One Second, One Life: The Dartis Willis Story

Jeremy Fokuoh
By Jeremy Fokuoh May 1, 2017 22:01
WINDSOR, ON (March 22, 2017) -- Windsor Express executive and owner Dartis Willis watches his team play against the Orangeville A's at the WFCU Centre [Photo and caption by Jeremy James Fokuoh]

WINDSOR, ON (March 22, 2017) — Windsor Express executive and owner Dartis Willis watches his team play against the Orangeville A’s at the WFCU Centre [Photo by Jeremy James Fokuoh]

This is the world according to Dartis Willis: a person’s success depends on their will to push through adversity to become the person they want to be.

Willis has become known in the Windsor community in the last few years for many reasons. He is the CEO and general manager of the Windsor Express. He is also the organizer of the annual “Clash at the Colosseum” that invites basketball fans from across Windsor and Essex to watch three basketball games in one day at a casino in downtown Windsor.

If you don’t know Willis for either of those, then you may have seen him walking down the street, smiling or laughing with anyone he interacts with. That’s Dartis Willis.

“When you love people, it’s very easy,” said Willis. “Some people, as an introvert, find it difficult or a challenge. I’m the opposite. I feed off the energy of those I engage with. It’s very easy.”

Willis grew up with his extended family in a neighborhood in Michigan during the early 70’s and into the 80’s. Although he’s now an established leader, his half-brother Anthony Allen says Willis wasn’t always that person.

“When he was younger, he was always the smallest of runts,” said Allen. “People kind of pushed him to the side.”

The older Willis grew, the more he began to influence others, while feeding off a work ethic he learned from his grandmother.

“She was the type of person that would do some of anything,” said Allen. “Things that you didn’t think that a woman would do, she would do.”

Both Allen and Willis remember a time when they came home from school and saw their grandmother on the roof of their home, attempting to block any water that was leaking into the house.

After high school, Willis applied to university and got into nearby schools, including Michigan State, but chose to attend Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio in 1983. Although further from home, Willis choose to attend Wilberforce to strengthen his African-American heritage at the all-black university.

WINDSOR, ON (April 5, 2017) -- Windsor Express Executive Dartis Willis converses with partner Dr. Michael Wood before the Express play the Niagara River Lions at the WFCU Centre [Photo and cutline by Jeremy James Fokuoh]

WINDSOR, ON (April 5, 2017) — Windsor Express Executive Dartis Willis converses with partner Dr. Michael Wood before the Express play the Niagara River Lions at the WFCU Centre [Photo by Jeremy James Fokuoh]

”Most people don’t know that Wilberforce was what we call ‘the first university,’” said Willis. “Morehouse was the first black college, Wilberforce was the first black university. When I went there, it was a great experience. Because I didn’t know the history and the school (his high school) didn’t teach the history of an African-American group the way that Wilberforce University did. They did not.”

Willis credits Wilberforce with changing his life. His demeanor changed, his vision changed and the way he carried himself in a room changed.

“As we grew, he realized that he had the gift of gab,” said Allen. “He had swagger and charisma. He realized that his demeanor and how he talked and dealt with people would open doors for him.”

After his undergrad, Willis attended Wayne State University in 1987 and then the following year went to Lawrence Technological College in Southfield, Mich. He also worked as a performance and development coach for Lawrence Tech starting in 2004.

In 2012, Willis embarked on a new journey as the executive and owner of the Windsor Express basketball club, a new basketball expansion team added to the National Basketball League of Canada. Although Willis had no experience in owning or managing a team, he took the same enthusiasm he had as a boy playing ball in Detroit and used that as fuel for his new team.

“I’ve always loved basketball,” said Willis. “Played high school. Never played college. But it was easy to come back to the love of what I’ve known.”

Since 2012, the Windsor Express have won 2 championships in their two trips to the NBLC Finals. Willis was named Executive of the Year in the 2015-2016 season and has been competing every year with his franchise.

Manager of ticket sales and partnerships Dylan Cullis has been with Willis since he was an intern. Cullis commends Willis for his drive and determination and tries to mimic his employer’s work ethic.

“Hard worker,” said Cullis. “I think that’s what I got out of him the most. It’s what he’s instilled in us. First one in the office, last one to leave. Late nights, weekends, whatever it takes, right? Outside of the work ethic is being a positive influence on people and the way he can speak to people and inspire people that way.

With five years under his belt as an executive, Willis finds new meaning every day to continue working for the Windsor Express and providing the city of Windsor with a basketball team.

“I think as my other steps and paths have taken place, this is just another step and part of my path,” said Willis. “I’m learning in this role, this environment. The people I’m introduced to are different and it brings something special to build with my continuing building character. It’s special and I’m glad to be here and it’s exciting.”

With the Windsor Express headed to the playoffs, Willis has the chance to bring another championship to the Windsor and to this organization.

Jeremy Fokuoh
By Jeremy Fokuoh May 1, 2017 22:01

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