It is said that the famous have their lives summed up in the first paragraph of their public obituary.
The first sentence from a recent obit in The New York Times read: “Michael Heisley, the billionaire financier, who bought the N.B.A.’s floundering Vancouver Grizzlies in April 2000 and soon moved them to Memphis, where he revitalized the franchise, died on Saturday in Illinois. He was 77.”
For Memphians, there are seven words in that paragraph that speak to what Heisley meant for their city – “moved them to Memphis” and “revitalized the franchise.”
The late Michael Heisley, left, and Robert Pera have been the only two majority owners in Memphis Grizzlies history. Heisley left a strong legacy in Memphis with his belief in the city’s possibilities as home to an NBA team.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
Heisley, of course, sold the team in the fall of 2012 to a group led by Ubiquiti Networks founder Robert Pera for a reported $377 million. Fifteen months ago, Heisley suffered a massive stroke and between his sale of the team and his serious health problems, the man who brought Memphis into the major leagues essentially had receded from view.
“His impact on Memphis was monumental,” said Harold Byrd, who was a member of the local NBA Pursuit Team and is president of the Bank of Bartlett. “Post-Crump, we often failed to dream of grand projects and to put them into place.”
By post-Crump, he means in the many decades – generations, even – that followed the iron-clad rule of E.H. “Boss” Crump, who, though only mayor of Memphis from 1910-1916 and again for one day in 1939, controlled the city and its politics until his death in 1954.
Crump was, by all accounts, corrupt. But when Byrd brings him up in relation to Heisley – as did Fred Jones, another Pursuit Team member and former part-owner of the Grizzlies – it is to make a singular point: Heisley made things happen and that meant not only moving the team here but getting FedExForum built.
“It was a tall task,” said Jones, who is founder of the Southern Heritage Classic.
Byrd points to another project, pre-Heisley, which did not turn out so well.
“The Pyramid,” Byrd said. “We built it incorrectly and put it in the wrong place. Pro basketball might have been in Memphis sooner than it was.”
The Memphis Grizzlies began play at The Pyramid in the 2001-2002 season and Heisley was a silver-haired, larger-than-life personality sitting courtside. Appropriately, he had made his wealth by purchasing and reversing the fortunes of failing enterprises.
For that’s what the Grizzlies were in the early days. Heisley was happy to leave Vancouver behind, but Memphis was not a guaranteed success as an NBA city.
“He took a leap of faith coming to a small market,” Jones said.
His first team was most notable for Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol and fan favorite Shane Battier. Years later, Heisley would sign off on the trade that sent Pau to the Lakers and brought his brother Marc to the Grizzlies.
“Mr. Heisley was a person that really loved this team,” Marc Gasol said. “He always cared about us and we always had a great relationship. I hope that his wife, Agnes, is doing well. I am keeping her in my mind because they are really good people.”
Willie Gregory, another Pursuit Team member and director of Global Community Impact at Nike, became friends with Heisley and the two men used to joke about Heisley’s offers to come work for him and Gregory’s polite refusals.
The last time Gregory saw Heisley, when he still owned the team, Heisley told him, “I just wanted to see the guy who turned me down twice.”
Said Gregory: “He was good for the city. He’s gonna be missed.”
And not just because he revitalized the basketball product. Heisley’s Grizzlies were active in the community as the franchise formed a relationship with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The Memphis Grizzlies Charitable Foundation played a significant role in the building of the Memphis Grizzlies House, a temporary home for families with children being treated at St. Jude.
Like anyone, Heisley had his difficult side but Byrd says even then Heisley was focused on solutions.
“Did he have a prickly nature? Yes,” Byrd said. “Could he be stubborn and sometimes make the wrong decision? Yes. But when he did, he didn’t walk way from it. He tried to make it better.”
There were too many bad drafts (Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2 overall in 2009 being a pick that will live in infamy), but Heisley hired Jerry West to run basketball operations when people said he would never leave L.A. He also tapped Lionel Hollins to become head coach and until Hollins, the Grizzlies never had won a playoff game, much less a series.
The drafting of Mike Conley, the signing of free-agent Tony Allen and the trade for Zach Randolph all were pulled off by another Heisley hire in general manager Chris Wallace. Yes, the franchise was revitalized.
At some level, Heisley seemed to regret selling the Grizzlies as he explored buying other pro sports franchises, including the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Jones recalls Heisley once telling him that he owned businesses on every continent but Antarctica; Heisley never needed Memphis as much as Memphis needed him.
Long before a now-popular slogan ever found its way onto a growl towel or a billboard, Heisley lived it out by bringing the Grizzlies to town.
“In some ways,” Byrd said, “he believed in Memphis more than people who had been in Memphis their whole lives.”