Challenges Await New Grizzlies Owner


The professional sports clock has its own idea of time. We were reminded of this when NBA Commissioner David Stern came to Memphis for the Grizzlies’ home opener Nov. 5, which also served as a welcoming party for new franchise chairman Robert Pera.

When Stern addressed the media before the game, he started recalling his previous trips to Memphis. He came here more than 12 years ago to essentially “inspect” the city and The Pyramid, to see if the old Pointed House would do in the short-term before a new arena could be built.

He returned for the beginning of the Memphis Grizzlies Era, at The Pyramid, and for the start of pro basketball at FedExForum, and for the playoffs. He even praised the Grizzlies for the fine team they had last season, remembering that they “knocked off the Spurs.”

Well, he was a year late on that one – it was two seasons ago that the Grizzlies upset San Antonio in the first round – but the commissioner’s mistake made clear that time flies when the window of competitive opportunity is ever-closing.

Ask the Oklahoma City Thunder. Faced with the prospect of escalating luxury tax penalties had they signed James Harden to a lucrative long-term deal, they dealt him to the Houston Rockets just months after they made the NBA Finals.

By the end of this season, if not sooner, the Grizzlies’ new ownership will have tough decisions to make about the payroll here. Most of the money is tied up in the so-called Core Four: small forward Rudy Gay, center Marc Gasol, power forward Zach Randolph and point guard Mike Conley. The Grizz will need to shed about $4 million in salary to avoid paying a luxury tax penalty.

Stern spoke breathlessly about the current collective bargaining agreement making it possible for small-market teams to both compete on the court and at the bank. In theory, the luxury tax penalties will serve to keep big-market teams in line – “the tax is going to be high and potentially oppressive,” Stern said – but small-market teams always will have little margin for error.

As Stern said at another point, “It’s about both managing the roster and managing the business.”

Pera, 34, is founder and CEO of Ubiquiti Networks in the Silicon Valley. A former engineer for Apple, there is no doubt that he has been an overachiever – a great quality for the guy with the largest stake in a small-market pro sports franchise.

But all indications are that the actual running of the team, on both the basketball and business sides, will be in the hands of Jason Levien. A good friend of Pera’s, Levien is, among other things, a former co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, a former executive with the Sacramento Kings and a past sports agent.

Two things Levien said this past week stand out.

“It’s a zero-sum game in the NBA in terms of wins and losses,” Levien noted, and that was very good to hear.

“I don’t think we’ll draw a hard line in the sand on how much we’ll spend,” Levien said, and that at least leaves open the option of paying luxury tax penalties in a given year if Pera and Levien believe the team is close to contending for a championship.

Now that’s a long way from any kind of guarantee, true, but Pera’s agreement with local minority owners is that the team remains in Memphis for a minimum of 15 years. Robert Pera didn’t achieve his current station in life by not being competitive. Bottom line: There’s a better chance Pera will spend more to pursue a championship than what previous owner Michael Heisley would have spent.

“I’ll be the Grizzlies’ No. 1 super fan,” Pera said.

A fan who surely understands that winning, like everything else, comes at a cost.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the Jon & Don Show on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays.