Ted Leonsis (CEO Washington Wizards)

Interview from June 15, 2011

Etan Thomas: You come from a Greek background. How much did your parents teach you about your heritage and your culture growing up?

Ted Leonsis: I was the only child of a very lower class to middle class family. Neither my mother or father actually went to college. My dad did not graduate from high school. He was a Greek immigrant. They both were very hard working people. My father was a waiter and my mother was a secretary. They focused on hard work and the ability to create an environment where the next generation would do better than the previous generation. So while they both worked hard physical labor, and would take subways to get to work etc. I do remember spending lots of quality time with both my mother and my father. And most of it was around homework or sports. They believed that an education was the most vital deliverable that a parent could provide. And my father also believed that competition and teamwork was not only a way to burn off the hours that you weren’t putting into schoolwork but also a very healthy way to achieve balance in your life.

Etan Thomas: Thats great. Now, you do a lot of work in the community which is something that I have always admired about you. Did your parents give you that sense of giving back and caring about those less fortunate and your community etc?

Ted Leonsis: I would say the opposite. I was a recipient of people mentoring me. And as a little kid growing up, I would be involved in various different endeavors that charities or  philanthropists supported. They always touched me positively. I remember my dad getting me involved in various church basketball leagues. And I would note that it would be sponsored by some local Greek owned bakery or something. And there were a lot of scholarship programs that were available and I needed all of the help i could get coming to college. So mentors played such a big part of my life. So when I got the chance to give back it was kind of settling a debt because it was the right thing to do. My mom and dad would volunteer the financial resources to these philanthropists. One of my first memories in life was walking up and down with my dad raising money for the muscular dystrophy program where you had these little cards, and you would meet people and ask them for fifty cents as a donation, or a dime or a nickel or a penny and you would fill out these cards and you would drop them off for one of the muscular dystrophy charities. I remember that this was a real nice neighborhood kind of effort. And it was a small way that my father taught me how to give back.

Etan Thomas: That leads to my next question, the Hoops Dream film that you did. I thought that was absolutely wonderful, so for the people who are not familiar, explain what that program was and what your motivation was to do this.

Ted Leonsis: There are lots of charities that I have gotten involved with that center around education. To me, education is the great leveler for any young man or woman to be able to build a life based around their eight hours or a third of their day that they would spend having to make money, and education is a driver for that. But also, education is a way to teach you how to think critically. It teaches you how to open your eyes to the possibility of the world. How to think through things for your community. How to think through things politically. All of that starts with a very good education. It is still amazing to me that we see the indicators, that a big predictor of poverty is not graduating from high school, not getting a college degree. So, we want everyone to get a college education and the best education available. Here in Washington, its truly amazing that 39% of the students that graduate from Ward 7 and Ward 8 actually go to college. We all have worked tirelessly with programs for mentoring and scholarships, in fact, if you graduate from Ward 7 or Ward 8, there is money to pay for your entire college education, intern programs for the summer, money available to come home and see your parents or your siblings. We are doing everything in our power to get that graduation rate up over 39%.

Hoop Dreams was a program that was about scholarships, but also about working with these young adults to get them into the college of their choice. So I mentored a young man who was a junior in high school. He had perfect attendance. He tried to take control of his world through attendance. He never met his father and was just lacking a father figure in his life. His name is Michael Hendrickson, and I met Michael and we got to work. The first thing I did was I bought a lap top computer and set him up on instant messaging, and made him everyday send me an e mail on what he was going to accomplish today. And at the end of the day, send me an e mail on what he didn’t accomplish and why didn’t he accomplish it. What were the impediments for the mishap and how he planned to get over that. We started to create this cadence of communicating back and forth. We worked very hard on the college applications together and filling out all of the necessary forms. He got into Hampton University. His first year was a struggle. I thought he was going to drop out on two separate occasions. I worked very very closely with him to get over some of the issues he was having with some of his family, and some of the issues he was having academically. He continued to communicate with me on an ongoing basis, and we would meet twice a month and i’m proud to say that he graduated. We still communicate regularly. In fact, he just sent me an e mail twenty minutes ago. He has become somewhat of a surrogate son to me. And I like a surrogate father to him. I have become a mentor to him and Michael and I will remain close. I have watched how he has become a contributor to his community to society and he has a great career and he came from the meanest street. He had no father figure in his home, but he has managed to beat the odds and live a rich and fulfilling life. It took a little bit of time on my end but the return has been magnificent. I am very proud of Michael and his story is something I use as an example with other people that by spending just a little bit of time, you can help enrich somebody’s life and have a tremendous positive impact on their life as a whole.

Etan Thomas: That is a great story. One more question. Since this project is geared toward fatherhood, and since I have actually ran into you on vacation with your kids, do you remember that?

Ted Leonsis: Of course I do Etan, it was in Vegas only a few years ago. My memory is not that bad (laughing)

Etan Thomas: Ok, my bad. No offense (laughing) Can you share how important your kids are in your life. You have accomplished so much. Can you just discuss how important being a father is in the whole grand scheme of everything.

Ted Leonsis: I believe that the greatest compliment I have received are not about how your teams are performing, or how much wealth you have accumulated, or how many jobs you have created, or the companies you have created. Its when someone says hey I met your son and he is just a terrific young man and you should be really really proud. Or when my daughter is going to Georgetown University, thats where I graduated from, I’m on the board of directors. And people will tell me I met your daughter and how hard she is working in school and that she is a lovely young woman etc. I do think that if you’re consistent, and you spend the quality time with your children, they do reflect a lot of your values. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If you are a good parent, the outcomes are self evident. I do it obviously because I love my children. I was born into a environment where loving parents were considered a given. But I also think its our biggest responsibility as a human being. You’ll be judged at the end of day by how close and how connected you are to your children. To me thats job number one. Priority number one. Being a great dad being a great husband are vitally important to me.