MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The new chairman of the Grizzlies said he “fully understands” that the people of Memphis really own the NBA team, even though he’s the controlling owner.
Robert J. Pera is not only saying the right things, he has put it in writing.
Pera, who introduced himself to Grizzlies fans Monday morning at FedExForum, agreed to provisions to keep the team in the city for at least 15 years.
“Memphis as a city, it’s unbelievable,” Pera said. “The people have been great. I can tell the community is really special, and those two things combined I consider myself very, very fortunate. Probably the luckiest man in the world right now.”
Pera and his partners who form Memphis Basketball, LLC, bought the Grizzlies from Michael Heisley for $377 million in a sale finalized last week. The ownership group, along with the team’s new chief executive officer, held the news conference in the lobby of the arena. The event was open to the public and there were even inflatable slides for children on hand for Memphis’ home opener Monday night against the Utah Jazz.
“I believe it’s the greatest sport in the world just from a fan perspective, from a player’s perspective,” said the 34-year-old former Apple engineer who started his own communications technology company in 2005 and described himself as an NBA “super fan.”
Pera, wearing a dark blazer and black shirt, couldn’t stop smiling sitting at the podium along with Jason Levien, his new CEO and managing partner of Memphis Basketball, LLC.
It was Pera’s first public appearance in Memphis since his move to buy the Grizzlies first was announced in June. But he had been very busy behind the scenes working with Levien, Jeffery Pollack and David Carlock in assembling a group of 22 limited partners including AutoZone founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde and Memphis businessman Staley Cates. Both were minority owners with Heisley, who brought the Grizzlies to Memphis from Vancouver in 2001.
Former U.S. Congressman Harold Ford Jr., also a limited partner, said convincing Cates to join was a big key.
“Staley’s involvement is the biggest thing as any as how serious Robert is about Memphis because Staley made it clear from the outset you have my support if you’re committed to Memphis,” Ford said.
The ownership group is loaded with local star power as well.
Entertainer and Memphis native Justin Timberlake is part of the ownership group along with a pair of other Memphians: former NBA player Penny Hardaway and Ashley Manning, wife of four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning.
Part of Pera’s commitment to Memphis includes three provisions keeping the Grizzlies in town for another 15 years. He would have to pay a $100 million penalty if the Grizzlies are moved, local owners have the right of first refusal to match any offer for the team and the local owners can buy the team at the current price should Pera want to move the franchise.
“The team’s not going anywhere for sure,” said limited partner Edward Dobbs, a Memphis native and CEO of Dobbs Management Service. “That was one of our main goals as local ownership to make sure the team stayed here for a long time, and the team’s going to be here for a long time. I feel the team is much more cemented here, and we’re just excited to be a part of it and want to make it an even better part of our community.”
Levien will be in charge of the ownership group operating both the Grizzlies and FedExForum reporting to Pera. The chairman said Levien — a lawyer and former agent — is one of his best friends and described him as a cross between Jerry Maguire and Ari Gold. Levien also was a team executive with the Sacramento Kings and was a co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers until recently. He also is a general partner for Major League Soccer’s DC United.
The Grizzlies are coming off two straight playoff appearances. They went 41-25 last season, setting a franchise-record with their 62.1 winning percentage and were the No. 4 seed in the West last season.
“We’re very fortunate because we’ve come into a situation we just hope we don’t (mess) it up, which is a little scary,” Levien said.
Levien spent time Sunday for the first time with Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, who is in the final year of his contract. The new CEO already knows general manager Chris Wallace and even represented a Boston player when Wallace worked for the Celtics. Levien has no timetable for deciding whether to make any changes in the front office after so many months spent lining up the purchase of the team, but he said he sees a team with lots of heart and mental toughness.
This is the fourth ownership transition Wallace has been through counting Portland, Miami and Boston. The general manager said it’s just life in the NBA and the Grizzlies simply need to focus on playing the rest of the season and the playoffs.
“It’s nothing to fear, and you just embrace it,” Wallace said.
Pera described himself as last on the bench when he took a job as an engineer with Apple out of college, and he opened Ubiquiti Networks in 2005 in California. He had been looking to buy a professional team and once had tickets for the Golden State Warriors where he first started becoming a fan of the Grizzlies.
“I stopped looking when this became a possibility,” Pera said of buying the Grizzlies.