Former Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley passed away on Saturday at the age of 77. The billionaire businessman acquired the then Vancouver Grizzlies back in April of 2000, moving the team to Memphis in March of 2001. Then, in October of 2012 Heisley sold the team to a local business group led by tech billionaire Robert Pera.
Heisley, who like you, me and everyone we know, was by no means perfect, but he was, ultimately, more than anything, loyal, respectful and a perfect ambassador for the city of Memphis.
Relocation of an NBA franchise is a tricky deal, and when Heisley moved the team from Vancouver to Memphis there was no shortage of hurt feelings from our Grizzlies fans in the Pacific Northwest -- hey, this site used to be called Straight Outta Vancouver for a reason; the team's identity when it first moved to Memphis was as the "team from Vancouver." Then, the whispers of the now Memphis Grizzlies possibly moving to Heisley's home base of Chicago, as well as other "what ifs" and "should theys," including Anaheim and anywhere else there wasn't an NBA franchise, dominated the chatterbox.
In the end, though, Heisley showed how loyal he was to the city of Memphis, starting with the "conversations" he had with Bay Area billionaire Larry Ellison in 2012 who inquired about acquiring the team, where Heisley was far too concerned about Ellison up and moving the team from Memphis. Conversation, over. The Grizzlies were Memphis, and Heisley was going to keep them there.
He sought out a local group, eventually finding one led by Robert Pera and including the likes of Justin Timberlake and Ashley Manning, the wife of Peyton Manning. In his dealings, Heisley insisted that the team not be moved or relocated, and it won't. The contract puts kickers in place that would cost Pera upwards of $100 million in penalties if he decides to relocate the team, and allows for a first right of refusal for the local Memphis group should Pera decide to sell the team. Again, meaning, they are staying in Memphis.
There was nothing in his reported dealings that put Heisley in the driver's seat, where he dangled the franchise over the city of Memphis toying with outside bidders and asking them to put up or they're out. None of that. His most serious dealings were all about Memphis and the team staying put.
Heisley, again, not always perfect in how he ran his team, showed loyalty to a leadership group of GM Chris Wallace and head coach Lionel Hollins, who built the Memphis Grizzlies as we now know them. He signed off on the "most controversial" trade in franchise history which saw the most celebrated Grizzly, Pau Gasol, sent to Los Angeles for a "bag of basketballs" -- one of which turned into a really, really, really good basketball in Pau's younger brother Marc Gasol. At the time, though, Grizzlies fans had asked for the head of Chris Wallace to be presented to them on a platter and for Heisley himself to walk away from the team. Heisley didn't "bluff," as is the Grizzlies way, and allowed Chris Wallace to construct a core of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, which is one that took the team to the Western Conference Finals last season.
Hollins, who was let go by the Robert Pera management team, was Heisley's guy through and through. When Hollins shut the door on the Allen Iverson experiment before it was even opened, Heisley stood by him. When Hollins closed the door on thought-to-be franchise player O.J. Mayo as well as his failure to develop Hasheem Thabeet -- who we now know is un-develop-able -- Heisley never wavered on his support for Hollins.
Again, Hollins and Wallace have moments that fall into the red, but Heisley always remained supportive of them, and here today we're left with the team's first Western Conference Finals appearance and a bright future led by Wallace's and Hollins' core. Conversely, Knicks owner James Dolan is often known to be loyal to a deep, depressing fault. Heisley, on the other hand, was loyal and patient, but not shortsighted -- ask Mike Fratello and Marc Iavaroni.
Mike Conley, speaking to the media after the Grizzlies Game 4 loss to the Thunder on Saturday night, spoke about this loyalty, saying, "He really took me under his wing when he drafted me. He was nothing but kind to me since I became a Grizzly. I thank him for the opportunity and I just wish his family the best."
Marc Gasol echoed that sentiment, saying, "I'm really sad, really, really sad."
"Mr. Heisley was a person that really loved this team. He always cared a lot about us, and we always had a great relationship," Gasol added. And they did have a great relationship. To the point where it became very difficult, from a personal sense, for Heisley to trade Pau Gasol, as it came full circle and when he wanted so badly to reacquire Pau and team him up with Marc, prior to his selling the team. Again, loyalty.
Often the biggest "knock" on Heisley was him not being willing to "open up his wallet" and spend. Yet, he did so with Conley, when everyone thought he was crazy for spending $45 million on his "underwhelming point guard," now one of -- if not the -- most underpaid players in the NBA, and then giving $58 million to Marc Gasol and $80 million to Rudy Gay, who he did not trade during his tenure as Grizzlies owner.
Heisley spent. Not as much as someone like Mikhail Prokhorov, but enough to maintain a core and a future brand of basketball and, more importantly, as much as the Memphis market would dictate.
I'll reiterate, his tenure was not perfect, but in a world where the Maloof brothers are allowed to hold a city and its fan base hostage, and where someone like Donald Sterling is allowed to, how can I put this, maintain his place in society, it felt damn near perfect.
And today, while we talk about Donald Sterling and his hatred for his fans and his employees, we should also take the time to tip our cap to Mr. Heisley who remained loyal to his players, his fans and the city of Memphis. That's something no fan base should take for granted.