The first time Jason Levien visited Memphis, it was the summer of 1996. He was here to help his friend and law school classmate Harold Ford Jr. run for Congress, so Levien helped him campaign – and slept on Ford’s sofa.
New Memphis Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien, center, greets Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and new team chairman Robert Pera, right, at the recent press conference at FedExForum announcing the new ownership.
(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
Fast forward 16 years, and Levien is back in Memphis, this time as the new CEO of the city’s NBA franchise.
He’s quickly becoming a public cheerleader for the Memphis Grizzlies and for its hometown. Levien already has developed a fondness for the Overton Square location of YoLo Frozen Yogurt.
In the past week, he sat at one of the head tables during the Greater Memphis Chamber’s annual chairman’s luncheon, and he co-chaired a “One Memphis Operation Christmas Basket” kick-off event.
The latter was part of a charitable initiative that will provide nearly 5,000 holiday food baskets to needy families and children.
Levien also speaks every day with Robert Pera, the Grizzlies’ new chairman and controlling owner – another Levien friend from way back. For his part, Pera is following every Grizzlies game, either on his iPad or laptop since he travels frequently. Levien is keeping him informed about the business side, and together they talk through any decision making.
As the week drew to a close, ESPN.com reported the Grizzlies had hired ESPN's John Hollinger, who was recruited by Pera and Levien and who will work to improve the team's analytics department.
Levien’s introduction years ago to Memphis – at a time when the younger Ford was running for the congressional seat his father had held for 22 years – came after what already had been an extensive career for the basketball executive.
“After Harold got elected, I moved to Washington to practice law at a firm there,” Levien said. “(Harold) wanted me to work for him officially in his congressional office. But I didn’t do that. Instead I just advised him and began my own career. We were best buddies in Washington. I was building my career as a lawyer, and then I started representing players, because I had all these relationships in basketball.”
During his career, Levien has worked as a sports agent, he’s had his own firm representing players, he played basketball collegiately, and he’s an attorney, to boot. His sports industry experience includes being a general partner with DC United of MLS, serving as co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, and serving as a senior vice president of the Sacramento Kings.
“I had known Memphis not only from (Ford), but when I was a player agent our firm represented (former Grizzlies player) Shane Battier,” Levien said. “I knew that market, and when we met with (former Grizzlies owner) Michael Heisley and (Heisley attorney) Stan Meadows, Memphis already had a special place for me.
“I knew what this town was like before the Grizzlies got here, and after. I’d seen it both ways. I knew what a basketball city it was and what a great community it was.”
Levien joined Pera last month at a press conference at FedExForum, which represented Pera and the team’s new ownership formally introducing themselves to the city for the first time.
It was during that press conference that people got a sense of Pera’s and Levien’s friendship. Pera described Levien as a real-life version of the character of Ari Gold, the fast-talking agent from “Entourage.”
Levien told a story of visiting Pera’s office in Taiwan and learning there was a gym nearby. At one point during their visit – demonstrating Pera’s love of the game – Pera asked Levien, “Hey, you want to go shoot some hoops?”
Levien thought it would be a kind of loose, informal session – until he saw Pera furiously attacking the rim with dunks, giving Levien some good-natured pause.
“Right now with the Grizzlies, what we’re doing is we’re studying the business operations and the basketball operations and figuring out how we can add value in both places,” Levien said. “And part of that is going to be about engaging with this local ownership group we’re lucky to have, because they are real leaders in the community, and we want to tap them for their advice and counsel.
“The partnership just cares so deeply. They want the team to be successful – financially. Not to enrich their own pockets, but because they know it will be good for Memphis. That to me is very special. I think Memphis has a real soul to it. A real energy and personality that I’m getting to know better and better. It’s there, and not every city has that.”