Michael Lewellen is a hard man to catch these days. As vice president of corporate communications for the Portland Trail Blazers, he has been consumed with the NBA playoffs.
And the Trail Blazers are hot, soundly defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. The Trail Blazers are now battling the Denver Nuggets and the teams are tied. The winner in the semifinals will be decided today in a winner-take-all matchup in Game 7.
Lewellen is used to the pressure. His 30-plus years of communications and public relations experience for companies such as Nike, NBC Universal and Black Entertainment Television have prepared him for high-stress work.
In all, his career has taken him to seven different jobs all across the country.
"I was always willing to go where opportunity would take me and I am a better person for it," he says. "I am a better dad, a better brother and a better son for my parents before they left this world."
His youngest sister, Sabrina Lewellen of Little Rock, says her brother has checked off all of the boxes on his career path, starting with his first job as a sports writer at the Pine Bluff Commercial.
Lewellen is the oldest child of Mildred and the Rev. Herman Lewellen. The Lewellens had five children -- one son and four daughters. There is a 17-year age gap between Michael and Sabrina.
Sabrina Lewellen's first memory of her brother was when she was 4 or 5. By then Lewellen was married and his baby sister would plan for weeks for his visits to Jonesboro.
"Our relationship has grown with that into a very trusting, supportive relationship," she says. "The advice my brother has given me professionally and personally has affected everything I have done.
"One of the best pieces of advice he has given me is be careful of your reputation and your brand," she adds. "Think about how you conduct your life."
Lewellen's parents moved to Jonesboro in 1961. Herman was a Baptist minister and Mildred was an elementary school teacher. For decades, Mildred was the only black teacher at South Elementary in Jonesboro. She took Michael and his sister Gladys, as well as two kids from their neighborhood, with her to school. The four were the first black children at the school.
"It was unusual because you had a lot of students over there who had never been around black kids other than seeing them on the street or in the stores," Lewellen recalls. "It was an adjustment for them and it was an adjustment for us."
Mildred was a teacher at South Elementary for 36 years. She died in 2006. Herman Lewellen died five years later.
"My mom was well received as a teacher, but it took time. Parents had to adjust to their kids having a black teacher for the very first time, which wasn't always easy especially when it came to parent-teacher conferences and things like that when mom would have to have those tough conversations with parents," he says. "It was a little unsettling for some to have a black teacher assessing their kids for the first time."
Lewellen was in his mother's fifth-grade social studies and history class. At school, he called her "Mrs. Lewellen."
"One time I wasn't paying attention in class and the kids were passing up papers behind me and she noticed I wasn't paying attention and she called me by my full name. And everybody found out my full name in that class because she said 'Michael Elliott Lewellen. Would you please turn around and pick up those papers.'"
Mildred Lewellen had her hopes set on her only son becoming a doctor. She changed her mind when another teacher showed her Lewellen's book reports that were filled with detail and perfect punctuation.
"She said 'I know you want Michael to be a doctor, but I am telling you now that Michael is going to be a writer.'"
A young Michael served as editor of his grade-school newspapers. He made up his mind early that he was going to pursue a journalism degree. He applied and was accepted to colleges across the country, but he and Gladys graduated the same year -- she a year early -- and their parents were faced with two children in college at the same time.
Lewellen settled on going to Arkansas State University.
"The notion of education was part of the job description, it was not an option," Lewellen says of his parents. "They both grew up in rural Arkansas, both of them on farms with lots of brothers and sisters, and were told then by my grandparents on both sides if you want to get anywhere in life, especially coming up in the segregated South, education was going to be a key part of that."
All of the Lewellen children are successful. Gladys Lewellen is an executive at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Charlotte Lewellen Williams is director of the Center on Community Philanthropy at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and a tenured professor.
Karen Lewellen is a radio personality in Canada and an accomplished singer and musician. Sabrina Lewellen is deputy director and assistant secretary of the Arkansas Senate.
He also has family members who were lawmakers. His uncle John Lewellen was a representative in the Arkansas House. After John Lewellen's death, he was followed in his office by his wife -- and Lewellen's aunt -- Wilhelmina Lewellen. His cousin is former state Sen. Bill Lewellen.
Williams remembers her brother as a "very protective, yet loving brother."
"Mike has always been the go-to for the family," she says. "He is the rock. The one we could always depend on and he always came through."
Williams recalls that her mother would send Lewellen to a nearby day care to pick up Gladys. He would typically wear a cowboy hat and carry toy guns. Michael and Gladys are 19 months apart.
"He really has a sincere empathy about him. He is tender but strong and loving to the core," Williams says. "When Mike shows up, everything is OK."
Gladys and Michael Lewellen remain very close siblings.
"I am very proud of my brother and what he has accomplished in a very short amount of time in his own way," Gladys says. "He has been a trail blazer. It's ironic I should use that term. But the skill set he has -- he set a plan for his career and he really did it."
When she retires, Gladys is considering moving to Oregon "partly because I know he is there."
In college, Lewellen worked as a regular freelancer for the Pine Bluff Commercial. After graduation, he got a full-time job as a sports writer at the Commercial.
In 1985, he went to work for Southwestern Bell in Little Rock -- his first public relations job where he edited the company's internal newspaper Telephone Times. A year later, he transferred to St. Louis and worked on internal and external communications.
In 1991, Lewellen moved to Portland when he was hired by Nike as head of urban and minority affairs. He later worked on corporate development and a procurement program using minority-owned businesses as suppliers. In 1996 -- his last year at Nike -- he worked with a small group that explored expanding into Nike-branded softball and baseball equipment.
By then, Lewellen and his then-wife were raising two boys, Ethan and Elliott, and the couple made a family decision to try to return to the South to be closer to the children's grandparents. Lewellen also has a daughter, Brandi Lewellen Doan, from an earlier relationship, and three grandchildren.
He found a job at ING, a Dutch-based financial service and insurance company with a North American headquarters in Atlanta.
"It was the first time, and still the only time, I have ever pursued a job in an industry that I didn't have the same passion for like I've had for sports and entertainment or telecommunications," he says.
He spent one year at ING. It was in Atlanta where his marriage came to an end and his ex-wife and their two boys moved to Ashdown.
"It was a career speed bump for me," he says. "I talk very little about it because it was the most unhappiest year in my professional career."
Next, he took a job at Turner Sports and was assigned to work on the 1998 Goodwill Games. San Lan, then 17, the Chinese national champion in vault, was practicing and landed on her head, breaking her neck. She was paralyzed below her waist.
Lewellen went into crisis communication mode and oversaw the largest news conference he has ever managed. The way he handled the tragedy raised his profile and he was noticed by Fox Sports who hired him to handle communications for the company's 22 regional sports networks.
About two years later, Lewellen decided to take a job at Black Entertainment Television -- BET.
"I had been doing PR and media at that point just short of 20 years, but I had never done it in any way, shape or form with a black company or in any way to benefit my own people so BET was that opportunity," he says.
He spent seven years at BET where he was successful in getting BET's founder Bob Johnson on the cover of Forbes magazine in 2001. Johnson is America's first black billionaire and Forbes' first black cover person.
Next Lewellen moved to Florida and was vice president of communications for NBC Universal/Universal Orlando Resort. During his two-year tenure, gas prices spiked, the real estate bubble burst and people weren't traveling, he says.
After that, he "paused" and did some consulting work before taking a job at the Heart of Florida United Way as vice president of marketing and communications.
In 2008, his son Elliott, 21, died of a dilated cardiomyopathy, a heart defect.
"Burying a child is the worst experience anyone can ever have. As I said during his tribute service, our children are supposed to bury us. Not the other way around."
In 2012, he was hired by the Portland Trail Blazers as vice president of communications and public engagement. That year, the Trail Blazers were ranked 11th in the West Conference. This year, the team is ranked third in the conference.
The team's superstar is Damian Lillard, who sunk a buzzer-beater shot April 24 that gave the Trail Blazers a come-from-behind 118-115 victory in Game 5 of the NBA playoffs and ended Oklahoma City's season. Now the Trail Blazers are tied up with the Denver Nuggets and the winner will be decided today.
"This is what our fans and the media loves -- a winner-take-all matchup," Lewellen says. "Nothing is more exciting when all of the marbles are at stake."
With more than 35 years of public relations work and media and corporate communications under his belt, Lewellen says he would one day like to teach.
"Mrs. Lewellen, if she was still alive, would love to hear this," he says of his mother.
He occasionally speaks to students pursuing degrees or work in journalism.
"I tell them 'If you pursue this path, you will find that it is a highly transferable skill and all you have to do is look at those seven relocations of mine in terms of both the good decisions and the bad decisions; in terms of taking this skill set as a communicator and move it through different industries and different brands in different parts of the country,'" he says.
And he encourages taking a risk.
"I've always been willing to go wherever opportunity would take me. I encourage that among young people. I even encourage that among my own children," he says. "Depending on what God sends your way, don't be afraid to go where opportunity takes you because it might be your opportunity to see the world."
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Jan. 16, 1960, Marianna
• IF I HAD TO CHOOSE ANOTHER CAREER PATH, I WOULD BE: Radio talk show host (I'm a news and sports talk radio junkie)
• I WOULD INVITE TO MY FANTASY DINNER PARTY: Assuming you mean nonfamily members, my guests would be Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Barack and Michelle Obama and Aretha Franklin.
• MY LAST MEAL WOULD BE: Southern fried catfish (salmon is abundant in the Pacific Northwest -- not fried catfish like I grew up eating in Arkansas)
• MY FAVORITE MOVIE OF ALL TIME IS: Spike Lee's Malcolm X. I cried during the closing scene when Nelson Mandela appeared and spoke.
• I WAS NERVOUS WHEN I MET: Coretta Scott King. When I worked for Nike, I led a project that brought Mrs. King to Portland in 1995. She spoke to Nike employees; attending events locally; and was presented with an orchestral recording "New Morning for the World" performed by the Oregon Symphony conducted by the late James DePreist in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
• WHEN I AM IN ARKANSAS I ALWAYS MAKE TO SURE TO VISIT: Dillard's department stores (we don't have them in Oregon). I still regularly shop their website.
• MY BIGGEST ACCOMPLISHMENT IS: I worked nearly three years to pass legislation in Oregon that created the Portland Trail Blazers specialty license plate. The surcharge from the sales and renewals of that plate now provide sustained funding for the Trail Blazers Foundation, which benefits nonprofits across the entire state. Thousands of plates have been sold to Trail Blazers fans for their cars, trucks and SUVs.
• MY FAVORITE ATHLETE OF ALL TIME IS: Arthur Ashe. He's was a fraternity brother of mine (Kappa Alpha Psi). In the 1980s, I did a phone interview with him for a feature I wrote while working at the Pine Bluff Commercial. When I worked for Nike, I introduced him as the keynote speaker at a sporting goods industry event in 1992. Ironically, we were attending that same event one year later when we got word that Arthur Ashe had passed away.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Driven
“I was always willing to go where opportunity would take me and I am a better person for it. I am a better dad, a better brother and a better son for my parents before they left this world.” - Michael Lewellen
High Profile on 05/12/2019
Print Headline: HIGH PROFILE: Michael Lewellen, a communications and public relations expert, is now vice president of corporate communications for the Portland Trail Blazers