The Miami Heat’s off-the-court identity is thanks to this guy

Michael McCullough doesn’t like to brag.

It’s not that he’s shy — he’s just humble. But after the man deemed the “brand architect” of the Miami Heat recently crafted a presentation centered on a crucial part of American history, it’s worth giving credit where credit is due.

“We have a duty and an obligation to those fans who have supported us since 1988,” the Heat’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer told the Miami Herald ahead of the Feb. 7 celebration. “Part of that responsibility is to use that platform that we’ve been given to speak up, support and reflect Miami.”

Odds are, the Heat — or really any professional team for that matter — wouldn’t have produced a special honoring the 162 Black incorporators of the city of Miami if McCullough wasn’t at the helm. With the Heat, however, McCullough has redefined how a team can engage with its fans. Just take a look at his resume. The Heat’s “White Hot” playoff campaign? McCullough. The popular “Vice” uniforms? McCullough. The design of the Heat’s three championship rings? McCullough.

“I wanted the Heat to be as unique on our side as they are on the basketball side,” said McCullough who joined the franchise in 1998. “Everything that I’ve tried to do since I got here was to make sure that we created an identity and a brand for the Miami Heat.”

The fact that he even is in a position to do so is a testament to his upbringing, ingenuity and passion for the game. but also the NBA’s commitment to diversity, something the NBA excels at in comparison to other men’s professional sports leagues.

The NBA is “the only league that doesn’t need some form of Rooney Rule because they were just doing it,” said Richard Lapchick, the founder of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport which produces a yearly Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) that analyzes hiring practices across many American sports leagues, both collegiate and professional. The 2023 iteration of the RGRC awarded the NBA B+ for its racial hiring in the C-Suite, or the executive-level managers of which McCullough is a part of, due to 30 percent of the workforce being made up of people of color, a yearly increase from 26.7%.

That’s because when David Stern became NBA commissioner in 1984, the mission was simple, according to Lapchick.

“People expected him to lighten the complexion of the players,” Lapchick continued. “He said that we’re going to put the best people on the floor, no matter what they look like, and the same is going to be true in our front offices.”

Stern actually plucked McCullough to work for the NBA after his first stint with the Sacramento Kings from 1988 to 1990. A three-year starter on the Utah State Aggies basketball team, McCullough found his way to the Kings after a conversation with then-president Joe Axelson who had watched him play against a few NBA players in the offseason. McCullough worked inside the Association for two years before returning to Sacramento from 1992-1997. One of his greatest accomplishments, however, happened during his time under Stern.

Michael McCullough, the Miami Heat’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, and a Mater Brickell Academy student look at a Black history exhibit. Known as the Heat’s “brand architect,” McCullough is responsible for crafting the unique identity of one of the NBA’s most successful franchises since the turn of the century.
Michael McCullough, the Miami Heat’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, and a Mater Brickell Academy student look at a Black history exhibit. Known as the Heat’s “brand architect,” McCullough is responsible for crafting the unique identity of one of the NBA’s most successful franchises since the turn of the century. HEAT Photography

“The way that the NBA Draft looks now — again, I’m not Mr. Take Credit for stuff — but I started it,” McCullough said. “That was me — off-site location, party atmosphere, all that sort of stuff. They said ‘we need to make a draft a thing’ and that was my responsibility.”

One can draw a direct line from that to how Heat games feel. With Pat Riley at the head on the basketball side, McCullough wanted to match that intensity yet give the games — and the players — a certain swagger that matched the 305’s aura.

“Because [Riley is] probably not going to allow the guys to have that swag that they could have, we’re going to have to do that for them,” McCullough said, explaining his mindset in the early days. “Me being a Black dude and having played ball and been very into fashion, dance and music, I think I was uniquely position to bring that kind of viewpoint and attitude.”

And while McCullough is quick to call this a team effort, the message still comes from the top. Therein lies the significance of McCullough’s upbringing.

“I didn’t have training in advertising, marketing or branding,” McCullough said, adding that he was a political science major. “That’s just how I grew up.”

In other words, McCullough used his Black experience to help make the Heat cool. Of course, Dwyane Wade, Riley and a trio of championships certainly helps but so does having someone who understands.

“The core meaning of cool is some kind of personal expressive rebellion,” Tulane University professor Joel Dinerstein told Quartz. Dinerstein also wrote the book “The Origins of Cool in Postwar America.” “To some extent, African Americans are kind of the internal rebel in American culture and always will be, until we either solve the race problem or deal with it.”

And when that race problem reared its ugly head in the murder of George Floyd, it was McCullough who helped shape the Heat’s response. Along with Miami Heat Charitable Fund executive director Steve Stowe, McCullough created partnership with the City of Miami Police Department and Dedication to Community that allowed law enforcement to interact with the Black and brown residents. The NBA awarded McCullough and Stowe the “Values of the Game” Award for their efforts.

“I could feel like they were waiting for me to say ‘We’re in a position where, as a franchise, we have a responsibility and an obligation to be up front on this,’” McCullough said. “‘We are not taking a backseat. We are not ‘thoughts and prayers-ing.’ We have to do something.’”

This identity also allows players to embrace their own cultural heritage, whether they’re from Miami or not.

“To have a moment like that is big not only for us as a team and an organization but for the younger generation figuring out that Miami just wasn’t built out of thin air,” Bam Adebayo told reporters following the Feb. 17 presentation. “Black people had something to do with that.”

And while McCullough might not always get the credit externally, just know the Heat likely wouldn’t be the same without him.

C. Isaiah Smalls II is a reporter covering race and culture for the Miami Herald. Previously, he worked for ESPN’s The Undefeated as part of their inaugural class of Rhoden Fellows. He is a graduate of both Columbia University and Morehouse College.

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