Steve Mills Biography
Played Professional Basketball in Ecuador, Community Relations Became Involved with Player Development
As president and chief operating officer of MSG (Madison Square Garden) Sports, Steve Mills is one of the most important executives in the world of professional sports. He oversees the business operations of three New York teams that play at Madison Square Garden: the New York Knickerbockers of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League (NHL), and the New York Liberty of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). With a staff of 150 and responsibility for an estimated $700 million in assets, Mills supervised day-to-day operations, including finances, business strategies, and marketing for all three teams. Only the activities of players on the court (or ice) remained officially beyond his purview, but he exercised increasing influence over those as well.
A native of Roosevelt, New York, near New York City, Mills was born around 1960. His father was a teacher and basketball coach, his mother a social worker. He grew up a Knickerbockers fan and lived around the corner from future NBA legend Julius "Dr. J" Erving, who made a career in basketball seem like something worth striving for. At the Ivy League's Princeton University, from which Mills graduated with a sociology major and an economics minor, Mills was a three-year starter at the position of guard and helped lead Princeton to two Ivy League championships.
Played Professional Basketball in Ecuador
At six-feet, one-inch tall, Mills was small for a professional basketball player, but he still hoped for an NBA career. After he was passed over during the NBA draft, he took a job as manager of new business development at New York's Chemical Bank. The officer who recruited him was a former Brown University basketball player and was sympathetic to Mills's continuing dreams of making the pros, offering to defer Mills's start date until. after Mills played professional basketball in Ecuador for a year. But after that year, Mills called a halt to his basketball career. "I had committed to myself that if I wasn't good enough to play in the NBA, I wasn't going to be one of those guys who spend years and years bouncing around playing semi-professional basketball," Mills told Black Enterprise.
Returning to Chemical Bank, Mills found his way back to basketball after a high school friend tipped him off in 1983 to a job as an account executive in an NBA office dealing with corporate sponsorships. Mills submitted a resume that same evening, and five weeks later was hired. Although he told Princeton Alumni Weekly that the job was "as low as you can start on the totem pole," it was an advantageous time to be joining the NBA, for the league was in the process of branching out to become an international marketing empire. Mills was promoted to national programs manager for the NBA's properties division in 1986, and then spent from 1987 to 1993 in the NBA's special events department, becoming its vice president in 1989.
There, Mills oversaw such events as the league's McDonald's Championship, which featured a game between the Milwaukee Bucks and a team from the former Soviet Union. Mills traveled the globe, working with venues, hotels, and broadcasters. It was all hands-on training for an executive career ahead, as Mills explained to Black Enterprise: "I was able to develop a skill set that touched every aspect of the business." He also helped develop the "Dream Team" concept that united NBA stars Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley on the gold medal-winning United States 1992 Olympic basketball team.
Community Relations Became Involved with Player Development
The next step for Mills was closer involvement with the game of basketball itself. After he spent two years (1993-95) as vice president of corporate development with the NBA Commissioner's office, he took on the newly created position of vice president for basketball and player development in 1995. Here he supervised the programs that moved high school and college players up the pipeline to the NBA and got a taste of the high-stakes world of player salaries and team finances. His most visible effort during the late 1990s, though, was his central role in the creation of the WNBA in 1997. By this time, Mills was the highest-ranking African American in the NBA organization.
In 1999, motivated by a desire to be involved with the fortunes of an individual team, Mills joined the New York Knickerbockers as executive vice president of franchise operations, with a 14th-floor office at Knicks headquarters and responsibility for the revenue side of the team's existence. "There are guys out there that I…came into the league with, and they played, and I'm doing this, and my NBA career's going to be a lot longer than theirs is," Mills reflected in conversation with the New York Times. He was promoted to the position of president, MSG Sports Team Operations, in June of 2001. Mills was officially involved with such tasks as business planning and the identification of new revenue streams, but he soon found that his new job put him in the day-to-day crucible of New York sports headlines.
Mills plunged into controversies such as the withdrawal of the Knickerbockers' playoff training camp from South Carolina in protest of that state's refusal to stop flying the Confederate battle flag at its statehouse, and he was among the Knicks executives who tried to deal with the difficulties caused by player Latrell Sprewell. He was instrumental in bringing former NBA star Isiah Thomas to New York to serve as Knicks president in 2003. Rumored to be a favorite of Cablevision CEO James Dolan, the executive with ultimate responsibility over Madison Square Garden and all its teams, Mills proved to be an expert at navigating the byzantine corporate structure that governed Madison Square Garden. Mills was credited with instituting fan-friendly policies and with a new emphasis on community relations.
For example, he expanded the Madison Square Garden Cheering for Children Foundation to provide after-school programs for over 30,000 New York City children. Mills was selected as one of Savoy magazine's 100 People of Influence and as one of Sports Illustrated's 101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports. He participated in an African American Heritage Celebration organized by New York Senator Hillary Clinton, and among his community service posts were seats on the boards of directors of the Salvation Army of Greater New York, the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, and USA Basketball. Mills, his wife Beverly, and their two daughters made their home in South Orange, New Jersey.
Promoted to the position of president and CEO of MSG Sports at the end of 2003, Mills took on responsibility for all the sports-related activites of Madison Square Garden, which included collegiate as well as professional sports. In a sense, he was the person in charge of the total sports "product" offered at the famous arena. For all his business expertise and accomplishments, though, the onetime pro basketball aspirant remained focused on the game itself. Asked by Black Enterprise what his next goal might be, he answered, "For us to win some championships here in New York." Some observers, though, predicted that Mills would become basketball's first African-American commissioner.
Black Enterprise, October 2002; September 2003, p. 114.
New York Daily News, October 8, 2002, p. 56; December 23, 2003, p. 57.
New York Times, February 29, 2000, p. B2.
Princeton Alumni Weekly, February 21, 2001.
USA Weekend, February 17, 2001.
"Steve Mills," The League: Black Ivy Alumni League, www.theleagueonline.org/ASmills.php (September 16, 2004).
"Steve Mills," MSG Sports, www.thegarden.com/inandaroundgarden_SteveMills.html (September 12, 2004).
—James M. Manheim