Watching Over the Champs
Tullos Wells is the off-court MVP for the San Antonio Spurs
Published in 2006 Texas Super Lawyers magazine
on September 12, 2006
Updated on April 6, 2017
Love law and sports? Meet the guy with your dream job.
Welcoming a visitor to his office, Tullos Wells, the San Antonio Spurs’ outside general counsel, points out the team photos spread on the wall beside his nameplate. Then he says, “I’m going to embarrass myself, but let me show you this,” and he ushers his guest into his corner office on the eighth floor of Houston-based Bracewell & Giuliani’s San Antonio branch, where he’s a managing partner.
He shows five autographed basketballs stacked in glass display cases and a framed San Antonio jersey — Wells, No. 50 — signed by Spurs greats Tim Duncan and David Robinson, a gift for his 50th birthday that hangs on the wall. Not many lawyers garner those sorts of client perks, not to mention three diamond-encrusted championship rings and plum seats at Spurs games. Wells, a big-time sports fan, finds them especially sweet. “I’m one of 30 guys on the planet who get to do this,” he says. “My life has been more charmed than I deserve.”
Wells, who’s trim, with fine blond hair and blue eyes set in a youthful face, looks younger than his 57 years — in part because he recently shed his signature dapper mustache of 30 years. Not long ago, he came home from a party, spotted some gray in the mustache and shaved it off — an unusual move for the characteristically deliberate man. “I’m the least impetuous person you know, so it was a shocker for me to do something like that,” he says.
Indeed, his manner is smooth, personable and immediately likable. “He’s one of those people in life who has your best interest at heart, not just as a client but as a person,” says Rick Pych, Spurs executive vice president.
Tullos — an old Southern family name passed down from his Louisiana-bred parents — grew up a Yankees, Knicks and Giants fan in Derian, Conn. He and his father, an oil man, would drive upstate and check into a motel to watch Giants games blacked out in the greater New York City area. Wells competed in hockey and football for the Derian Blue Waves, but only ran track when the family moved to Houston before his senior year of high school.
He ran his best race — a 9.9-second 100-yard dash — that year, but the kid in the next lane, Clifford Branch, who would go on to star for the Oakland Raiders, smoked him with a 9.3 time. “The gun went off, and Branch was so far down the track before I even got upright, he was so fast,” Wells says with a laugh.
He went out for track his first year as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, but, seeing the quality of the competition, decided it would be wise to focus on his journalism major. He worked at the school newspaper and freelanced for the Austin American-Statesman. Upon the advice of an undergrad professor that he develop a specialty, he matriculated at University of Texas Law School to indulge his dual fascinations with communications and law.
A couple of media law courses later, he fell in love with communications law. His first job out of law school in 1974, working for the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., seduced him into abandoning his journalism aspirations for the pursuit of law. The chance to participate in some high-end litigation won him over.
In 1978, Wells headed to San Antonio to work on the unsuccessful 1978 gubernatorial campaign of then-attorney general John Hill, “the first Democrat in 80-plus years not to get elected,” Wells says.
At the same time, he worked as a plaintiffs’ civil rights lawyer at Branton & Mendelsohn. In 1985, he switched to Matthews & Branscomb. A decade later, he and a group of other lawyers from the firm started Wells Pinkney & McHugh. In 1999, Wells joined Bracewell & Patterson, which became Bracewell & Giuliani when former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani came aboard in 2005. Along the way, Wells established himself as a premier labor and employment attorney and an advocate for the San Antonio community.
His shot at the NBA came in 1995, when Jack Diller, the Spurs’ new chief executive officer, consulted with Wells, the chairman of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. The two hit it off, and Diller offered Wells the position of outside general counsel for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, which includes the WNBA franchise Silver Spurs and the minor league hockey team the San Antonio Rampage.
One of Wells’ early and ambitious efforts was planning and developing the SBC Center, the team’s $200 million arena that opened in October 2002 and was recently renamed the AT&T Center. His deep contacts in the community, business acumen and accomplished people skills helped him finesse negotiations with the city of San Antonio and Bexar County. “He was able to find a compromise, as opposed to just hammering out who has the legal right,” Pych says. “A lot of attorneys try to wait people out or use threats and innuendoes. That’s not his style. His style is to bring people together to find a compromise where you can walk away as partners rather than adversaries.”
During that period, his position as the Spurs’ general counsel consumed most of his time. These days, his duties for the team account for about 20 percent of his practice. He also has serviced clients ranging from IBM to Continental Airlines and serves as the honorary consul of Canada, promoting Canadian economic interests in Texas. But the 20 percent of his time involved with the sports’ teams easily accounts for 80 percent of his enjoyment practicing law.
As the Spurs’ outside general counsel, he handles the range of legal issues that affect any corporation. The organization has come to rely on him not only for his legal knowledge but also for his business sense. He has become part of the team’s strategic group. “There are two kinds of lawyers,” Pych says. “Ones who tell you what you can’t do and ones who tell you what you can do. Tullos is one of those who always figures out a way to get your objective accomplished.”
The team has expressed its appreciation by fitting Wells with the three championship rings, which is not de rigueur with all teams. He wears a championship ring the first day of the season, the first playoff game and — when the team does well — the first game of the final series. “Problem is if I wear it, I look like I found it,” he says. “I would need to be much taller and look more athletic for the rings to look like they’re really mine.”
The specifics of the job are especially interesting to a sports fan of his caliber. Among his jobs are arranging television and broadcast rights, springing international players from their foreign teams and filing protests over opponents’ buzzer-beating baskets. He’s also the team’s go-to guy to assist players or coaches when they get into trouble. “I’ve done everything from speeding tickets to huge financings to dealing with conflicts between players and agents,” he says.
This meshes with his philosophy of life. “Life is about taking care of people,” he says. “The great thing about being a lawyer is that we’re problem solvers. People get in trouble. They’re scared. You’re there to get them out of it. At the end of the day, if you’ve taken care of people, that’s a life well lived.”
His life has become intricately woven with the Spurs, from what he describes as “breathtaking” to “kneebuckling” moments. In June of 1999, Wells was in the stands at Madison Square Garden for Game 5 of the NBA Championships that pitted the Spurs against his former heroes, the Knicks. His loyalties had shifted. He had done his part to defeat the Knicks by successfully petitioning NBA commissioner David Stern to deny the Knicks’ request to make substitutions for several injured players before the series began.
Wells and his fellow San Antonio businessmen in the stands had a lot to cheer about when Avery Johnson’s last-minute jump shot clinched the Spurs’ 78-77 victory and first NBA championship. Wells and friends erupted in jubilation while the team celebrated on the court. But what struck Wells most was the reaction of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. He leaned against the scorer’s table, taking it all in with a gentle smile. “He was so obviously devoted to the success of the people around him, he didn’t have to be the center of attention,” Wells says. “He knew it was the players’ moment. That impressed me what a good leader he was.”
Two years later, he was in London with Rick Buchanan, the NBA’s general counsel, to negotiate an out for French player Tony Parker from his Federation Internationale de Basketball contract. An assistant came into the room to announce that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. The meeting was suspended while Wells, Buchanan and the others watched on a TV in another conference room while a plane hit the second tower and the twin towers collapsed.
Everyone was obviously shaken by the events, but Buchanan was impressed with the calmness and thoroughness with which Wells handled the situation. Wells was immediately concerned about his wife, Carri, and their daughter, McKensie, 2 years old at the time. With all international flights canceled, he would be separated from them for days. Yet he was also able to complete the mission at hand, freeing Parker from his European league contract to join the Spurs. “He was his usual reliable, consistent self, ever the strong and effective attorney,” Buchanan says. “He’s also a heck of a good dad, which in my book rates real high.”
Wells’ voice softens and his eyes glow when he speaks about McKensie, now 7. He says he stays fit running and carrying her around. She noticed before his wife did that he had shaved his mustache. “She wanted me to grow it back,” he says with a laugh.
Wells’ passion for sports can sometimes become a bone of contention with his wife. She’s also a big fan, but she’s an alumna of Texas A&M, archrival to Wells’ UT. After the Longhorns won the national championship earlier this year with its stunning Rose Bowl comeback over USC, the San Antonio Express-News quoted Carri Baker Wells on the front page, confessing to begrudgingly cheering for UT in the state’s greater interest.
“To survive in my household, I have to temper my enthusiasm,” Wells says. He does admit to having watched the tape of the Texas game five times in the four months since it was played.
He explains that his love for athletics lies in those moments when the human spirit excels, as it did when Texas quarterback Vince Young carried his team to victory in the 2006 Rose Bowl’s final seconds. “Sometimes, individuals or groups of individuals sparkle — they do something they will never be able to do again,” he says. “I can get mushy talking about this stuff.”
Wells’ hero worship extends beyond the sports arena. Two portraits of Winston Churchill adorn his office walls. Wells gushes about Churchill’s writing, his command of the English language, his humor, his wisdom and his achievements. “He didn’t just put his team on his back. He said, ‘I’m going to put the whole Western world on my back,’” Wells says. “He’s a great guy for people who play sports, with his admonition to never give up.”
He likens the attitude of Popovich, longtime Spurs coach, to that of the great British prime minister. “You know, Tullos,” Popovich once told Wells, who had asked him why he would call timeout late in a lost game. “I don’t care if we’re down 30 points, I expect my players not to give up, so I’m not going to stop coaching.”
For Wells, that bespeaks the quality of the organization, whose coach, general manager and owner have all been with the team for a decade — an eternity by sports’ standards. He sees it as no coincidence that fans ranked the Spurs the top sports franchise in ESPN’s 2003 fan satisfaction poll. “If there’s anything I’ve learned in sports, it’s that having consistency in a program separates the winners from the losers,” he says.
His abiding interest in the San Antonio community has made his work with the Spurs a good fit in a city where these days the NBA basketball team is better known worldwide than its famous landmark, the Alamo. “There’s nothing like sports that can pull a community together,” he says. “And there’s nothing here like the Spurs.”