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Cynt Marshall, the NBA’s first Black female CEO, recounts her journey in a new memoir

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    Cynt Marshall, the NBA’s first Black female CEO, recounts her journey in a new memoir NPR

Updated September 13, 2022 at 1:48 PM ET
Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynt Marshall speaks at the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit at The Mirage Hotel & Casino in 2019.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Cynt Marshall is a business titan, people person, cancer survivor, devout Christian and history maker, among many other things.

In 2018, after nearly four decades in leadership at AT&T, she became the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks — and the first Black woman CEO in NBA history. But that journey wasn’t without its challenges.

Marshall grew up in a public housing project, with an abusive father who once broke her nose when she was a teenager. She suffered four second-trimester miscarriages and the death of her six-month-old baby (she later adopted four children). And she went through a dozen rounds of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer — “one lymph node away from Stage 4” — just over a decade ago.

It was that experience that first motivated her to share her story with others.

“I started this book mission for the sole purpose of publishing my chemo journal,” she says. “When I was going through chemo, I used the CaringBridge site and I published an update every round of chemo. So 12 rounds of chemo. And over the years people have asked me to send that to different people because they just found it inspirational, they found it informative. Because of course, as you know, I just tell the good, the great, the bad and the ugly.”

As Marshall set out to turn that diary into a book, she also began to reflect on the other life experiences that had shaped her outlook and, in particular, her optimism. The end result is her new memoir, You’ve Been Chosen: Thriving Through the Unexpected.

And Marshall herself is an open book, as she tells Morning Edition‘s A Martínez.

“If it comes to my business, I will talk about it because I believe the Lord has given me a very special journey,” she says. “And I’m willing to share with people for the hopes of inspiring them and encouraging them along their journeys.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Interview highlights


On what Marshall wants new colleagues to know about her

I’d like them to know that I was raised in a public housing project. I’d like them to know that my parents came from Birmingham, Ala., and that’s where I was born, so the civil rights movement is very much a part of my history. I’d like them to understand I am a Christian woman. And sometimes when people think I should respond a certain way, I’m trying to be patient and pray about things.

On why she finds personal stories so important in her career

I had been asked to take out my braids or tone down some of the things that I say, especially some of my words, like “blessed,” et cetera. It got to the point where I had to just let people know kind of who I am. And I especially do it now, sometimes as I’ve climbed up the ladder and had people talk to me a certain way, I had to let them know that my father used a bad tone all the time. I don’t respond to yelling and screaming. I just like people to know who I am because it just helps them understand how to relate to me. And in turn, I like to know who they are too, so I can know how to relate to them. I just think that’s important in relationships.

On how her abusive father shaped who she is today

It gave me a lot of faith. When I look at what my mother went through and then, of course, what some of us went through. I look back at it and I’m very grateful … first of all, that she ended up leaving. But I’m also very thankful that she showed us what resilience looks like. She showed us how to really thrive through the unexpected. And so that’s what I have taken from all of that.

On setting and accomplishing career goals

My father made some predictions about the future of my life for me and my younger sister. And so I was definitely determined to keep doing what my mother told me to do and keep my head in the books that she put in front of me.

He said we would be hookers on the street without him. And I knew that was not going to happen. I responded right then to my sister that that’s not going to happen, that we were going to go to college and graduate and we were going to help my mom get out of the projects … and that I would be the president of something one day. And so when I ended up being the president of AT&T North Carolina, that was a dream come true.

On maintaining her faith through all of the challenges

I often say sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train. I mean, sometimes it really is a train. Something is coming to roll you over, but the Lord is always there and He shows up faithful and He always shows up and He always has great people to show up in my life.

On how she interprets the book’s title

Everything I’ve gone through in my life, I think it was just a set-up for the next phase of my life. It was a set-up to help me get through adversity the next time or a set-up to help me achieve great things with people the next time. I don’t think anything happens just arbitrarily. I believe that the Lord has chosen me to be in every particular situation that I’ve been in in my life. And I think He’s also chosen other people to show up for me and to be there with me. So I think we’re all chosen for our journeys and we’re all chosen to help other people on their journeys.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Cynt Marshall is a business titan. She led AT&T’s North Carolina operations for years before joining the NBA as CEO of the Dallas Mavericks. There are certain things she always wants new colleagues to know about her history.

CYNT MARSHALL: I like them to know that I was raised in a public housing project. I like them to know that my parents came from Birmingham, Ala. And that’s where I was born. So the civil rights movement is very much a part of my history. I like them to understand I am a Christian woman. And sometimes, when people think I should respond a certain way, I’m trying to be patient and pray about things.

MARTINEZ: As you heard there, her faith is her compass. In a new memoir called “You’ve Been Chosen,” she shares how she turned to adoption after multiple miscarriages and losing a newborn in the early months of life. She also discusses surviving colon cancer, her rise in corporate America and other personal stories that shape who she is today.

MARSHALL: I had been asked to take out my braids or tone down some of the things that I say, especially some of my words, like blessed, etc. It got to the point where I had to just let people know kind of who I am. And I especially do it now sometimes as I’ve climbed up the ladder and had people talk to me a certain way. I had to let them know, you know, that my father used a bad tone all the time. I don’t respond to yelling and screaming. I just like people to know who I am because it just helps them understand how to relate to me. And in turn, I like to know who they are, too.

MARTINEZ: Well, you wrote a book, Cynt. But you are an open book, it sounds like to me.

MARSHALL: Oh, I’m definitely an open book. I mean, I will talk about just about anything unless it’s…

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

MARSHALL: …Unless you’re asking me to tell somebody else’s business.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

MARSHALL: But if it comes to my business, I will talk about it because I believe the Lord has given me a very special journey. And I’m willing to share it with people for the hopes of, you know, inspiring them and encouraging them along their journeys.

MARTINEZ: You mentioned your father, how abusive he was. I mean, he broke your nose when you were a teenager. And, I think, sometimes when we look at the road map of people and their lives and how one thing maybe informs another, how do you think that set the foundation for who you became?

MARSHALL: It gave me a lot of faith. When I look at what my mother went through and then, of course, what some of us went through, I look back at it and I’m very grateful that she had – first of all, that she ended up leaving. But I’m also very thankful that she showed us what resilience looks like. She showed us how to really thrive through the unexpected. And so that’s what I have taken from all of that. I was very determined. My father made some predictions about the future of my life for me and my younger sister. And so I was definitely determined to keep doing what my mother told me to do and keep my head in the books that she put in front of me.

MARTINEZ: Well, Cynt, let’s just say what he predicted. I mean, he predicted that you and your sister would be prostitutes without him.

MARSHALL: Yeah. He said we would be hookers on the street without him. And I knew that was not going to happen. I was – I responded right then to my sister that that’s not going to happen, that we were going to go to college and graduate. And we were going to help my mom get out of the projects, which she did not need any help. My mother worked two and three jobs, very hard-working woman. But I just wanted to be a part of helping her – and that I would be the president of something one day. And so when I ended up being the president of AT&T North Carolina, that was, you know, a dream come true.

MARTINEZ: Cynt, you had a major disruption in your life when you were diagnosed with colon cancer. Would you tell us about that?

MARSHALL: Yes. I got diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer at the end of 2010, so one lymph node away from Stage 4. And I ended up having to have chemotherapy. And it was just brutal. And so my sister-in-law, Phyllis, had told me – she says, let me give you some advice right now. And she says, you’re probably going to lose all your hair. Just go ahead and just get it cut out. And so I got my hair cut off. So I got, like, a teeny-weeny afro, because with the colon cancer cocktail, you don’t lose – at least most people don’t lose all of their hair, but you lose most of it. And I just said – and I asked the doctor about it. I said, great. So I don’t have to go bald. I’m just going to shave most of it off. And I am literally watching all of my thick, black hair just land on the floor. And so they kept asking me if I was OK. And I said, yeah. I’m OK. I’m OK.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter) Now, at the start of some of the chapters in your book, you include what appear to be updates that you wrote and sent about your cancer journey. They start off with greetings from the chemo clubhouse. Why were these important for you to include in the book?

MARSHALL: I started this book mission for the sole purpose of publishing my chemo journal. When I was going through chemo, I used the CaringBridge site. And I published an update every round of chemo – so 12 rounds of chemo. And over the years, people have asked me to send that to different people because they just found it inspirational. They found it informative because, of course, as you know, I just tell the good, the great, the bad and the ugly.

MARTINEZ: For anyone that remembers Bible study or anyone that still reads the Bible regularly, I think it’s fair to compare your story to the book of Job in the Old Testament. It’s like an exploration of why God allows bad things to happen, especially to good people. Cynt, I mean…

MARSHALL: (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: How often have you just looked up in the heavens and just asked, why me, God?

MARSHALL: I tell you, it’s funny you say that because sometimes when I post a picture of my four children, I’ll talk about Special K. Her birthday is February the 2nd. And I will talk about how the Lord ended up taking her away from me. But then He gave us the first two that we adopted. And then we ended up with others. And I will end up saying, Job got double for his trouble, I got quadruple for my trouble. And Job also said in the Scripture, though he slay me, yet will I trust him. And that’s one of my favorite Scriptures because things do happen. I often say, sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is a train.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

MARSHALL: I mean, sometimes it really is a train. Something is coming to roll you over. But the Lord is always there. And He shows up faithful. And He always shows up. And He always has great people to show up in my life.

MARTINEZ: Cynt, I want to ask you one last thing, because the name of your book is “You’ve Been Chosen.” So considering everything you’ve overcome and everything you have accomplished, in what way do you think you were chosen?

MARSHALL: Everything I’ve gone through in my life, I think it was just a setup for the next phase of my life. It was a setup to help me get through adversity the next time or a setup to help me achieve great things with people the next time. I don’t think anything happens just arbitrarily. I believe that the Lord has chosen me to be in every particular situation that I’ve been in in my life.

MARTINEZ: That’s Cynt Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks. Her new book is called “You’ve Been Chosen: Thriving Through The Unexpected.” Cynt, thank you very much.

MARSHALL: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN AND THE BAD PLUS’ “SILENCE IS THE QUESTION”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Written by: NPR

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