From HBCU to NBA Finals — •

MILWAUKEE – Valerie Daniels-Carter, a minority owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, has been a sports fan all her life.

Growing up on the northside of Milwaukee, Daniels-Carter was coming of age right around the time the hometown Bucks drafted a 7-footer out of UCLA named Lew Alcindor. In 1971, Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) led the Bucks to their lone NBA championship in franchise history, which Daniels-Carter calls an “electrifying time” in the city’s history.

That love of sports has followed Daniels-Carter – one of just three Black female minority owners in the NBA, along with actress Jada Pinkett Smith (Philadelphia 76ers) and BET co-founder Sheila Johnson (Washington Wizards) – throughout her life. She played collegiate basketball at the historically Black Lincoln University, had an offer to play for the Milwaukee Does of the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League, and, in 2011, was elected to the board of directors for the Green Bay Packers.

But sports ownership has long been a passion for the 63-year-old Daniels-Carter, who is also the president of V&J Foods, Holding Companies, the parent entity of a collection of fast-food franchise brands, including Burger King, Pizza Hut, Häagen-Dazs and, through a partnership with Hall of Fame basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, Auntie Anne’s Soft Pretzels. When Michael Jordan was in line to purchase the Bucks from then-team owner Herb Kohl in 2003, Daniels-Carter was a part of the would-be ownership group. But Kohl pulled his offer to sell, and Jordan joined the then-Charlotte Bobcats ownership group. Daniels-Carter would have to wait another decade for a chance to join the Bucks.

In 2014, Daniels-Carter, along with four Black Milwaukee business executives, helped form Partners for Community Impact, an investment collective that purchased a minority stake in the Bucks.

Ahead of Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Bucks and Phoenix Suns, Daniels-Carter spoke with • about growing up in Milwaukee, the importance of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and whether it’ll be #Bucksin6.


Where did your love for sports come from?

It’s probably since a child, really, to be honest with you. I played high school ball. I played college ball. My brothers, which I had six of, always challenged us to be engaged in sports and things of that nature. I played tennis in college, in high school. So I’ve always been engaged in some form of sports. I love sports. I think it’s probably one of the greatest outlets an individual can have if they’re not professionally doing it. I think everybody has something that they can relate to when it comes to sports.

How much different do you think things would have gone if you had tried professional basketball?

Well, at that time, to be honest with you, [women’s basketball] was not what it is today. It was just in their infancy stages of really starting. It’s totally different today. It’s a highly respected sport today. We had phenomenal players back then, but now you have individuals that seriously and aggressively take the challenge of professional women’s basketball on their shoulders that they carry it every day. It’s totally different.

How good would you say you were?

I was OK. I wasn’t bad. I was good enough to make it. I could have been competitive, had I elected to stay, but I saw a different path for myself.

What was it like growing up in Milwaukee?

Growing up in Milwaukee, I had a very good childhood, and I experienced a lot of opportunity, as I do today, by being a resident of Milwaukee. It has not come without its challenges, as we all know, but life is really what you make it. And for us, I had a wholesome upbringing. I had family, I had relationships and things that make life complete. And so I’m very pleased with how I was raised and the values that were instilled in me as a young person and where I am today.

Milwaukee, as we know, somewhat of a very segregated city. But we didn’t look at the color line when we grew up. At the time, living on 44th and Hampton [Avenue], there were very few African American families, and we all knew each other in that community. I think when I graduated – and I graduated from Custer High School – I think there may have been 10 African Americans in my graduating class, out of probably a class of several hundred. But you learn how to cope. You learn how to manage, you learn how to deal with things.

The Bucks won the title in 1971. What do you remember about that moment in time?

So at the time, I was in high school, and it was an electrifying time in the city. I think everybody was celebrating the fact that Milwaukee had won a championship and they were elated. I was excited. It was a time of a unified city that, even at that time, was highly segregated and disconnected. And I think you’re seeing the same thing now. It’s a unifying experience, and it’s bringing all types of people together from all walks of life, from all ethnicities. And we’re all embracing one thing: the win.

What has this 50-year drought been like for someone who was a fan of this team when you were younger up until now?

It’s painful to live that long and not have a championship. I’m just going to be honest with you. I think that’s why we’re all so energized by it, because it has been a very long time. We’ve had a couple successes, but we haven’t had just the real NBA championship experience. And so for the Bucks to bring that to the city of Milwaukee, and in the fashion that they brought it: We’ve got a team of young men that have integrity, they’re respected, they’re engaging, they’re part of the community, they give back, they’re concerned about, not just who they are, but how they embrace others. So when I look at the dynamics of what we have, it’s not just about the winning team, it’s about the winning culture. And so they’re creating a culture and that’s what I enjoy.

Tell me about going from high school to Lincoln University.

It’s interesting because, actually, my intent was not to go to Lincoln but to go to Spelman. When I initially graduated high school and decided I wanted to look at different colleges, I knew I wanted to go to a historically Black university. So I had the opportunity to visit Spelman, and they were really, let’s call it ‘dorm-locked,’ in terms of where a person could stay. And the only place that they had was this dorm room. And there were several young ladies that had to share this room. I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to try something different.’ And I ended up in Lincoln because my sister had graduated from Lincoln, and she was an alumnus.

I went there, initially didn’t go on a basketball scholarship, and tried out for the team. And of course the coach embraced my history of playing basketball and eventually placed me not just on the roster to play but on scholarship. So it was a great experience. I tell young people all the time: There’s nothing like the experience of a historically Black college. I have friends to this day – and I graduated from college in ‘78, so you can imagine – that I am still very close with, and we still have this harmony of embracing one another. So it was a great experience. I cannot complain about my journey.

What can be done to help HBCUs and its students thrive today?

I think it’s just part of us continuing to give back. What you will find is historically Black universities graduate some of the greatest minds in the world, and people embracing the accomplishments and achievements of those graduates. And many of our Ivy League schools will reach back, even in postgraduate work, to try to grab individuals that have graduated from historically Black colleges, because they know the value that those individuals have. So I think it’s just a part of the whole formula that makes all universities work. We need funding from all sources. You need funding from supporters of the university, you need funding from foundations and you need funding from the government. You need tuition to be a balanced tuition. So it’s just all the elements that make education work.

What made you want to go to an HBCU?

So, it wasn’t the only option. Because actually I did a year here at UWM [University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee]. I think you have to make a conscious choice of what you want, and you have to intentionally understand the value that a historically Black college brings. You take someone like me that grew up in a majority environment, as it relates to education, Edison [Junior] High School, Custer High School, all majority-driven. And then the instilled desire is there to say, ‘I want to connect with people that are going places that look like me.’ And where’s the best place to connect with those individuals? At a historically Black college.

And so you befriend one another there and you actually grow up together there. You laugh, you cry, you talk, you fight, but you become best partners. And then when you get into the corporate world or the business world, or wherever you end, those become your support systems. And there’s an embrace that individuals have that have that historically Black connection that all I can say is that it’s magic, man.

Within four years of graduating from Lincoln, you founded V&J Foods.

I started V&J Foods in 1982 as I was working on my master’s degree and started the groundwork in ’82, opened my first restaurant in 1984, had what I believe to be the proper steps for entrepreneurs to be successful. I had a good base, a good foundation. I had a support system in my family. And I tell people this all the time, you need some type of support system, because as you operate and navigate through this world, there are going to be so many pressures and so many challenges, you need to be able to reach out and touch somebody that believes in you.

And so, started with one restaurant, started with a Burger King restaurant in 1984 … and decided I really did enjoy this industry. And so we grew our Burger King brand, and then we launched out to Pizza Hut. We launched out to other brands: Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s pretzels, Nino’s Southern Sides, MyYoMy Frozen Yogurt. And then a few years ago, we started bringing Captain D’s seafood to Milwaukee.

After growing your business portfolio, you formed Partners for Community Impact to purchase a stake in the Bucks. What made you decide on that?

Well, first of all – and I’ll share this with you – initially Michael Jordan was going to buy the Bucks before the … ownership group that actually purchased the Bucks. I was involved with Michael … and had the opportunity to be a part of that. And when it didn’t happen, I said to myself, ‘I still have that desire.’ I still would like to be a part of an ownership group because I knew eventually the team would sell. And so I went to my brother, John, and I said, ‘Look, I know the team is still going to sell them, and whoever buys the team, I’d like to formulate a group of individuals to be a part of the ownership structure.’

And when we found out who the primary owners were, we went to them and we said, ‘We’d like to be part of this organization.’ I’m inclusive. I’m not a person that has to have everything or do everything by themselves. And I found some very sharp-minded individuals that had the same passion for sports and wanting to be part of the ownership team. Because at some point we’ve got to be able to embrace excellence within each other and not be afraid to share it. So we formulated the group, I organized it, and we made our presentation to the owners as well as the NBA.

And it’s a long process. The application process alone would make somebody say, ‘No, I’m not going to do this.’ But we did, and we stood there relentlessly waiting for the opportunity to be a part of this new organization. And it happened. Some people said it would never happen.

I read that one time you were in a Burger King boardroom and were advocating for more diversity in advertising and marketing. How has that translated to working in sports and how have you had to advocate for diversity in this space? 

That’s a great question, because there is a need, and there’s so many opportunities in sports other than just playing the sport. And being able to have individuals of color, diverse individuals, operate in those spaces, is critically important. I can just go down a list of opportunities within the sports world that we need individuals that look like you and me, or individuals that are of different descents to be a part of. I really am a strong advocate for allowing individuals that have the capability and the capacity to execute at a high level, to be able to be given an opportunity.

But if we’re never in the boardroom, if we’re never around the table, there is a lack of consciousness in the room. And it’s not that people won’t do it. It’s just that the consciousness is not in the room to allow them sometimes to think broader than their circle. So having even us at the board table, having us in the circle of ownership, allows the expanded capacity for them to consciously think beyond this square box.

Is there a future where you purchase a larger ownership stake in a professional sports team?

I don’t limit myself. And if the right opportunity presents itself, and it’s right for me – and you don’t do something just because you’re able to do it, you have to have the ability to totally make sure it fits for you. I’m a woman of faith, man. And I walk by faith, and if God opens a door, you better move out the way, because I’m coming through, I’m like a freight train.

Final question. Bucks in six?

Bucks and win.

Martenzie is a writer for •. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said “Y’all want to see somethin?”

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