Lisa Borders, who is midway into her second season as WNBA president, is uniquely qualified to lead the league, which started play in 1997 and brings its All-Star Game to Seattle on Saturday.
To understand why Lisa Borders advocates with the passion of a minister in her role as WNBA president, it’s best to start at the beginning.
The year she was born — in 1957 — the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her grandfather’s lawn.
“I don’t remember that because I was a baby,” Borders said. “But I have long understood the notion of people being fearful of one another because they basically didn’t understand that we are all cut from the same cloth. … So fast forward to the 21st century and me having the privilege of leading the WNBA. Women are perhaps equally disenfranchised by the culture in which we find ourselves.
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“Often misogynistic. Often dismissive. Often unequal. Often disparaging. And so I find myself walking in the shadow of my paternal grandfather, trying to lift an organization and group of people that is disenfranchised and who deserve to have their voices fully heard and fully vetted and they deserve to have equal opportunity to prosper and to thrive. It’s just that simple.”
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Borders, who is midway into her second season as WNBA president, is uniquely qualified to lead the league, which started play in 1997 and brings its All-Star Game to Seattle on Saturday.
She grew up during the 1960s in the segregated South, where racial tensions were deep rooted.
Her grandfather, the Rev. William Borders, was an influential minister at the Wheat Street Baptist Church in Atlanta and a civil-rights pioneer who worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He wasn’t Dr. King to me or to the people who worked, lived, prayed and played on Auburn Avenue,” said Borders, who celebrates her 60th birthday in November. “He was Yoki, Marty, Dexter and Bernie’s dad. Remember, when you’re a little kid, you have no context or perspective on what’s happening in the world.
“I never understood the full impact of who quote-unquote Dr. King was until I was much, much older.”
On Sundays, Borders sat in the pews of her grandfather’s church and listened to the sermons of a man who spent decades fighting to improve the condition of others.
In the 1940s, Rev. Borders was instrumental in the hiring of Atlanta’s first black police officers. In the 1950s, he led the campaign to desegregate Atlanta’s public transportation. And in the 1960s, he established the nation’s first federally subsidized, church-operated rental housing project.
Rev. Borders was also a radio host and poet who authored the poem “I Am Somebody,” which his grandchildren had to memorize and recite at family gatherings.
“My family has a rich history and I have a lot to live up to,” Borders said. “I was born into a family that had not just a social conscience, but had that intestinal fortitude to act on that conscience. What it means is that I developed sympathy and empathy at a very young age.”
In 1969, Borders learned firsthand about the hardship of activism when she was 12. She had been a straight-A student in the Atlanta Public Schools, but received a D in conduct that prompted her parents to irrevocably alter her life.
“As my mother tells the story, I was not being challenged,” Borders said. “I was completing my work early, then talking, talking and talking.”
For seventh grade, her parents enrolled her at The Westminster School, where she became one of seven African-Americans to integrate the K-12 independent Christian academy founded in 1951.
She remembers being called racial slurs and feeling socially isolated among the 1,743 students on campus.
“It was incredibly painful,” said Borders, who has spent the past 24 years on the Westminster board as its longest-serving trustee. “I was not at all accepted. … (We) were looked at as interlopers. Why were we there? We didn’t belong there from their perspective.”
Despite the challenges of being an outsider, Borders became a cheerleader, made honor roll and was elected class president in her junior year.
She excelled academically in high school and gained early admission to Duke University, where she studied chemistry.
For as long as she could remember, Borders — the oldest of four siblings — was destined for a career in medicine. Her father, who practiced internal medicine, and her aunt were two of just 100 black doctors in Georgia during the 1960s.
“I was working in father’s office when I was 10 years old,” Borders said. “I had my own little nursing uniform. He bought me the white suit. I made rounds with him. He made house calls very much like we might envision from the old television shows. I still have his medical bag in my house. It’s got his name on it.”
But at Duke, Borders learned a valuable lesson.
“I liked medicine, but I didn’t love it,” she said. “You need to love whatever you do in life.”
She graduated in 1979 with a degree in French before she eloped, moved to Boston and had a son. A few years later, the couple moved back to Atlanta and divorced.
As a single mother with a 4-year-old child, Borders earned a master’s in health administration from the University of Colorado and worked for two health-care firms before starting her own consulting firm.
Then Borders began a career in public service.
From 2004 to 2010, she served as president of the Atlanta City Council and was instrumental in 2007 in the Atlanta Dream becoming an expansion member of the WNBA, with co-female owners Mary Brock and Kelly Loeffler.
Borders suffered her biggest setback in her professional career when she ran for mayor of Atlanta in 2009 and lost.
Her mother, a homemaker who lost two public elections, gave her advice she’ll never forget: “Failure is not fatal. It’s feedback.”
“That night, I really didn’t want to hear that,” Borders said, laughing. “I was pretty inconsolable because I was focused on myself, inappropriately so. It took me three days. I was just having a pity party.
“In retrospect, as always, my mother was 1,000 percent correct. If I had been mayor in 2009, I would not have been available to accept the job at Coca-Cola.”
Borders believes her position at Coca-Cola, where she had been Vice President of Global Community Affairs, “put me on the radar at my alma mater Duke University to be invited to serve as a trustee.”
In 2015, Borders joined a class of Duke board of trustees that included NBA commissioner Adam Silver, a 1984 graduate.
That year Silver was looking for a WNBA president to replace Laurel J. Richie, who resigned. He offered the position to Borders in December and she took over in February 2016.
She became the league’s fourth president following Richie (2011-15), Donna Orender (2005-2010) and Val Ackerman (1996-2005).
“I see this as a platform to empower women,” Borders said. “Even though I had not run a sports franchise or a league, it’s a business, at the end of the day. All of the skills that I have garnered in the last four, five decades working in all three centers — public, private and nonprofit — they’re fundable, meaning they can be applied in any environment. With all the stuff I’ve learned, surely I can apply it and help support these women, support the league, help it grow, measure its progress, put it on a more accelerated trajectory to do well.”
From Auburn Avenue, to Duke University, to Atlanta boardrooms and council meetings, Borders is asked to put her life into perspective.
“I can sum it up in verse from the Book of Luke: ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’ ” she said. “I have been inordinately blessed.
“Every situation or every circumstance that I have encountered and that I have weathered and come through stronger on the other side gives me not only the opportunity, but the obligation to pay it forward.”