Former CUA assistant Sullivan living a dream with NBA champs
By Chris McManes
Terry Sullivan doesn't remember a thing about his first NBA game. His most recent one will be etched in his memory forever.
Sullivan, a former assistant basketball coach on Steve Howes' staff at Catholic University, is now an assistant video coordinator for the Dallas Mavericks. He was in Miami on June 12 when the Mavericks beat the Miami Heat, 105-95, to capture their first NBA World Championship.
"Somebody asked me the final score of the game like 15 or 20 minutes after it was over and I honestly had no idea," Sullivan said. "It was kind of a blur at the end. I knew we were winning but it was just so special to be a part of.
"It was a lot of fun."
Howes, watching the contest from his home in Olney, Md., said he had "chills" as the clock wound down.
"I was jumping for joy," he said. "To be associated with someone who is a world champion like that is an awesome feeling. I can only imagine what the night was like for him. I'm so thrilled for Terry. He was a great assistant at Catholic University.
"To see a guy go from a Division III staff to be an NBA world champion is a remarkable story."
Howes and Sullivan have remained close since Sullivan departed two years ago. So much so that Howes and assistant coach Eyal Fierst were guests of Sullivan's in Dallas for Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals. Miami won the third game to take a 2-1 series lead. It was the Heat's last victory.
"We commiserated with Terry after Game 3 and then caught up with him for a good, long dinner the next night," Howes said. "After that, he took us down and showed us his office. We saw Game 4 and got to celebrate with him afterwards. We were also recruiting in the area, and it was great to tell recruits that I have a former assistant who was with the Mavericks."
Howes, who will begin his eighth season as CUA's head coach with an exhibition game at the University of Florida, was attending his first NBA Finals.
"To see the world championship in the sport you coach was surreal," he said.
The Mavs will try to keep their momentum going tonight when they make their first-round selection (26th overall) in the NBA Draft.
Let's Go to the Video
Sullivan's basic job is to break down video of at least the three most-recent games of Dallas' upcoming opponents. Video break down is organized into, for example, offense, defense, end-of-game plays and tendencies certain players have. This helps the coaches formulate their scouting report and devise a winning game plan.
Sullivan also fields requests from Dallas players for things like a video of all their minutes or touches from a particular game, or highlights of an upcoming player they are likely to guard. The video crew also self-scouts the Mavericks to help them guard against becoming too predictable.
Basically, video work is a key tool for game preparation. With many NBA teams so evenly matched, the smallest thing detected on video could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
"I've also been lucky to do some work on the court here and there," Sullivan said. "Whether it's just helping out with rebounds or just passing or stepping in on a drill for a workout, or whatever. So it's not like I'm always cooped up in the video room. It's nice to be able to help out on the court a little bit, too."
He also provides occasional insight to the coaching staff.
"Am I in there helping to develop our principles and how we're going to defend certain things? No, but they do trust my basketball knowledge to be able to make decisions when it comes to giving them and the players information," Sullivan said. "So I do get to think and use the basketball information that I've learned over the years."
A Fan from the Beginning
Dallas' title-game victory added icing to an already sweet experience for Sullivan, a lifelong Mavericks' fan. His father, Kevin, or "Sully," worked for the Mavs when they started as an expansion team in 1980 and rose to vice president of communications before he left during the 1998-99 NBA lockout. He stressed that he had nothing to do with his son landing the job.
"He built his own relationships," said Kevin, who served as communications director under President George W. Bush. "Terry got this on his own."
Terry Sullivan paid his dues in a number of unpaid basketball positions before landing in Dallas. He served an athletic training internship with the Washington Wizards during the summer of 2006 and did video work in 2007-08 for the men's basketball team at Providence College. He attended the school on a full-tuition-paid President's Scholarship and graduated in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in biology.
Following his year at CUA, Sullivan was a video intern for the Los Angeles Clippers. Before landing his current position, he had interviews with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets – twice.
"He was working it really hard," Kevin said. "I knew wherever he landed, he'd do a great job."
Kevin, who now runs his own strategic communications/media training firm –Kevin Sullivan Communications, Inc. – attended the series-clinching game with his wife, Jo Anne, and Terry's brother and two sisters.
"It was a dream come true," Kevin said. "The best thing was knowing that Terry had worked so hard and did everything he could to contribute. It was a thrill to see him on the stage [during the team's on-court celebration]. He earned his spot there.
"It was a happy moment."
Timing is Everything
The Mavericks' victory, led by Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, Coach Rick Carlisle and veteran point guard Jason Kidd, punctuated the greatest campaign in Dallas' 31-year history. The team endured a number of poor seasons over the years, as well as some recent first-round playoff exits.
"This was my first year here, so it's ridiculously good timing," Terry said. "So I'm lucky and I'm spoiled, but I have some sense of appreciation for the people who have been here 30 years. To know this is their first title, and all the work they put in, the patience and the agony of some of the recent playoff defeats. I like to think that for somebody who's only been here a year that I do have a sense for what they have been through. I'm so lucky to be a part of this."
Kevin recalled the first game Terry attended – on Dallas' original home court, Reunion Arena.
"We took him, with permission from our pediatrician, to the 1986 NBA All-Star game," he said. "He was basically a month old, and my wife didn't want to miss the game. Terry lived and died with the Mavericks and never gave up. He was always a devoted fan, even during the lean years. The '80s for the Mavericks were great; the '90s not so great, with the exception of a burst of excitement during the early Jason Kidd years when the team was competitive, but not a playoff team.
"So Terry invested a lot over the years, but his timing [this past year] was very good."
The Mavs championship capped a great three-month stretch for the CUA basketball family. In March, former Cardinal Aaron Kelly returned to Washington for the NCAA Tournament as an assistant coach at Bucknell University. In May, ex-player and coach Mike Lonergan became head coach at George Washington University. John Becker, one of Howes' former assistants, then succeeded Lonergan at the University of Vermont.
What He Learned at Catholic University
Sullivan, 25, was CUA's video coordinator, assisted with administrative functions, recruited and coached during games and practices. He said he learned a lot under Howes that has helped him in Dallas.
"The stuff I learned, as far as being prepared and being organized, has nothing to do with basketball," Sullivan said. "I would say those skills that I learned on Steve's staff are huge when it comes to being ready for anything, and sometimes it doesn't have to do with basketball. Then basketball-wise, too, just being in all those meetings with him and kind of being a sponge around him soaking up all his knowledge. I still have notes from meetings that I was in with him. And all the other [assistants] too, I mean, it was a great staff.
"On the basketball side, I definitely took away more than I brought in that year."
Sullivan recalled something specific that helped him last year when he was with the Clippers.
"They had all these complicated names for these plays and then I'd take a step back and realize, 'Oh wait, that's what we did at Catholic. We just called it something different' and that made it a lot more simple," he said. "So you don't even realize some of the stuff that stays with you. They're like building blocks.
"From an experience standpoint and personal and professional growth, and just kind of learning how to carry myself as a professional and being ready for anything, I have nothing but positive things to say about my year there."
Howes remembers when he first interviewed Sullivan.
"What struck me was his honesty and his willingness to work," he said. "He was very frank about what he knew about coaching and maybe even more open about what he didn't know and wanted to learn. That was the quality that really stuck out to me. He was tremendously loyal, and the players loved having him around. He was an effective recruiter and really helped me land [rising junior] Chris Kearney with all his diligent work."
"Steve used to always say, 'I see great things in store for Terry and I hope we can keep him here as long as we can,' that sort of thing," Kevin said. "I agreed with Steve that there were big things in store for Terry, and I used to tell him, 'You're going to go down in history as the guy who gave him his chance.' That experience with Steve was just incredibly valuable and has contributed a lot, I think, to the fact that the Clippers hired Terry and then the Mavericks."
Sullivan contributed a lot to the Cardinals' success in 2008-09, which included an 18-10 record and appearances in the semifinals of the Landmark Conference Tournament and the ECAC South Region Championship.
"He was a great listener and the players loved him," Howes said. "He was a great sounding board for me because you always knew that he was hearing you out. At the same time, he also had great insight when he did speak up. He knows the game and was very eager to soak up any and all information and details.
"That was what so was so impressive. He was detail-oriented and was really passionate about it."
A Bright Future
Sullivan is more interested in moving up in an NBA front office in a player personnel capacity rather than coaching. Steps include becoming a scout and then an assistant general manager. For now, assistant video coordinator for the World Champion Dallas Mavericks has a nice ring to it.
"I'm hoping more for a basketball operations-type path," he said. "General manager is the top of the pyramid for those kind of jobs. That would be my dream job."
Chris McManes, a former Catholic University sports information director, is a public relations consultant for professional athletes, college coaches and university athletic departments.