In 1996, When Melissa Proctor was 15, she started writing letters to the Miami Heat organization, asking for a job.
Then, she began calling the main operator’s room, asking to be connected to a manager. Every morning, she’d call. Every morning, she would be turned down.
After months of trying, one day they connected her to Jay Sabol, the equipment manager at the time. “Stop calling,” she recalls him saying. “Your enthusiasm is great, but you need to stop.” She kept calling. A few weeks later, defeated, she remembers Sabol saying, “I don’t know what job to give you. The ball attendants are usually boys, but that’s the best thing we can do for you.”
“But, it doesn’t pay,” he added.
“I’ll take it,” Proctor said.
She could not have dreamed that that meager offer would result in a trail-blazing career in the NBA.
When she walked into Miami Arena a few weeks later as the Heat’s first female ball attendant, it was also the first time she had ever seen a pro basketball game in person.
Proctor had known nothing about the sport until earlier that year, when her cousin had flipped to a Heat game on TV. She instantly loved the rhythm of the game, the intensity of it. She also quickly pointed out to the cousin, “Why aren’t there any women on the TV screen?”
Later that day, when her mom asked her to get a job in a field she wanted to eventually work in, she said, “Mom, I want to be an NBA coach, so I’m going to get a job with the Miami Heat.”
And then here she was. In this brightly lit arena, with a mop in her hand, cleaning sweat from the floor, rebounding balls, and all the while, paying close attention to some of the best athletes and coaches in the world.
During games, Heat coach Pat Riley drew plays on a piece of paper, and at the end of the game, he would crumple them up and throw them in a corner. Proctor picked up the papers, leveled them out and saved them in her journal. Then, she went home and studied them, learning all she could about the game of basketball.
The only money she earned was in tips, which varied from $20 on a good day to $40 on a great day. But she was just thrilled to be there.
Today, Proctor, 40, is the chief marketing officer of the Atlanta Hawks, in charge of everything from game-day production to fighting for racial equity, within her company and in the broader society. Now a master of many trades, she is an artist, a mother, an author and a speaker. She didn’t become a head coach, but in some ways, her journey to one of the top leadership roles in the NBA was better than she could have hoped.
As a kid, Proctor doodled everywhere. When her mother, Olivia, took her for a test to enter a gifted school program in Miami, she drew all over the chalkboard. The teacher who tested her recommended that she join an art program. Her mother enrolled her in a program at the University of Miami.
In high school, her artistic nature grew with her. Proctor drew from her experiences spending time in Jamaica, where her father, Hugh, had been born. African themes and motifs also began to prominently make their way into her art.
As a young ball attendant, Proctor, then 17, was obsessed with Dennis Rodman. She read his memoir, “Bad as I Wanna Be,” cover to cover. Rodman loved Pearl Jam, so she became a huge fan of the band. When the Bulls were slated to play the Heat in Miami, Proctor made up her mind. She was going to make him a piece of art. She spent days and nights, first drawing a portrait of Rodman, then adding elements he loved like a cassette of Pearl Jam and a Buddha statue (because, she laughed, “he was always talking about Nirvana.”)
The night after the game, when Rodman was sitting on the bench, with his sparkly purple backpack and long painted nails, she walked up to him, told him she was a huge fan and showed him the art. Rodman was stunned.
“Oh, man, this is amazing. I’m gonna put it up in my house in Chicago,” she recalls him telling her.
Then, she watched him as he placed her art, carefully, in his purple backpack.
After that, NBA players, coaches and others began requesting her artwork. She hired an attorney, who helped her with pricing.
“I had no idea how much to charge. I was a kid,” she said.
She took a break from her gig as ball girl when she entered Wake Forest University in 1998 and started her art degree. As an undergrad, Wake Forest’s Office of Multicultural Affairs purchased her artwork — a portrait of two students of color graduating, with the word “akili” meaning “knowledge” in Swahili painted above them — for thousands of dollars for a special graduation ceremony for students of color.
“That’s when I started to realize this is big,” she said.
But one thing became clear to her: She didn’t want to be a struggling artist. She had seen her mother, who emigrated from Belize, work incredibly hard to put food on the table, and she wanted a job that could help pay the bills. Art was something she would do in addition to a steady job.
She heard of an internship opportunity at Turner Broadcasting System, did some research on the companies Turner owned — Cartoon Network, TNT, CNN, etc. — and decided she was going to set herself apart: She was going to make a TV Guide-type magazine of her life, selling herself, her creativity and her art.
Proctor wrote a mock press release and an article that highlighted her creativity, used a photo of herself dressed as Cleopatra in the ads section, featured her artwork throughout, and finally, clipped a small piece of paper to it that said, “If I get this job, please send this slip back to me at,” and included her mailing address.
That was her resume.
Jennifer Dorian, now the CEO of Public Broadcasting Atlanta, still remembers the magazine Proctor created.
“[Through the magazine, she] made a promise that this person was going to be daring and courageous to show up as herself, and Melissa has never broken that promise,” Dorian said.
Proctor was offered the job and moved to Atlanta, all the while volunteering for the Atlanta Hawks as a ball attendant. She spent a year at Turner as an intern before heading to London to get her master’s degree in design studies and branding at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design at The London Institute. She returned to the U.S. afterward to take care of her ailing mother, gaining experience in TV graphics production before eventually returning to Turner as the director of brand strategy.
Then, in 2014, she got a life-changing phone call. It was the Atlanta Hawks. They wanted to name her their vice president of brand strategy.
Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Proctor is the Taylor Swift of the branding world, working on everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to writing a memoir, “From Ball Girl to CMO.” In 2016, she was promoted to executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the Hawks and State Farm Arena.
Under her leadership, the Hawks became the first team in the NBA to open up their buildings for early voting. That meant working with groups like I am a Voter to ensure that as many Atlanta residents who could vote were able to exercise their right. They also worked to ensure those who hadn’t registered to vote had all the information they needed.
The Hawks organization is currently partnering with the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to get local entrepreneurs — particularly people of color — access and opportunities. “We want to do something that’s sustainable change, not just come out, not just say, ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court, because it’s not about the marketing. It’s really about the work,” she said.
It’s been a whirlwind ride, with a major highlight: Last fall, after she helped launch the MLK NIKE City Edition uniforms honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for the upcoming season, the Hawks got a request from the Vatican that the Pope wanted a jersey. They sent one, then received a text with photos and videos of the Pope opening up and then blessing the jersey. “What a surreal moment,” she said.
In 2019, the Caribbean American Arts Foundation awarded Proctor with a Captains of Industry award. During the awards ceremony, her mentor, Dorian, watched Proctor give a speech in front of honorees like Civil Rights leader Andrew Young.
“Twenty years ago, she was shy and introverted. But on that day, I was in awe of her. She was charismatic, a wonderful orator and a natural leader,” Dorian said. “I did not see that coming 20 years ago.”
“She’s my mentor now,” Dorian added.
Proctor is one of the most prominent leaders in the NBA, yet is surprisingly open-minded about her goals going forward.
“Right now sitting here, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’m just living this journey,” she said. “I could be a professor at Emory, work at a nonprofit, I could start up a school, I could do many things. But I’m completely open to whatever is necessary for my life at that time.”