The Mother Jones Guide to Evil NBA Owners

Racist emails, family feuds, big-time campaign cash: There’s plenty of post-Sterling scandal to go around.


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Six months ago, the NBA rid itself of its worst owner, perpetual sleazebag Donald Sterling. Everyone praised the swift, harsh punishment meted out by commissioner Adam Silver for Sterling’s racist tirade—well, almost everyone. Shortly after the league announced the lifetime ban of the Clippers owner, Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank celeb Mark Cuban called the league’s move “a very, very slippery slope.”

Cuban got on board the next day, even tweeting that he agreed 100 percent with Silver’s decision. But what was he so worried about? Well, the league’s 30 owners might not have Sterling-like baggage, but there’s plenty of embarrassing biographical material to mine—offensive emails, family feuds, sketchy business deals, and more—just like we here at Mother Jones did for their counterparts in baseball and football. So, with an eye on political contributions and general scumbaggery, here’s how the NBA’s most powerful men (and woman) stack up:

NBA owners matrix

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta Hawks: Bruce Levenson, reportedly worth $500 million, likely won’t be the Hawks owner for long, not after the email he self-reported to the league following the Sterling debacle. The offending missive included observations like “My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base” and “i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season tixs demo,” and “I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.” (Notably, a league higher-up told one reporter that Levenson didn’t actually self-report the email, and others have suggested that he might have used it as an ownership exit strategy.)

Boston Celtics: Wycliffe “Wyc” Grousbeck—son of H. Irving Grousbeck, the cofounder of Continental Cablevision, which sold for $5.3 billion in 1996—was a Princeton rower before becoming a venture capitalist and eventually buying the Celtics with his dad in 2002. In his spare time, Grousbeck moonlights as a drummer (he once played with former Celtic Walter McCarty). His brother, a singer-songwriter who goes by Peter Walker, told the Boston Globe in 2004 that “Wyc’s pretty much a straight-up rock dude.”

Private equity investor Stephen Pagliuca is managing director at Mitt Romney’s old haunt, Bain Capital. But Pagliuca’s politics lean left: He’s a big Democratic donor, and in 2009 he ran for the party’s nomination to replace Ted Kennedy. He came in last of four candidates.

Brooklyn Nets: The famously tech averse Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov (who reportedly doesn’t use a cellphone or computer in his office) bought the Nets for $200 million in 2010 and helped oversee their move from New Jersey to Brooklyn. He’s one of the tabloids’ favorite back-page curiosities, and why not? In 2007, he famously brought eight Russian models with him to the French Alps to help entertain the dozens of business associates he was partying with. French authorities temporarily detained him, fearing that he was encouraging prostitution. Prokhorov’s response: The French elite were just jealous because they were way behind when it came to fashion, life, and sex drive. (He later told 60 Minutes that he hadn’t yet found a woman who cooked well enough to marry.) He’s also really into jet skiing:

Charlotte Hornets: Six NBA titles. Five league MVP awards. Countless pairs of ripped jeans. Michael Jordan has stumbled often since his days as the league’s premier player, gumming it up as an executive, sneaker mogul, and even Hall of Fame inductee. Legendary for his competitive nature—and penchant for attacking teammates he saw as weak links—His Airness can’t seem to help himself when it comes to being the official arbiter of all-time NBA greatness. Mix in a decade as management, and you get plenty of “Back in my day…” moments, like when he recently called out superstars LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki for suggesting that the league scale back its 82-game schedule: “Are they ready to give up money to play fewer games? That’s the question, because you can’t make the same amount of money playing fewer games.”

Chicago Bulls: Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owns baseball’s White Sox, has always been more of a baseball man. That’s where he’s focused much of his energy over the years, becoming one of the players union’s biggest adversaries and a pioneer of publicly funded stadiums. When he threatened to move the Sox to Florida in the early 1990s, he got a sweetheart deal from Illinois—or, as one confidant told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1993, “Not only are there ticket subsidies from the state, but if a light goes out in the bathroom, the state pays for the bulb and the installation. If we sent him to the Middle East to deal with the Arabs, they wouldn’t have any oil left. He’s that good.”

Cleveland Cavaliers: Not only is Dan Gilbert the nation’s most notorious user of Comic Sans, he’s also the billionaire owner of the country’s second-largest mortgage lender, Quicken Loans. And while Quicken has cultivated a squeaky-clean image over the years—note its annual place on those best-places-to-work lists, as well as its goofy emphasis on Gilbert’s “isms”—it did face its share of post-crisis lawsuits. Now that LeBron is back in Cleveland, Gilbert has just one rebuilding project to focus on: his commitment to turn around his hometown of Detroit, where he has bought and updated some 60 downtown properties at a reported cost of $1.3 billion, and moved 12,000 of his own employees there. (Some even have taken to calling downtown Detroit “Gilbertville.”) It’s a risk, but then again, Gilbert bankrolled roughly half of a $47 million campaign to bring gambling to Ohio via a 2009 ballot initiative. The initiative passed, and Gilbert’s Horseshoe Casino opened in downtown Cleveland in 2012.

Detroit Pistons: Tom Gores, 50, is a Beverly Hills tech buyout king and owner of Platinum Equity, which has bought out everything from steel manufacturers to the San Diego Union-Tribune (though it lost out on a bid for the Boston Globe back in 2009). Gores was born in Israel and moved to the Detroit area as a child; he worked at his brother Alec’s software company and private equity firm before leaving to start Platinum. The brothers’ relationship cooled when it was revealed that Tom, who is married with three kids, had a sexual relationship with Lisa Gores, Alec’s wife. (Alec had Los Angeles private detective Anthony Pellicano follow Lisa and Tom, and the scoop came out in Pellicano’s 2008 trial for illegal wiretapping.) For photos of Gores’ squinching game, check out the gallery at TomGores.com.

Indiana Pacers: Herbert Simon and his nephew David run one of the world’s largest real estate investment funds, the Simon Property Group. He has eight kids and is on marriage No. 3, to former Miss Thailand Bui Simon. He started SPG with his brother, Melvin, David’s father. When Melvin died, his widow, Bren, feuded with her stepchildren, calling David “a terrorist” and stepdaughter Debbie “Debbie bin Laden.” Herbert and Bui fought off three successive lawsuits from former domestic employees—all brought by the same attorney.

Miami Heat: In a 2005 Washington Post profile of Heat owner Micky Arison, team president and then-coach Pat Riley raved about him: “He’s about as down to earth as you’re going to get for a billionaire…He doesn’t need, nor does he pursue, the spotlight.” Arison took over Carnival Cruises from father Fred and presided over its rise—as well as its recent Poop Cruise-era fall. (He stepped down as CEO last year.) Still, Arison seems to take setbacks in stride, given his gracious response to LeBron James’ departure for Cleveland this past offseason and his general outlook on the business world (as told to the Post): “In any given year, out of 30 NBA teams, there is only one winner. In business, we can all be winners.”

Milwaukee Bucks: The most memorable thing hedge fund exec Wesley Edens—whom Vanity Fair described as a “cerebral, intense, very private wunderkind”—has done as one of the Bucks’ new owners is send his 18-year-old daughter, Mallory, to the NBA Draft Lottery this past May to represent the Bucks. (The team snagged the second pick.)

Meanwhile, fellow hedge fund exec and Clinton confidant Marc Lasry was up for consideration for the French ambassadorship—only to pull out just before stories emerged about his taste for high-stakes poker.

New York Knicks: Where to start with tabloid staple and Cablevision CEO James Dolan? With the sexual-harassment scandal involving former coach Isiah Thomas and team executive Anucha Browne Sanders? Or perhaps the lawsuit this past March from a shareholder alleging “grossly excessive” executive pay after Cablevision’s board approved $80 million in bonuses for Dolan and his father, chairman Charles Dolan? Then there’s the endless kookiness surrounding the team’s media policy, which requires a member of the PR office to be present for all interviews with Knicks players and coaches—and then to send transcripts up the chain of command, even to Dolan? Oh, and Dolan also fronts a band called JD & the Straight Shot. He wrote a song called “Under That Hood” (It’s all good/Under my hood/So misunderstood) about Trayvon Martin.

Orlando Magic: From Andy Kroll’s expansive profile on Richard DeVos and his political family:

He fit the part of GOP rainmaker-in-chief, wearing a diamond pinkie ring and Gucci loafers, driving a Rolls-Royce and frequently commuting to his nearby office by helicopter. He once docked Amway’s $5 million yacht on the Potomac River in Washington to hold court with Michigan’s congressional delegation, RNC staffers, and personnel from 12 embassies representing countries where Amway did business. DeVos was also a strident voice within the party: In an era when Republicans still courted labor, he urged the GOP to ignore union members. “If they want to be represented by somebody else,” he once said, “good for them.” At a party meeting in 1982, he called the recession that was spiking inflation and unemployment “beneficial” and “a cleansing tonic” for society.

DeVos recently was the subject of an Orlando Sentinel column headlined, “Is Magic’s Rich DeVos Next NBA Owner to Become a Target?” (The story, which came out after the Sterling fiasco, was about DeVos’ anti-gay views.)

Philadelphia 76ers: Buyout-firm maven Joshua Harris made his billions in private equity, cofounding Apollo Global Management, which made headlines in 2011 when it was revealed that it had paid a former California Public Employees’ Retirement System board member tens of millions of dollars to score billions in investments from the pension fund. (Apollo wasn’t accused of wrongdoing.) Harris, who also owns the New Jersey Devils, reportedly is on the verge of buying the English Premier League’s Crystal Palace. Meanwhile, the rebuilding-focused Sixers continue to suck; in April, following the team’s 19-63 season, Harris called the year “a huge success.”

Toronto Raptors: There are many fun things about the NBA’s only foreign franchise, including its throwback dino uniforms, its F-bomb-dropping general manager, and one of the smartest and most raucous fanbases in the NBA. (And, occasionally, Drake.) Owner Larry Tanenbaum, however, is boring as sin.

Washington Wizards: For a glimpse of Ted Leonsis at his peak, this 1995 New York Times Magazine profile is chock full of great stuff: As a bachelor, Leonsis would occasionally bring an Elvis bust with him when dining out with friends; later, as an AOL exec, he came around to the fact that the company was more Norman Rockwell than MTV: “Face it, when you go to a cocktail party and America Online diskettes are being used as coasters, you know you’ve become mainstream.” These days, Leonsis is DC sports royalty as owner of the Wizards, the WNBA’s Mystics, and the NHL’s Capitals—he once got into a physical altercation with a heckling fan, who accused Leonsis of grabbing his neck and throwing him to the ground after a Caps game.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas Mavericks: What is there left to say about Mark Cuban? The guy speaks for himself: This year alone, the self-made billionaire and self-identified Randian has defended Donald Sterling, waded into the Trayvon Martin controversy, and predicted the NFL would collapse within 10 years. Over the years, he’s been fined nearly $2 million by the league, tried to draft Michael Bloomberg to run for president, and commissioned a mural about his life. He’s come out of an insider-trading trial unscathed and actually built a pretty decent basketball team. Literally and figuratively, he’s the biggest shark in the tank.

Denver Nuggets: Stan Kroenke—a.k.a. “Silent Stan” for his reluctance to talk to the media—collects sports franchises like trophies. Besides the Nuggets, the multibillionaire owns the Colorado Avalanche, the St. Louis Rams, a MLS franchise, a lacrosse team, and has a majority share of the UK soccer club Arsenal. He’s made good money in real estate, but buying a bunch of teams is easier when you’re married to Ann Walton, of the Bentonville Waltons. Kroenke served on Walmart’s Board of Directors in the 1990s and has benefited from Walton ties for decades: The Denver Post reports that his retail ventures (often anchored by the megastore) have landed hundreds of millions in tax breaks.

Golden State Warriors: Peter Guber’s résumé sounds more appropriate for a Lakers owner. He’s a longtime showbiz exec and producer of big-time hits like Rain Man and The Color Purple. Since the ’90s, he has run Mandalay Entertainment, which has produced art-house gems like I Know What You Did Last Summer and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Guber is a fairly loyal Democrat, but he’s also said on record that President Obama has disappointed Hollywood, and he has sometimes donated to Republicans, such as the late former Sen. Ted Stevens. The Warriors have thrived under Guber’s tenure, but he may not have mastered email yet: He recently replied-all to the entire organization, writing that he had to learn “hoodish” in addition to the languages of the Warriors’ international players. (He claims that he meant to write Yiddish.)

Joe Lacob is the more hands-on, day-to-day owner of the Warriors. He’s a partner at the elite Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, which is the subject of a nasty, ongoing sexual-harassment lawsuit. Ellen Pao, a former partner, is suing the company for wrongful termination after she reported sexual harassment to senior management.

Houston Rockets: A billionaire New York financier, Leslie Alexander fits the stereotype of a fat-cat owner: He’s got a $42 million penthouse in Manhattan and launched a Hamptons wine club with a $50,000 entry fee. He ran First Marblehead, a for-profit student loan company that tanked during the 2008 financial meltdown—but not before cashing out nearly $300 million in stock. His love of green extends beyond taking people’s money, though—he’s also an outspoken animal rights activist who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to PETA and affiliated groups. He also reportedly donated to a militant animal rights group whose US leaders were convicted of terrorism charges in 2006.

Los Angeles Clippers: Steve Ballmer is the newest (and with a net worth of $22.5 billion, richest) addition to the owners’ club. He forked over $2 billion in pocket change this year to rescue the Clippers from Donald Sterling. He’s fresh off a 14-year tenure as Microsoft’s CEO, abruptly quitting after years of internal and external criticism of his leadership. To be fair, he did preside over a very rough patch for the company—losing billions, getting beat by Apple, and overseeing the flop of the Zune. Forbes even called him the “worst CEO of a large publicly traded American company…without a doubt.” The famously exuberant BasketBallmer is now looking to rebound with the resurgent Clips—but not before banning Apple products from the locker room.

Los Angeles Lakers: Technically, the six children of Jerry Buss—the longtime Lakers owner who died last year—own a majority share of the team, but day-to-day owner Jeanie Buss has the final say. (Brother Jim focuses on basketball operations.) That unofficially makes her the league’s sole female owner. Despite her short tenure, she’s been criticized for the crazy deal she offered Kobe Bryant and her engagement to Lakers legend (and Knicks president) Phil Jackson. Earlier this year, Jackson was being considered for a job with the Lakers, but Jim was against hiring him, leading to even more Buss family strife.

Memphis Grizzlies: At 36, Robert J. Pera is the youngest NBA owner, and one of the world’s youngest billionaires. The Silicon Valley native founded Ubiquiti, an internet technology company that wants to kill off Cisco in the quest to wifi-ify America’s offices and cities. A former high school player, the 6-foot-3 Pera tweeted that he could easily take Mark Cuban in a 1-on-1, and even challenged Michael Jordan to a $1 million game. (Jordan called it “comical.”)

Minnesota Timberwolves: Glen Taylor has that classic life story: grew up on a farm, pulled himself by the bootstraps, and made himself into a multibillionaire by cobbling together a business empire based on printing and electronics. Big surprise, then, that he’s a staunch Republican: He was a Minnesota state senator from 1981 to 1990 and has given more than $700,000 to Republicans, particularly fellow Minnesotans like Rep. Michelle Bachmann. (He also just bought the left-leaning Minneapolis Star-Tribune for $100 million, and suggested he’d make it more conservative.) Politics aside, Minnesotans have been critical of Taylor’s track record as owner: He feuded with star big man Kevin Love and lost him to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Timberwolves, meanwhile, suffer the league’s longest playoff drought.

New Orleans Pelicans: Tom Benson’s two-pronged moneymaking strategy consists of selling cars and taking taxpayers’ money. Louisiana’s richest man, he owns dealerships all over the state and in Texas too, in addition to New Orleans’ Fox affiliate and the New Orleans Saints. Thanks to a complex deal he negotiated on the Superdome (yup, he also owns that), Benson is set to rake in nearly $400 million in state subsidies on the taxpayers’ dime. He initially wanted to move the team—especially after Hurricane Katrina—but it seems he’s settled for this deal. Benson was honored with a statue outside the Superdome for his trouble; Louisiana has cut health care and education funding to save money.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Oklahoma hedge fund baron Clayton Bennett is easily the most hated man in the Pacific Northwest: He’s responsible for moving the beloved Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City. In 2006, Bennett bought the team from Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and essentially promised to keep the team in Seattle. Almost immediately, he and his co-owners conspired to move the team, while assuring Sonics fans they’d stay. Minority owner and Bennett buddy Aubrey McClendon even went on the record in 2007, saying that they’d never intended to keep the team in Seattle. (McClendon, who founded the Chesapeake Energy Corporation, is a leading proponent of fracking, opponent of gay rights, and—as if all that weren’t enough—a former Swift Boater.) In spring 2008, Bennett and McClendon got their wish: The Sonics were officially defunct, and replaced by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Seattle was devastated.

Phoenix Suns: It’s tough to find an owner as loathed by his team’s fans as Robert Sarver. The 53-year-old Tucson native made his money running and selling a series of community banks, writing more than $1 billion in loans to Arizona businesses and homeowners during and after the financial crisis. He bought the Suns in 2004, and since then has presided over a steady exodus of talent—both on and off the court. Phoenix fans, who argue that he’s insanely cheap, are hyperbolic about his tenure, arguing that he’s run the team into the ground for his own profit. ESPN’s Bill Simmons once said Sarver “destroyed basketball” in Phoenix.

Portland Trail Blazers: Paul Allen does a lot of things: The Microsoft cofounder is an investor, philanthropist, film producer, art collector, blues musician, and yachting enthusiast. In his spare time, he tends to his sports franchises: the Blazers, the Seattle Seahawks, and soccer’s Seattle Sounders. He’s worth more than $16 billion and has pledged to give at least half of that away (e.g., his $100 million gift to fight Ebola). He’s given generously to political causes, including $1 million to back a charter-school bill with his old pal Bill Gates and more than $500,000 to committees and candidates—65 percent of it to Democrats.

Sacramento Kings: Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian-born billionaire—and the first and only Asian American NBA owner—could be the Most Interesting Man in Silicon Valley. He attended MIT, supposedly as a penniless exchange student, and went on to engineer software that digitized stock trading for Wall Street giants like Goldman Sachs. His Twitter feed is a steady stream of chill: hanging out with Shaq, hobnobbing with world leaders, and fawning over his wannabe pop-star daughter, whom he coached to a girls’ basketball championship. In addition to trying to turn around the long-struggling Kings, Ranadivé also has the modest goal of revolutionizing data, and has huddled with the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—no friend to Muslims—on bringing basketball to India.

San Antonio Spurs: Peter Holt is American tractor royalty: His great-grandfather built the first one a century ago, and his family’s company, Holt Cat, is the biggest Caterpillar dealer in the country. His small-market team has won five NBA titles—all without paying a luxury tax—making Holt one of the more admired owners in the league. He counts Rick Perry in his fan club: The Texas guv has received more than $500,000 in campaign contributions from Holt since 2000, and returned the favor with a state appointment (Parks and Wildlife Commission) and some generous, multimillion-dollar tax breaks for Holt’s businesses.

Utah Jazz: Greg Miller inherited the Jazz from his dad, Larry, along with an expansive business empire that includes real estate, retail, and car dealerships. He seems an affable guy—although not even he was immune to feuding with Karl Malone—with a Twitter feed that showcases his globetrotting off-road expeditions. (He was even on Undercover Boss!) Miller is also a devout Mormon who credits “divine intervention” for the success of his franchise and businesses. During the 2012 election cycle, the Miller family companies gave nearly $1 million to the Mitt Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future after a brief flirtation with former Utah governor and Mormon cool-dad Jon Huntsman.