Former Dallas Mavericks PR person reflects on career that took him from Dallas to the White House
Dallas Morning News / April 27, 2013
There has not been a more respected sports public relations type in this market than Kevin Sullivan, who spent 18 seasons with the Mavericks.
Sully arrived at the birth of the franchise in 1980 as a wet-behind-the-ears assistant from Purdue and left a grizzled veteran after Donald Carter sold the team to Ross Perot in 1996.
His subsequent career path has been storybook. From a a brief stint at Dallas 2012, which unsuccessfully tried to woo the Summer Olympics to North Texas, he moved to New York where he served as NBC Sports’ public relations boss. That eventually triggered a move upstairs to head up the public relations effort of the entire NBC network.
At the start of President George W. Bush’s second term in 2005, a mutual friend from Dallas, lawyer Tom Luce, persuaded Sully to leave NBC to join the U.S. Department of Education as assistant secretary for communications and outreach. Some 13 months after Congress approved his appointment, he moved to the White House as Bush’s director of communications in July 2006.
“I have had three once-in-a-lifetime jobs — the Mavericks, NBC and White House,” Sully said in an interview while in town this week for the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. “I have been blessed beyond belief.”
Sully and wife Jo Anne, the parents of five, now live in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he runs Kevin Sullivan Communications, which specializes in message development and crisis management.
How did you get to Washington?
Tom Luce, President Bush’s friend, was a mentor of Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. She wanted someone from outside the Beltway to help convey her message. She convinced me at a breakfast meeting to leave 30 Rock for what was a temporary job at Federal Building No. 6. It was like, “This is your government calling. You have to do it.”
And how did you get across town to the White House?
When the opening came at the White House I had nine interviews, culminating with the one in the Oval Office. The president opened by saying he knew about my previous jobs. His first question was “Where are you from?” I said, “Chicago, White Sox not Cubs.” He laughed. His background was in the American League. He was a friend of White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. We talked sports a lot in the next 21/2 years.
What did you learn most from Donald Carter with the Mavericks, Dick Ebersol at NBC and President Bush at the White House?
Mr. C always said, “If you have an opportunity to do something for someone they will remember for the rest of their life, don’t hesitate to do it.”
Dick Ebersol taught me not to issue a standard press release but think like a television producer. He wanted me to tell stories same as he did.
President Bush created a family-friendly workplace. Wives and children were welcome. Not a month goes by when The History Channel doesn’t show its documentary about Air Force One and someone calls to tell me they’ve seen me in it. I’m in a staged scene handing the president some documents at his desk. I was trying to stay out of the shot, but he wanted me in it so my family could see it. He knew what it would mean to my wife and children in later years. He was right.
Memorable moments at each stop?
In 1994, Jason Kidd came to me and my assistant, Tony Fay, to ask what he had to do to win the Rookie of the Year award. It triggered the most fun we had in the 1990s. He did everything we asked. He did every interview. With that and all of his triple-doubles, he ended up sharing the award with his good friend Grant Hill.
At NBC, the golf crew was tremendous to deal with. At the Olympics, Mary Carillo was a quote machine. Bob Costas, the smartest guy in the business, was always interesting to talk to.
When I got to the White House, in many ways it was from another world. Tony Snow and Karl Rove went out of their ways to make me feel accepted and trusted. On my first day, Tony walked me out to the gate on the North Lawn and told me to look back at the White House. He said, “This is where we get to work. How great is that?” He went on to say when he worked there as a speechwriter for 41, he was too young to appreciate it. He reminded me never to take it for granted and always be grateful, putting our service at the forefront.