Not as well as some but better than most people in Memphis. It’s too bad more people didn’t know him better here because maybe people would realize just what has been lost by his passing.
Michael Heisley was a man of vision who could see the light at the end of the tunnel and wasn’t scared of the dark passage he had to take to reach that light.
I knew the reputation of Michael Heisley long before I knew the man personally. His reputation preceded him. He was larger than life in that respect. People heard Heisley was a billionaire who bought an NBA team in Vancouver and moved it to Memphis. We heard of his reputation as a buyer of failing enterprises who turned them into successful ones. He was reportedly a shrewd businessman, a tough negotiator and a man who didn’t hold onto things. He bought companies with the intention of selling them to someone else for a profit.
It was not the type of basketball owner most Memphians wanted at the time. This sounded like the type of owner who would milk the city for every dollar he could and then sell it to some other city leaving Memphis with an unneeded arena and a big tax bill with no way to pay it off.
Memphians don’t generally trust outsiders. The city had been burned in the pursuit of professional franchises in the past. It had been rejected by the NFL many times despite doing everything the league asked and that was with local owners not outsiders. People were understandably hesitant in adopting this abrasive man from Chicago as one of us.
Then the negotiations began. The fights with the local government on building a new arena, the hardball tactics used to negotiate contracts for sponsorships with local businesses, etc. No one enjoyed negotiating with Michael Heisley or Stan Meadows, his personal attorney who did a lot of the actual negotiations on contracts. They earned their reputation as a tough as tough businessmen who always wanted to win every deal. Their tactics ostracized many local businessmen including some of the people who were minority partners in bringing the team to Memphis.
That was my impression of Mr. Heisley and Stan Meadows before I met them.
I had already met Chris Wallace and written about our meeting on the blog. The story had been picked up by ESPN and the Grizzlies liked the positive publicity generated from the blog. It was Chris Wallace who introduced me to Stan Meadows, a few days after I had called Heisley and Meadows the Kyser Sozay and Kobayashi of the NBA. Not exactly a complimentary description if you’ve seen “The Usual Suspects.” Stan said he would start reading our blog. I said he didn’t have to and ran off hoping he wouldn’t actually do it. I had an in with the team and was garnering interest in my writing because of that access.
A week later I was leaving a game when Stan Meadows pulled me aside and said he needed to talk to me. I was led into an empty room in the bowels of FedEx Forum with a security guard at the door after Stan left. As I waited, alone in the room, I wondered if the rumors of the Chicago Mafia were true and what exactly it meant to be kneecapped. It was not a comfortable couple of minutes.
Then the door opened and in walked Michael Heisley himself.
He was shorter and portlier than I expected. Not the towering image of a successful businessman you’d expect. He introduced himself and said he was told about my blog, that he had been reading it and didn’t like something I wrote.
Uh-oh. Here it comes. No more talking with Chris Wallace, with the players, with others in the front office. I was going to be cut off before I hardly started because of a silly joke I made.
But this wasn’t about the Kyser Sozay article. It was about a different blog where I referenced a Vancouver paper that quoted Heisley as saying he wouldn’t move the team from Vancouver. Heisley vehemently denied making the comment. When I said I wasn’t quoting him but just quoting the article he said he was so tired of the press misquoting him or taking his words out of context.
I don’t know where I got the courage but I suggested he allow me to interview him and that I would not change a single word he said. It wouldn’t be edited or excerpts taken out of context. It would be his all words without any agenda or attempts to take it out of context. He said yes and so we arranged to meet the next time he was in town. The interview took over two hours and ran over an entire week on the blog in five different segments. It was extremely well received by readers and the Grizzlies. At that time reporters interviews weren’t available in its entirety like they are now on-line. For many people this was the first time they were able to read exactly what Heisley’s plans were for the team.
From that point on Mr. Heisley and I got along rather well. I wouldn’t say I liked him but there was a mutual respect. Mr. Heisley opened the team up to the blog and gave us equal access to the team as any media member.
We continued to talk from time to time. In fact one time, when Mr. Heisley was furious over a misquoted article, he called me from Kuala Lumpur where he was negotiating a deal, to set the record straight. We would eat together sometimes when he came to town. He gave me his personal cell phone number as well. He wasn’t the man I had been led to believe he was. Yes, he was abrupt and not an easy man to like at first but, as you got to understand him and his passion for the team, you couldn’t help but be swept up in his excitement for the direction the team was headed.
He wasn’t perfect by any means. He screwed up the Thabeet pick. He traded Pau Gasol for an unsigned 2nd round pick (Marc Gasol), a bust of a first round pick (Kwame Brown), a late first round pick (Javaris Crittendon) and some future late 1st round picks and a bunch of cap space. People felt he was more concerned with the cash than the team. Many times he facilitated trades for teams if they paid him cash to do so. ‘Cash Considerations’ became a favorite player to do some fans because the Grizzlies traded for him so often.
He made himself the final decision maker and sometimes those decisions didn’t sit well with fans who believed he only cared about making money not being successful. Then came the 3 year plan. The joke of an idea to turn the team around from perennial jokes in the league to consistent playoff contenders. Fans hated the idea and didn’t believe him even if they did agree with the plan. The attitude around town was Heisley was only owner to make money either via operations or future resale. He wasn’t interested in building a team here in Memphis.
But Mr. Heisley had a vision on how to make this loser of a team into a winner. This is what Heisley did for a living. He knew how to make lemonade out of lemons and he knew how to sell that lemonade for a profit. Often a large profit.
Mr. Heisley told me when he put the team back on the market that this was one of the most difficult things he had ever done in his career but his health wasn’t good and no one else in the family wanted the team. He seemed sad about that. I didn’t get the feeling he wanted to sell the team at all. Of course he did sell the team and for a profit. That’s what Mr. Heisley did. He took bad things, made them good and sold them for a profit. He didn’t love his investments. He operated them for a profit.
The Grizzlies were the exception. He loved the Grizzlies. He loved being able to use the team to give back to the community. He loved being the only game in town. He loved seeing this franchise succeed. He was sad that, after he sold the team, he was so quickly tossed aside despite attending more games than the new owner did that season.
Mr. Heisley never forgot people who did him right. He once gave me four tickets to a Bulls game when my wife and I came to Chicago to visit and refused my attempt to pay him for the tickets. During last year’s Western Conference Playoff finals, I wrote a blog saying how wrong it was that Mr. Heisley wasn’t here to enjoy it with the city. His son and grand-son came to town and took me to dinner just to tell me how much they appreciated what I wrote.
The world needs people like Mike Heisley. Men of vision who can see opportunity where others see disaster. Men with courage to take a stand against the mainstream opinion because they know this is what is needed to turn things around and have the ability to stick to his vision when times are dark. Memphis was blessed not only that Michael Heisley brought the team here not, only for the enjoyment of the NBA, but for the lessons he taught on how to be a success.
We will miss Mr. Heisley.