African-American,” Hunter was quoted by San Francisco LGBT newspaper the Bay Area Reporter in April 2013, “I sometimes wonder, ‘Which one am I working on being accepted as today?’ ”

Her athletic background at Fredonia helped erase skepticism in the beginning by allowing her to speak the jargon, but she conceded that goes only so far.

She tries to advise other women through mentorship programs.

“In the industry, while there are many, many women in it, there are some who feel it’s still hard to be a part of the old-boy network,” Hunter said. “I find myself explaining to women in the profession, ‘This is how it used to be.’ Then there are days when it doesn’t feel all that different from the way it used to be.

“I just want to be supportive and let them know ‘If you love sports, there’s a place for you.’ ”

Working on that next ring

Voices in last year’s parade-planning discussions sounded like the grown-ups from a Charlie Brown cartoon.

Whaaa whaaa. Wha-wha-whaaaaaa whaa.

Hunter was numb. The Warriors hadn’t won the title, but she still had to prepare as though they were assured the trophy.

Three months later, Hunter had an out-of-body experience every time she had to cut a conversation short by saying, “I’m sorry, but I have a call from the White House on the other line.”

Hunter might live through similar surrealism again this year.

Her Warriors have obliterated the opposition all season. They beat the San Antonio Spurs, 112-101, on Thursday to join the ’95-’96 Bulls as the only teams in NBA history to win 70 games.

Curry has pulverized records for three-point shooting, a dominance that corresponds to the way Babe Ruth hit home runs. But Thompson won the three-point contest at the NBA All-Star Game in February in Toronto. Green is emerging as his own superstar.

Sales tracked at NBAStore.com show Golden State is the most popular team, and Curry’s jersey is the most popular.

Hunter, meanwhile, continues to navigate the politics of building the Chase Center. The privately funded, 18,000-seat arena is scheduled to open in 2019.

“The Warriors couldn’t be in better hands than with Gail,” Stern said. “The building and the events they have leading up to it are going to be off the charts.”

All of this might lead a reasonable person to wonder if Hunter has begun investigating how prudent it would be for the Warriors to go ahead and invest in their own confetti factory.

email: tgraham@buffnews.com