Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Mark Tatum would cut out the bottom of a milk crate and tie it to a lamppost on his block. This DIY passion project allowed Tatum to shoot hoops all day long. It also introduced him to basketball’s self-improvement ethos — improvisation, the value of being a good teammate and the importance of hard work.

The asphalt of New York Avenue in East Flatbush has given way to the NBA’s plush headquarters on Fifth Avenue. That precocious kid is now the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer, responsible for guiding the Association’s seemingly endless expansion. The league’s second-in-command has taken those childhood lessons to his position. Only this time, the bond with his teammates doesn't end with bedtime.

When Tatum attends the Legends Brunch at All-Star Weekend or inductions at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he doesn’t run into colleagues or past associates; it's more like a family. “It really does feel like a family reunion,” he says. “The fraternity of people who have contributed to the sport and the league, in particular, it’s a relatively small group.”

The Cornell and Harvard alumnus joined the NBA in 1999. As the NBA’s Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer, Tatum heads up the League’s business operations, including their international efforts. He also oversees the global partnerships, marketing, communications and business operations departments for both the NBA and the G League. Expanding the game globally is the aspect of his role that he values the most.

When you consider the number of one-name superstars hailing from outside the United States — Luka, Giannis, Joel, to name a few — along with worldwide celebrities such as LeBron James, does the NBA need any more exposure?

Tatum believes it does. The NBA’s global status is “remarkable,” but he intends to "expand the fan base and deepen their connection to the game.”

Two developments have helped on that end: NBA Africa and Senegal. NBA Africa, which launched last May, features former President Barack Obama and Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker as strategic investors. Its centerpiece is the Basketball Africa League, a partnership between the NBA and the International Basketball Association. A dozen teams from 12 countries played in a bubble in Rwanda’s Kigali Arena.

“It was built in Africa for Africa,” Tatum says. “It was a proud moment for us all.”

The league's second season will launch on March 5th in Senegal, featuring 38 games in three cities over three months.

Closer to home, the G League introduced its first international team: the Capitanes, in Mexico City — the group is slated to play home games south of the border this season. That’s in addition to the NBA’s regularly scheduled international games, including its first contest in the United Arab Emirates this fall.

Tatum says the thrust of the NBA’s international plan is “grassroots, building the game and getting more people to play around the world.” That involves bringing “the live experience” to fans outside the United States and making sure the league’s programming is more accessible globally.

Has the NBA considered introducing an expansion franchise outside of North America?

“In terms of an international franchise, I’ll never say never,” Tatum finally says, “but I think right now the challenge is the travel that would be required. I think it's possible in North America, obviously in Canada and even in Mexico. I would think, at some point, that’s something we’re going to look at and try to figure out. But it’s not on the immediate horizon.”

The drive to increase basketball’s international audience is why Tatum is never bored. But he says the NBA hasn't forgotten about engaging the fans in the States that made the league relevant. Cable, videotapes and 1992’s fabled Dream Team turned a hard-charging domestic enterprise into an international colossus.

Tatum explains that the addition of the play-in game to the NBA’s postseason has also added excitement to the playoffs and the playoff race for the fans.

Additionally, “The G League’s expansion with Team Ignite, consisting of high school graduates wanting to go pro, helped Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga become lottery picks in 2021,” he says, offering another example of advancements to help domestic fan engagement.

However, Tatum feels the most significant initiative moving forward will be how the game is presented. That means new camera angles, audio feeds, and apps as ways to attract new fans, most of whom have only known a wired, every-option-right-now world.

“We are fan-driven and fan-centric,” Tatum explains. “Our sport doesn’t thrive, doesn’t grow without fans. We know we have fans from five years old to 95 years old. We are constantly trying to think about how we can best serve the fan. We know some people will want it on their traditional television and traditional channels. Still, we also know there’s a generation of people who no longer have cable access, and they want to stream on their mobile device.”

And those fans are everywhere. NBA games, he says, are broadcast in 215 countries in 50 different languages in every format imaginable.

But fan engagement, either domestically or internationally, is not his sole focus. Keeping a connection to players of the past is a necessity.

He calls the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) “a great partner” of the NBA; the relationship between President and CEO Scott Rochelle and previous regimes is essential. The support is a "no-brainer," Tatum says. Former NBA and WNBA players have built the leagues into what they are today and are integral to the NBA’s future.

“NBA Lane,” the league’s cheerful short film celebrating its 75th anniversary, featured legends such as Jerry West, Bill Russell, Isiah Thomas, Bill Walton, and Grant Hill, secretary of the NBRPA’s board of directors.

“These former players have such great expertise and knowledge, not only around the game but beyond [it] as well,” Tatum says. “Keeping them engaged and connected to the NBA family after their playing careers has long been a focus. Their impact across different generations really does extend beyond the court — they’re true ambassadors for the game of basketball around the world.”

In his almost quarter-century with the NBA, Tatum has seen the good basketball can bring about. Yes, superstars Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam participated as teens in Basketball Without Borders, but they’re not the only success stories.

“We created programs for these boys and girls around the world to participate in 15 years ago, and we’ve seen how it’s changed people’s lives and given them opportunities,” Tatum explains. “Even if they don’t end up having a career in the NBA or playing in college, it creates opportunities for people to go on and make a big impact on other people’s lives.”

Basketball teaches life lessons. The same ones Mark Tatum took advantage of all those years ago in Brooklyn, where a milk crate and a ball opened up his world. Who knows how many kids in anonymous villages and overlooked small towns crave that opportunity? The world is big, and what basketball can provide is bigger.