The NBA Playoffs tip off on April 14, and Morgan Cato ’04 ’05 is right in the thick of it.
Cato, who was honored in January as a Stony Brook “40 Under Forty” alumnus, is in her second year as director of Business Operations, League Operations for the NBA, and her sixth year in the league overall. Cato was honored in absentia, however, as she was part of the group from the league office that traveled to London to oversee the NBA London Game 2018 between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Before joining the NBA in 2013, Morgan used her Stony Brook degrees (BS in Business Management and MS in Human Resource Management) as the starting point for a human resources career that’s included work in finance, accounting and the nonprofit world.
Throughout her career, Morgan has remained engaged with her alma mater as a proud donor, serving as secretary of the Stony Brook Alumni Association and a chapter leader of the Black and Latino Alumni Network. Since joining the NBA, she’s hosted Stony Brook students at the league offices and helped an alum from the Seawolves women’s basketball team land a spot in the league’s referee training program.
What led you to pursue a degree — and a career — in human resources?
I was always good at problem-solving, and understanding the “people” perspective from it, so advocacy, connectivity, understanding where the issues lie, fans, my personal involvement in things, and I had a really good way of listening and then conveying that message. So when it came time to figure out what I thought I was going to do, I realized that I was good at “the people business,” so that was how I decided to get my master’s in human resource management. It was honestly just looking back at what I was good at: being involved in clubs and organizations, running budgets — I was an RA — any of those things. People really made sense, and that’s how I put the dots together.
Now, at the NBA, you started in HR, but you’ve made the transition into League Operations. How much of an adjustment has that been?
It’s the same core skill set that I applied on the HR side, but now I’m applying it to basketball, which has always been a passion for me. I spend a lot of time problem-solving and strategizing on how to continue making this the best game it can be, globally. To do that, I spend a lot of time working with our people and our resources: what we need on the ground to keep things going, and how people interact on the court. For example, I spend a lot of time working in our officiating space, and how we enhance communication, perception, and decorum amongst players and officials. That’s primarily a communication challenge. It’s a similar skill set, just making it primarily tangible to the game itself, as opposed to the business.
What does a “typical” day on the job look like for you? Is there such a thing?
There is no typical day, but the type of work may be similar depending on where we are in the season. For example, the summer season is a lot of strategizing, collaboration, and meeting with teams on different initiatives that we ramp up for the season. Once we get into the season, we spend a lot of time on troubleshooting and triage for what’s going on with the game. Then, coming out of the season, we go into the WNBA season, so there are similar issues in the training, development, ramp-up, etc. It’s the same type of style; it just applies to different areas of the business.
In the course of your job, how often would you say you have a moment where you want to take a step back and say, “Wow, that just happened?” What have some of those moments been?
I think the most surreal moment for me, when I took that step back, was coming out of our NBA Africa initiative last August. That was probably one of my more recent “Wow” moments. Essentially, we continued expanding on what basketball means to the continent, so we did everything from building homes to different business strategy and communication circuits, to bringing our NBA players to the continent to play for the fans there.
We take this game for granted, that we have so much access to it, and you’re dealing with regions that are still trying to determine consistent communication and distribution channels that we have at our fingertips. When you go into a community, and you are literally bricklaying, bit by bit, to build someone’s home, that’s really a “Wow” moment. I walk in and out of my house and don’t think twice about it, so that was really one of my moments where I had to step back and think about it. And everyone was involved in it, from the most marquee player on the trip down to the most junior staff member, we were all there, being part of it, working with the local villagers. It was a great experience to help.
I can span the spectrum on those moments. It can be anything from the impact of our All-Star engagement, and the work that we do in the community there, to attending last year’s Games 3 and 4 of the Finals to just recently meeting with inner-city kids from the south side of Chicago, who are just trying to figure out how to get out of high school and into college without losing their lives, helping them understand how this game can impact their lives, but also, how to keep striving, and that anything and everything is attainable if they want to do it. Moments like that keep me grounded.
Speaking of those kids you met with, it seems like the NBA has been a lot more open than some leagues to the players using their platform to speak on those kinds of issues, even though there have been some snags in figuring those things out. What have some of the challenges been in that, in figuring out what the league is comfortable with in terms of supporting the players and also managing the business concerns?
We’re all living in a social and political climate that I think is foreign to everyone, and we’re all trying to figure that out. Even stepping outside the NBA, I think people in other industries are just trying to do the same, and what that impact means, but we are a league that does our best to partner with our players on the things that mean the most to them. So, when we have situations like that, it takes a collective partnership to figure out how we help them to use their platforms in conjunction with what we’re looking to comply with. It’s an art; it’s not a science. You really need to work through the relationship aspect to do that.
Which brings it back to your HR experience, and connecting with people.
Yes. For example, we recently had the Stephon Clark shooting in Sacramento, and the perspective that the Kings took about being passionate around helping the community with that. That’s a perfect example of how we use this game to impact lives and help as much as we can. A lot of that is about messaging and advocacy, to a degree, but our players are bigger than basketball, and that’s just another example of where we see it. We try to partner as much as we can to try to figure out how to continue doing the right thing for most.
You’re working in League Operations at a time when the league operations are changing: the commissioner is talking about reorganizing the playoffs, the league schedule has been adjusted to give players more rest, and there always seems to be some sort of change under discussion. How much involvement do you have in that in your role?
It’s a collaborative approach. It’s the league — and I’m included in that part — and how we interface with teams to reach those solutions. Those solutions don’t come solely out of the league office, per se. A lot of it is committee meetings, collaborating with team management: presidents, GMs, etc. We do play an integral role in that. My role, specifically, is that as we’re doing the strategizing, pulling things together, the resources needed, I’m working closely with all of that. Am I the person saying, “Well, this is what we do?” I don’t think there’s any one person that says that, but I am involved in all of it.
Now, through it all, you’ve stayed very involved with Stony Brook. Is there anything in particular that happened during your time here that’s made it so important for you to maintain that connection?
I have to say that the relationships that I’ve been able to sustain have really been life-changing. The majority of my intimate friends — we coined the phrase “framily” — are from Stony Brook. My godkids are children of Stony Brook alumni. Being in the trenches and trying to figure things out, all the life lessons that I took away from my time there have really been instrumental to the woman, the professional, the family member that I am now. I didn’t realize it, I think, going through, but coming out, I realized just how important my time was there, so I want to help as much as I can, so that someone after me will have the same opportunity to build the relationships and have the success in their lives that they deem appropriate for themselves.
Overall, what are some of your favorite Stony Brook memories?
It was really the clubs and the organizations and the work that we did coming out of those. We found out who we were as professionals, as individuals, as adults. We all came out of our parents’ homes and knew as much as any 16, 17, 18-year-old would know, but we became adults during that time, between the parties, the fashion shows…I remember being an RA and having a young woman who was having a significant amount of trauma at home cry in my arms on the hallway floor. I remember sitting there and going through budgets with the student government and not really knowing how to do that. I remember working with the local police department on fire codes and regulations to do a fashion show, and working with DJs from the New York City area. All of those different experiences really impacted life for me. I remember the challenging points of how do I, as a New York City kid, get through Psych 101 where there are 400 students? There’s no roadmap on how to do that, and you don’t know what you’re going into until you’re there, so the relationships I built helped me survive those moments, helped me get through and graduate.
Last month, Jameel Warney ’16 became the first Stony Brook alum to play in the NBA, and played for the Dallas Mavericks in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks. Did you get to that game, or have any other opportunity to congratulate Jameel, from one Seawolf to another?
I did get to the game against the Knicks, and the Nets game where he was on the bench. I didn’t get to congratulate him at that time — I haven’t spoken to him this season — but the last time we talked was at one of the Stars of Stony Brook Galas, as he was coming out of winning the America East Conference and making that transition around navigating into the Mavericks organization. It was probably one of the more in-depth conversations we’ve had. He’s been doing pretty well, and we have arms and hands around him giving him support in Texas.
Five years in at the NBA, what do you think the future holds for you?
I am consciously not forecasting that. I say that because I’ve learned not to put boundaries on myself and limit myself from different opportunities. I want to continue working close to the game, impacting the game all around, so I’m going to leave the doors wide open and let the opportunity come to me. I got this opportunity because I was open-minded: coming onto the basketball side of the business wasn’t an intentional plan. I didn’t strategically map it out, and go and look for it; the work I was doing allowed me to just move gradually over to this side of the business. When the opportunity presented itself — I have a skill set that is beneficial in this space — it took me some time to say, “OK, can I do it?” As a woman working in sports, you’re not always sure of what comes next. As someone who didn’t play basketball professionally — although I played as much as I could coming up as a kid, I was conscious of who I was competing against, or who I had to work with, or even being acceptable, and I think those are just consistent questions that a woman in this environment would have to ask herself. It was an opportunity that I had to take advantage of, but I did not plan it, and if I had been narrow, and tried to pursue a specific path, then I would have missed out on this great opportunity to be so close to the game. So, I’m going to do my best to not forecast, but go where the game will allow me to go.
— Elliot Olshansky