Levien: ‘Real Dialogue’ With Fans Crucial

DON WADE | Special to The Daily News

Last week in The Daily News, we brought you Part 1 of my interview with Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien. He talked about, among other things, ESPN The Magazine naming the franchise as the best in pro sports as just a starting point. He also said the Grizzlies will continue to keep an open mind about further player moves that could help the team.

Today, Part 2.

Q: Controlling owner Robert Pera, you, the new ownership group, that’s all been in place about a year now. So, do you get recognized a lot around Memphis?
A: I do (laughing). I do, surprisingly. And even when I was getting criticized and people were yelling at me, I liked it.

Q: Really, you liked it?
A: Listen, I love the way fans in this community have embraced the team in such a strong way.

Q: And there were some strong opinions about trades you guys made, and then later with Lionel Hollins not being retained as coach?
A: The way I handled it, and the Rudy Gay trade was a big one, was to show the person making that comment the respect to have a real dialogue. To explain to them in a very direct way what the rationale was, what the thinking was. Maybe we’re right, maybe we’re wrong. But all we can do is analyze the situation and think it through as best we can and be very careful. We have to make decisions, that’s what we’re here to do. Some of them, they’re gonna like, some of them, they’re not gonna like. But fans, in addition to being emotional, which is great, appreciate a real dialogue. We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing. We all want to have a parade in Downtown Memphis celebrating our team.

Q: You’re also trying to extend the team’s reach. How far are you going?
A: There is a lot of geography between us and the next NBA team – in all directions. We want to engage (people), get them excited about our brand of basketball, about the experience of coming to FedExForum, coming to Downtown Memphis and spending time and money here. And watching us in media and following us that way as well. We’re expanding (TV) presence. We’re going into Southern Missouri more heavily, as far north as Cape (Girardeau). We’re doing more games in Little Rock. We are expanding into parts of Illinois as well. So there’s growth. It’s partly us pushing, but partly it’s demand.

Q: What changes can fans expect this season at FedExForum?
A: We’re gonna be Wi-Fi. This will allow fans not just to get information on their smartphones but also to send out photos of them with their friends at the games, to friends who aren’t there – “Hey, come join us we’re having a great time.” We’ve made a real investment. We’re gonna have a big presence by Rendezvous, having their own restaurant in the arena. We can make the fan experience more true Memphis. That means having more local establishments and vendors in the arena. It means just a better quality product in terms of fan experience.

Q: Are you a Memphian now?
A: I am. I feel good about it.

Q: OK, how are you a “Memphian?”
A: I love Shelby Farms. I take my son and that playground … the slides are just extraordinary. He’s 2 and change and loves it. And then I go to Midtown all the time. I feel a real sense of pride in this community and being part of the community. It’s a connection that’s different from other places I’ve lived. When you’re here, you’re really all in.

Q: Fans want to know that ownership is all in, I know you understand that. So, what should they know that maybe they don’t?
A: We think we’re building something special here. I think they’re starting to understand how focused we are in wanting to win. We want to be the most elite franchise in the NBA year in and year out. We strive for that every day. We’ve got unbelievable people working in this organization who live and breathe that. The best is yet to come.

Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.