At times, Jason Richardson may have regretted playing alongside his friend Mat Ishbia on the Michigan State men’s basketball team.
“Mat was always the upbeat, the positive teammate that I hated to guard,” Richardson said, laughing. He added: “He’d get coach mad at us.”
Ishbia was the shortest player, but he had boundless energy. When he ran the scout team, Coach Tom Izzo would sometimes yell at the starters.
“Hey, if Mat can make you do this … ”
“Why can’t you cover Mat?”
Said Richardson: “We’re like, man, ‘Mat, chill out, man.’ Nope. He took his job seriously
Richardson and Ishbia were freshmen during the 1999-2000 season, when Michigan State won an N.C.A.A. Division I championship. Four players from that team went on to play in the N.B.A., including Richardson, while Ishbia took his competitive fire to a desk job at his father’s small mortgage-lending company, United Wholesale Mortgage. Ishbia is now its billionaire chief executive overseeing thousands of employees, including a few of his old teammates.
On Tuesday, Ishbia agreed to purchase a majority stake in the N.B.A.’s Phoenix Suns and the W.N.B.A.’s Phoenix Mercury, including the entire share of Robert Sarver, the disgraced majority owner. The teams were valued at $4 billion as part of the deal. Ishbia’s brother, Justin Ishbia, will be a major investor, and they are expected to bring in smaller investors.
While Ishbia has long dreamed of owning a professional sports team, this opportunity arose only because of a yearslong scandal in the Suns organization with lingering effects that could prove daunting to whoever takes over. Sarver was pressured to sell the teams in September after an N.B.A. investigation by an independent law firm found toxic behavior by Sarver for years, from using racist slurs for Black people to treating female employees inequitably. Other employees, some of whom are no longer with the teams, were also found to have behaved inappropriately.
If the N.B.A. approves the sale, Ishbia will become one of the youngest controlling owners in all of American professional sports at 42 years old. His mission will be to reboot the workplace culture of the Suns, while also bringing the franchise its first championship. The Mercury, who have won three championships, are trying to move forward after spending much of the year worrying about their star center Brittney Griner. She spent nearly 10 months detained in Russia on drug charges until she was released in a prisoner swap this month. The U.S. State Department said she had been “wrongfully detained.”
Richardson, who played for the Suns from 2008 to 2010, expressed confidence in Ishbia’s ability to handle the organization’s challenges.
“Mat’s going to run it totally different,” said Richardson, who remains close to Ishbia. “It’s going to be upbeat. It’s going to be a family atmosphere. It’s going to be a team atmosphere.He’s going to do things to make that franchise valuable and successful
After graduating from Michigan State’s business school in 2003, Ishbia started working for United Wholesale Mortgage, which his father, Jeff Ishbia, founded in 1986 as a side business.
“I went there with the concept that I was gonna be there for six months, a year,” Ishbia told Forbes last year. “No one likes mortgages. I don’t like them still.”
He described it slightly differently last month in an interview on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel”: “I learned that one, I could compete. Two, I could take all the things I learned from Izzo and, like, outwork everybody and be successful, and I saw the opportunity. And I’ve loved mortgages ever since.”
The company had about a dozen employees when Ishbia started, according to a company bio. In 2013, Ishbia was named chief executive. Soon, the company was reporting more than $1 billion in mortgage sales. The company reported $107.7 billion in mortgage loans for 2019.
Last month, U.W.M. passed Rocket Mortgage as the largest mortgage lender in the country. Rocket Mortgage was founded by Dan Gilbert, who owns the N.B.A.’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
Guy Cecala, the executive chair of Inside Mortgage Finance, an industry newsletter, said that Ishbia and Gilbert were considered “mavericks” in the mortgage industry.
“They’re very competitive with one another in mortgage lending and outside the mortgage-lending realm,” Cecala said.
The two mortgage companies have publicly feuded. Earlier this year, Ishbia criticized Gilbert, in a post on LinkedIn, for reducing Rocket’s work force. Last year, U.W.M. announced that it would no longer work with brokers who also do business with Rocket Mortgage and another competitor, a decision that led to a pending legal challenge.
When pressed about the decision on CNBC last year, Ishbia said it wasn’t about exclusivity. He suggested that the competitors were operating in a “gray area” he didn’t want to be part of. Gilbert was unavailable for comment.
As Ishbia’s wealth grew through the mortgage business, he was active politically, donating to both Democrats and Republicans.
He donated to the primary campaign of Alex Lasry, a Democrat, in this year’s Wisconsin Senate race. Lasry is the son of Marc Lasry, who owns the N.B.A.’s Milwaukee Bucks, and is a Bucks executive. Ishbia also supported both Republicans in the 2020 Senate runoffs in Georgia, including an incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, who owned the W.N.B.A.’s Atlanta Dream. Loeffler was in an open feud with her team’s mostly Black players, who backed her Democratic opponent after she disparaged the Black Lives Matter movement. She lost to that opponent, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is Black, and she later sold the Dream.
Ishbia has also given back to his alma mater. Last year, he pledged $32 million to Michigan State. On “Real Sports,” he said an additional $14 million would go toward the $95 million salary of the school’s football coach, Mel Tucker.
Two years ago, Izzo connected Ishbia with Dick Vitale, the college basketball broadcaster, who also raises money for pediatric cancer research. Vitale said Ishbia offered him $1 million during their first conversation, and then he and his brother, Justin, followed up with further seven-figure donations.
“Shocked the heck out of me,” Vitale said. “Are you kidding me? That is so rare. I wish I could get more entertainers and more athletes, more financially successful people to join me in my quest. But it’s not that easy.”
Huddles, chants and mortgages
Every so often, Ishbia will bring his three children, ages 8, 9 and 11, to the office. They’ll come to U.W.M.’s senior leadership meetings toting notepads.
“It’s cute to look over and, you know, watch when they write things down,” said Melinda Wilner, who has been U.W.M.’s chief operating officer since 2015.
Ishbia’s father sits on U.W.M.’s board of directors and still comes to some company meetings.
“He instilled a strong work ethic in Mat for sure, and his brother,” said Sarah DeCiantis, U.W.M.’s chief marketing officer.
When asked who Ishbia’s biggest influences are, DeCiantis didn’t hesitate.
“His dad, his mom and Tom Izzo,” she said.
Izzo, she said, taught Ishbia how to hold people accountable and motivate them. Ishbia was a student coach under Izzo for his final season. The “Real Sports” segment last month showed that U.W.M. has borrowed some elements of sports culture for its workplace, like team huddles broken by chants.
Izzo once visited on a Thursday and was told that Thursdays were Ishbia’s day to walk around visiting employees. He often asks executives for lists of people who have been performing well so he can call with his appreciation.
He uses Izzo’s lessons on managing people with a younger set as well: his children’s sports teams. Blake Kolo, a close friend and an executive with U.W.M., whose children play on the same teams as Ishbia’s, said Ishbia’s one rule is to be positive.
“If you join the team — it doesn’t matter if you’re a parent or a kid — we’re OK with so much, but you just can’t be negative,” Kolo said.
Chasing sports ownership
Kolo recalled a flight home from the Bahamas nearly a decade ago with Ishbia and a small group of friends. Ishbia asked everyone about their goals for the next year.
Some did not know, but he gave them all a chance to share before it was his turn.
“My goal that will always remain on my list is to be an owner of a sports team,” Kolo remembered Ishbia saying. “You know, that’s a long-term goal. That’s not my 12-month goal.”
At the time, Ishbia was a wealthy man, but he didn’t have the fortune required to buy a team. Then, U.W.M. went public in 2021.
Ishbia was part of a bid to buy the N.F.L.’s Denver Broncos this year, joining a group that included Alec Gores, who invested in U.W.M. and is the older brother of Tom Gores, the Detroit Pistons owner. Ishbia also had been mentioned as a possible suitor for the Washington Commanders in recent months.
Richardson said he never expected Ishbia to buy a team so far from Michigan, where U.W.M. is based. “But that just shows you how bad he wanted to own the franchise and be a part of the N.B.A. team and help a franchise win a championshiphe said.
According to a person close to Ishbia, he spent time in Phoenix as he researched the team and the market and became excited by what he saw as a strong opportunity to win. Ishbia plans to continue living in the Detroit area, the person said.
The Mercury won W.N.B.A. championships in 2007, 2009 and 2014. The Suns have never won a championship, but they have been to the N.B.A. finals three times, including in 2021. They have been one of the league’s best teams for the past three seasons, led by guard Devin Booker, who grew up in Michigan.
“I 100 percent know Mat Ishbia wanted to get a team to win a championship,” Izzo said. “Period.”
Izzo also teased, “He’s an athletically driven guy, that’s body isn’t as athletically driven
Ishbia’s sale must be approved by three-fourths of the N.B.A.’s board of governors, which includes a representative from each of the league’s 30 teams. Before the vote, the league will vet his finances, conduct a background check and have a small advisory group of owners assess whether Ishbia’s ownership group would be a beneficial partner.
Deals can fall through. In August 2011, Alex Meruelo, a California-based pizza-chain owner and real estate magnate, agreed to to buy a majority stake in the Atlanta Hawks. The league office had concerns about his finances, and about three months later Meruelo said that the sale was off by mutual agreement.
But if Ishbia’s deal is approved, those who know him best say that he will bring a new energy to an organization in sore need of a reset.
“You got to win pretty quick in sports, you know, or everybody’s mad at you,” Izzo said.
He thinks Ishbia’s tenure with the Suns and Mercury will be similar to his time leading U.W.M. — that he’ll demand short-term success, and have a long-term vision and that he’ll be very hands on with the organization.
“He’s a pit bull,” Izzo said. “With a very warm heart.”
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
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By: Tania Ganguli and Sopan Deb
Title: An OK Basketball Player Hopes to Be a Great N.B.A. Team Owner
Sourced From: www.nytimes.com/2022/12/23/sports/basketball/mat-ishbia-phoenix-suns.html
Published Date: Fri, 23 Dec 2022 23:16:39 +0000
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