Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks.
Michael Jordan, Charlotte Hornets.
Jerry Buss, Los Angeles Lakers.
Kimberly Meadows Clark, Magic City Surge?
Clark may not yet have the same deep pockets as other famous NBA team owners, but the Alabama sports entrepreneur is definitely making a name for herself in the arena of professional basketball ownership.
Her family nicknamed her “SportsBae” for her business savvy nature. Although
Clark has never played or coached organized sports, her calling has been building up a basketball team and league rooted in community - and making history while doing so.
In June, Clark and her business partner, Kevin Williams Sr., launched the HBCU Basketball Association – the nation’s first professional basketball league solely for athletes who attended HBCUs. Advertised as the “NBA of HBCUs,” the league aims to showcase players often overlooked in the highest levels of basketball. And Williams believes Clark has the character to lead this dream as league president.
“Kimberly is one of the best business minds in professional sports,” Williams said. “She brings a passion to the league that I believe will be unmatched. She is the right woman to lead the HBCUBA into the future.”
This is happening five years after Clark purchased the Magic City Surge in Birmingham, Ala., making her the first Black woman in Alabama to own a professional sports team. So launching and leading the HBCUBA is the latest chapter for Clark, who has worked to define her own destiny since having a daughter at age 16.
During those years, Clark ignored the stereotypes people pinned on her for being a Black, single parent. Instead, she focused on carving out space in a predominantly male field for the benefit of her daughters and other women.
“There’s not too many women doing what I do as far as leadership,” she said. “I’m not waiting on a higher up to put me in a position. I’m creating those positions in those spaces for myself, for those people around me and other women. Yes, it’s more stressful. It’s definitely terrifying, but I am a woman of faith and that keeps me grounded.”
Everything falls into place when it’s fate
Clark hadn’t thought about owning a basketball team before purchasing the Surge in 2017.But her community service work put her on a path to ownership. At the time, she was a case manager and community outreach coordinator at a Birmingham homeless shelter called Firehouse Ministries. Clark assisted with the influx of boys aging out of the foster care system by guiding the young men through the next phase of their lives. She asked them about their aspirations and helped them enroll in college or trade school.
She recalls one teen who wanted to play in the NBA and resisted all of Clark’s attempts to steer him towards school.
“He had it together, honey. He was telling me how he was gonna get there,” Clark said. “I was like, okay, how about we start off small with semi professional basketball? I figured that will let him see if he really wanted to pursue a career.”
So she reached out to the then-owner of the Birmingham Blitz, part of the American Basketball Association, a re-launch of a historic professional league that left its mark on the sport after it was established in 1967, to get the teen a tryout.
She ended up buying the team.
With little time to spare before the start of the season, Clark got to work with the daunting tasks of overhauling the team’s branding, including changing the name to the Magic City Surge, and creating a budget supported by Clark’s nonprofit income and her husband’s job at a water service company.
Clark put her networking and deal-making superpowers to work. One friend helped with uniforms. A graphic artist worked for a discount. She solicited sponsors and community partners.
“‘I’m so grateful I had fostered relationships in the past, so when I reached out (to) people, they were like, ‘What you need, Kim? I’ll do this and that for free, and from now on it will be this much,’” Clark said. “Everything just fell into place.”
Being a servant leader
Clark’s north star remained building a community-centered team made up of players who are from the community they served.
She noted the stories of talented basketball players whose professional careers were sometimes derailed by the unpredictabilities of life.
Clark said leagues like the ABA offer players a second chance. Building on her work at the Birmingham shelter, she brought in social workers and financial advisors to empower players after they got off the court.
“I was like, ‘OK, God, so you’re telling me I can still be a servant-leader even while doing this?” Clark said. “It’s hard for people to move forward or be as successful as they could be if they don’t live out their dreams. Living out your dream can lead to your purpose. So that’s kind of how we set up the Surge. We didn’t just focus on the player on the court. We focused on the whole athlete.”
Javier McKinney was one of them. Playing for the Tuskegee University Golden Tigers, McKinney’s accolades included winning freshman of the year, team MVP, becoming a three-time Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion and Division II All-American who had contracts to play professionally.
But after an arrest during his senior year, McKinney spent a month in jail and missed his graduation ceremony. Around the same time, his mother became ill and he returned to Birmingham to take care of her. Without a career backup plan, he worked at his brother-in-law’s cleaning business and slipped into depression about missing his opportunity to go pro.
McKinney joined a local men’s league with friends, where his skills caught Clark’s eye and she encouraged him to try out for the team.
“It was just her genuine care about her players that attracted me to go play for the Surge,” McKinney said. “I’ve played for some coaches who were all about making themselves look good. But Kim was a players-first-owner.”
McKinney describes the Surge’s first game as magical. Cheers filled the high school gymnasium that was filled nearly to capacity. McKinney felt euphoric to have friends and family watch him play again. McKinney felt like he and the Surge won more than a game that night.
“I was like, ‘Wow I’m back.’ Kim actually gave me another chance to do what I love,” McKinney said. “I felt like I won the championship. We put a stamp on the city. We’re here to stay.”
That feeling has remained during his five years with the team, where he is also involved in community service projects like visiting schools and reading to children. Now a father of two and an uncle, he credits Clark for giving him the confidence to be transparent to kids about his past so they learn not to go down the same path.
“She always told me don’t let my past be my future,” McKinney said. “Use your past as a testimony to make sure my kids know right from wrong. She wanted other kids in the neighborhood to know that no matter what you’ve been through, you can always overcome it and still live out your lifelong dream.”
The pandemic has put the Surge on hiatus since March 2020, but McKinney is still balling. This time with the Birmingham Outlaws, a professional team under the Triple Threat Basketball League. Although the Surge is Clark’s baby, she encouraged her players to be open to other opportunities, including playing overseas, in town or off the basketball court all together. Some of her players have pursued college degrees.
Clark said it’s nice to see the guys no longer wonder what if they had the chance to play. Now they can think about what comes next, she said.
“This catapulted a lot of these guys into careers as athletic directors, head coaches, trainers, computer analysts, computer engineers. So everybody started off with a dream of playing basketball, but in that process they found their purpose.”
Don’t overlook the remote
Although Clark had the respect of her team, navigating the male dominated sport as a Black woman taught her to command respect from men.
“When you’re a woman, men feel like they can just say anything to you,” Clark said. “I’m like, ‘No, you’re not going to talk to me like that. We will have an adult conversation.”
The disrespect towards Black women in sports irritates Clarks, but invisibility hurts just as much. Clark believes she is being ignored by sponsors despite her being in a historic position. She admits to feeling left out when other sports teams, like the NBA G League’s Birmingham Squadron, take root in her city and get fanfare she hasn’t received.
“You’re the only one in this space, and you’re overlooked,” Clark said. “It’s kind of like you’re looking for the (TV) remote, but it’s right there and nothing else is around it.”
Clark said she uses those moments to fuel her energy to fight harder. She made sure to vent to the right people and asked sports commissioners in other states why she was struggling to get sponsors. Their answer: She needed to find a way to create more economic impact in the city. More people needed to be eating at Birmingham restaurants, visiting the cities’ businesses and staying at the hotels.
Clark believes the next phase of the Surge will help with that issue in 2023. She pulled the team out of the ABA because she feels her players have outgrown the league and are ready for bigger horizons. She said they have been given opportunities to play overseas, which would lure more international teams, thus expanding the Surge’s economic footprint.
But Clark wants to make one thing clear: she will never lose focus on the community and will always be on the lookout for other underdogs like her.
“I want to make sure I don’t lose sight of what this is all about,” Clark said. “I don’t want to ever be the person who overlooks the remote.”
A place for HBCU pride
For years, Clark and her business partner Kevin Williams Sr. bounced around the idea of creating a league for HBCU athletes. After mulling options, including creating a team as part of the ABA, a friend suggested they start their own league.
Managing a team was hard enough; league would be a massive undertaking, she thought.
But then she considered the HBCU alumni who, like her, are being overlooked. Of 450 NBA players, Robert Covington of the Los Angeles Clippers is the lone HBCU alum in the league. No HBCU player has been drafted into the NBA in a decade despite the league’s efforts to strengthen its relationship with HBCUs.
Clark and Williams got to work and in June launched the HBCU Basketball Association as place where HBCU players have a place to feel seen, unlike with the NBA.
“We’re not their market. We’re not what they’re going for immediately. They’re not going to (Alabama) A&M before they go to Duke,” Kimberly said. “So we’re gonna create the space. We’re creating the menu. We’re cooking the food. We’re setting the table and you just come down, sit down and eat with us.”
The HBCUBA league’s inaugural season starts Spring 2023 with six teams in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Georgia. The draft takes place in February and the season will kickoff in Alabama in April and end in Miami in June.
The games will be like homecoming on steroids. All six teams will converge at an HBCU in each state for a weekend full of triple headers. The week leading up to the games, the league will be connecting with the community by hosting tailgating events, step shows, alumni mixers, college and career fairs and other events.
Creating a better league for HBCU athletes to go pro is just part of the HBCUBA’s mission. They also want to strengthen the school-to-HBCU pipeline by visiting schools. Clark said her daughter has been wearing HBCU apparel for college day ever since she was in elementary school.
Although the focus is basketball, Clark said the HBCUBA will change the culture.
“It’s all about educating and helping everyone understand our culture and how important it is,” Clark said “We’re just trying to make sure that not a set amount of people get an opportunity. There should be opportunity for everyone.”
So far, 36 players have committed to the draft, McKinney one of them. He said witnessing Clark go from building a team to building a league changed the way he sees women in leadership.
“I have always seen men leading the charge, but when I saw a woman who isn’t scared to stand up to the men and actually live by her purpose, that was different for me,” McKinney said. “It made me have a lot more respect for women on the business and job side of basketball.”