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A Slam Dunk Career: Gail Hunter, ’81, leads community engagement for the Golden State Warriors

Gail Hunter

“Work hard, really hard — practice is vital to success. Be a strong leader by how you present yourself as well as how you compete.”

That sage coaching advice propelled Gail Hunter to a stellar athletic career at the State University of New York at Fredonia more than three decades ago, and it no doubt figured into a career trajectory that has placed her into the executive ranks of one of the National Basketball Association’s most prominent modern franchises.

Indeed, success as a three-sport performer for the Blue Devils that culminated with her induction into the Blue Devils’ Hall of Fame in 1988 was merely a warm-up. Today, the Buffalo native and member of the Class of 1981 is Vice President of Public Affairs and Event Management for the Golden State Warriors, the 2015 NBA champions.

You won’t see Ms. Hunter pacing courtside, though she’d probably relish every moment on the hardwood. But what she does off the court is an essential element of the team’s overall success. Hunter leads the organization’s community engagement activities in San Francisco as they relate to the planning and construction of the Chase Center, the privately financed sports and entertainment complex in San Francisco’s Mission Bay area. 

The Warriors will leave the Oracle Arena, their home across the pond in Oakland since 1971, when their state-of-the-art, 18,000-seat event venue opens for the 2019-20 season. 

On game days, Hunter continues to oversee the operations of the Oracle, ensuring that every game is a memorable, fun experience for fans. As the Events Department manager, she assesses potential sites and develops plans and layouts for upcoming fan and player events. A steady flow of meetings with numerous community partners to expand the reach of the team’s community programs help round out her weekly planner.

“There’s no such thing as a typical day,” Hunter says.

It’s no coincidence that Hunter joined Golden State in 2012, when plans for the new Chase Center — a $1 billion investment that will include restaurants, cafes, offices, public plazas and a public waterfront park — were announced. 

Hunter, then the NBA’s Senior Vice President for Events and Attractions, was hand-picked by the ownership group that acquired the Warriors, then a struggling franchise. She was enticed by the opportunity extended by Golden State President and CEO Rick Welts to lead the organization’s community engagement efforts in San Francisco.

Mr. Welts says Hunter has been a tremendous asset to the Warriors organization, particularly with the ongoing development of the Chase Center. “Gail’s passion to help others through her work is second to none, and she has been the driving force behind many of the Warriors’ signature events and community campaigns.

“She is a fantastic advocate for women in sports, and has had a demonstrated and lasting impact across the NBA,” Mr. Welts added.

In fact, NBA Commissioner David Stern lamented her departure from the league, and was quoted in The Buffalo News as saying: “We were lucky to have her as long as we did. She had some other really great offers, but finally, the opportunity to go to Golden State with Rick and with the new arena was too much for her to turn down.” 

Excelling in multiple sports

As she and her two brothers, Jeff and Wayne, grew up, Hunter says her parents “strongly encouraged us to be ‘well-rounded’ and to pursue athletics.” All were engaged in sports at the high school level, and Jeff compiled a successful football career at Dartmouth College. Attending Buffalo Bills’ games was a regular family event.

But Hunter did more than “pursue” athletics at Fredonia. She thrived in no fewer than three sports.

Longtime volleyball coach Elizabeth “Liz” Darling, who passed away a year ago, recruited Hunter, a standout volleyball player at the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart Academy, to Fredonia. Gail continued that success with the Lady Devils, served as team captain for two seasons and was named to the New York Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (NYSAIAW) All- Star squad in 1979-80.

Though her dream to play basketball in high school for legendary Western New York coach Sister Maria Pares went unfilled, Hunter put that disappointment aside and — at Sister’s suggestion — tried out for the Fredonia team.  She made the team, ultimately played all four years and was a team captain for two years.

When basketball season ended, Hunter changed gears and suited up for the fledgling women’s track and field program. The long jump was her specialty, and her leap of 15’11.75” set a new school record. But Hunter was far from a one-dimension athlete in track. She was also a sprinter, ran a leg in the 4-by-100 meter relay and, when a fill-in was needed, adeptly stepped into the 4-by-400 relay.

That versatility enabled Hunter to qualify for a staggering five events in the NYSAIAW State Track Meet.

“She was a natural athlete, played volleyball and basketball —  and was good at both of them — and was a good runner, a good track lady,” remembers Dr. Everett “Doc” Phillips, retired chairman of the Department of Health, Physical Education, Athletics and Dance, and a former assistant coach of women’s track and field in the early 1980s. 

Longtime Athletic Director Greg Prechtl, who was beginning his coaching career in men’s basketball when Hunter was a student, admired her enthusiasm and dedication to athletics. “She was very focused and intense, but still knew how to enjoy herself and the experiences she had with her teammates,” Mr. Prechtl said. The seasons overlapped, so it seemed Hunter was always in the gym.

“Back in those days, we only had the one gym; we did not have Steele Hall yet, so we shared the gym — men’s basketball, women’s varsity basketball and men’s junior varsity teams. The three of us ran into each other a lot back then,” he said. “She really applied herself and tried to make herself and her teams as competitive as they could be.”

Bill Makuch, ’81, who majored in Sociology and was a member of the men’s varsity basketball team, also remembers Hunter as a “very competitive, very intense” athlete. “We traveled together for away games, so I watched her play all the time,” said Mr. Makuch, who was captain of the men’s team.

Hunter’s career advancement has been is “no big surprise” to Makuch, who stays in regular contact with her. Soon after Hunter began working for Major League Baseball, she invited Makuch to Toronto in 1992 to take in a World Series game between the Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves.

In her final season at Fredonia, Hunter was named the Senior Athlete of the Year in 1981.

A career in sports unlikely

Though she immersed herself in athletics, what brought Hunter to Fredonia was its strong theatre program. “I loved that it was ‘away’ from home, affordable, a good school and had a great theatre program.” She majored in Theatre Arts, specializing in stage management and lighting design, and worked on “Cabaret,” “Our Town,” “La Bohème” and “No, No Nanette.”

Hunter credits “organization” as the key that enabled her to participate in three varsity sports, work on theatre productions and still find time for academics.

“I was mindful of my schedule and tried to prioritize each assignment and the amount of time that was necessary to complete assignments and study for tests,” she said. 

Hunter credits positive influences of faculty members Gary Eckhart, Dr. Alan Zaremba and Barton Lee. “Each of them stressed commitment to studies, preparation and trying to find one’s passion and pursuing it.”

Asked if Hunter was contemplating a career in sports as she graduated from Fredonia, she gives an emphatic “No!” She completed a fundraising internship with the Studio Arena Theater in Buffalo, N.Y., and then enrolled in the law school at the University of North Carolina, where she earned her J.D. in 1986. Hunter became a member of the Washington State Bar and worked for a Seattle, Wash., law firm.

“After practicing for three years, I realized that the litigation practice was not my passion and began researching law careers in the world of sports. I networked with many lawyers working in sports fields and was introduced to a number of lawyers at the NCAA,” Hunter recalled. “When a position opened up that interested me, I applied and was offered the job.”

Hunter joined the NCAA as Assistant Director of Championships. Two years later, she switched to baseball — ironically a sport she didn’t play at the collegiate level. Hunter served seven years as Director of Promotional Events for Major League Baseball, where she developed and managed baseball’s premier All-Star event, All-Star Fan Fest. From there, she joined the Seattle Mariners as Director of Corporate Marketing. Hunter directed corporate sponsorship sales, corporate development and ballpark planning for the new Safeco Field.

A 13-year career with the NBA followed. As the league’s Senior Vice President for Events and Attractions for the last 10 of those years, it was Hunter’s charge to manage the NBA’s and WNBA’s domestic and international grassroots marketing programs that included the NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star Jam Session, NBA Jam Van, NBA Summer League and NBA Nation. 

Her myriad of duties included: conceptualization of overall event themes, designs and elements, overseeing production, operations, sponsorship management, execution, public relations, marketing and advertising. Also in the mix was All-Star liaison with the host team, city and governmental entities and community organizations.

A championship ring, at last!

Even though Seattle was stocked with some of baseball’s best talent — future Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, along with rising star Alex Rodriguez — the Mariners did not reach the playoffs during Hunter’s brief tenure. 

But Hunter had a front-row seat in the 2014-2015 season as Golden State, led by league MVP Steph Curry, won the team’s first NBA title since 1975 by defeating the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2. That amazing journey, Hunter recalls, clearly transcended sports. “It was so very great to celebrate with our community; it really brought the community together in so
many ways.”

As exciting as that playoff run was, it only set the stage for a visit to the White House by players and coaches and their spouses to meet President Barack Obama.

“We were treated like royalty,” Hunter beams. “We were given a tour of the east wing and then waited for the president’s arrival. When the door opened, it was as though we were watching a movie but ‘we were in it.’” The President circulated throughout the room, personally greeting everyone individually. A public awards ceremony and the presentation of a team jersey to President Obama followed.

“I was internally pinching myself, asking — ‘Is this really happening?’”

“President Obama praised our team for their continued work as role models and commended our organization for the work we do in the community,” Hunter remembered. “I was taken aback by his ability to ‘own the room’ and commanding presence.”

Professional, community accolades abound

Hunter has received numerous honors for her professional achievements and community service. She was chosen by SportsBusiness Journal as a member of its 2014 class of “Game Changers: Women in Sports Business,” which recognizes women in the industry who have played key roles in their respective fields. She’s also an active member of WISE (Women in Sports and Events), serves as a mentor in the WISE Within mentorship program and was named a 2012 WISE Women of the Year Award recipient for serving as an influential voice for women in the sports and event industry.

More recently, Hunter was inducted into the Alameda County (Calif.) Women’s Hall of Fame for her work with the Warriors organization as well as her work in the local community that includes serving on the Board of Governors and Development Committee for Boys and Girls Clubs in San Francisco, the Board of the Embarcadero YMCA and the Board of Trustees for the First Tee of the East Bay.

“It’s important for me to not only give back to the community in which I live, but to also be a positive role model for young women in the Bay area,” she said.

Hunter’s family is carrying on the sports tradition. Her children, Olivia, 12, and Bryant, 8, are both sports enthusiasts and play youth basketball, among other sports. Her wife, Nadine, has a long career in sports, both with the Cleveland Indians, a Major League franchise, and the NBA, and is currently involved with the First Tee of the East Bay, a non-profit that promotes character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf, to disadvantaged youth in Oakland. 

“All are extremely supportive and involved in my career,” Hunter said.

Hunter never believed attending a state university tucked away in Western New York limited her career options. “I have always felt that the variety of experiences and my ability to manage them all helped me immensely as I pursued my career objectives,” she said. “In addition, the support system offered by Fredonia (professors, coaches and staff) always provided a unique group of supportive mentors.”

What kind of advice would Hunter give to women and minorities seeking careers in professional sports?

“It is vital to be committed in the business and to work hard, really hard, and be better than most everyone around you,” she said. “It’s equally as important to build a good network of male and female colleagues that you can call upon for advice; never be afraid to learn from others and to ask questions – lots of questions! 

“Be genuine in your relationships; they matter!”

 

 

posted @ Friday, January 27, 2017 5:42 PM by Jonathan Woolson

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