I come not to bury Heisley, but to praise him.
Pardon my deliberate misquote of William Shakespeare but sometime today the league will likely announce that the league’s owners have approved Robert Pera’s bid to purchase the Memphis Grizzlies and this will all but end the Heisley era in Memphis. The check won’t be written for a few more days to officially end Mr. Heisley’s reign as owner of the Grizzlies but that is just a formality now.
I come not to bury Heisley…
Some people will be glad to see it end. After all, Mr. Heisley has been an unpopular owner overall. He made many decisions at odds with professional basketball minds from cutting the scouting department to the bones, to trading Pau Gasol for cash and expiring contracts to drafting Hasheem Thabeet.
What’s worse was the perception that Heisley never embraced the city nor its citizens. The story was that he coerced the people of Memphis into building him an arena despite large amounts of resentment to tax dollars being used this way. He bullied the business owners into buying tickets and advertise at games. He alienated leaders who could influence people to support the team. In many ways, it made things more difficult than necessary to make this small market a successful NBA market.
To be honest, Mr. Heisley appears to be a difficult man to warm to — and Memphis is a city that relies on personal affection far more than other sports cities around the country. Heisley’s Chicago style never seemed to mix well with the southern gentleman manner Memphis prides itself on. These beliefs are not really disputable. This blog once went so far as to say that Michael Heisley was our city’s Keyser Söze and his attorney, Stan Meadows, was his Kobayashi, the amoral villains from the film “The Usual Suspects.”
The belief was that Heisley was the worst owner in all professional sports. People believed Heisley saw Memphis as a city he could exploit for his own profit. He was a businessman who was only concerned with the bottom line and didn’t care if the team was good or not. He lived in Chicago after all, with front row seats at Bulls games. The prevalent attitude was that Heisley didn’t care about making the Grizzlies successful. All he cared about was milking the bottom line to fill his pockets before unloading the team and letting it move away.
I come to praise him
These same beliefs also weren’t true, no matter how many times people said them.
It is true Mr. Heisley is no politician. He doesn’t bother trying to twist his words to say what people want to hear. He says things abruptly and sometimes without concern for the feelings or desires of those listening to his words. He doesn’t concern himself with making people feel better about things if he believes they need to be changed. He is unafraid to make the tough decisions and doesn’t bother himself with making a bad situation appear to be better than it is. If something needs to be destroyed to be rebuilt stronger, then in Heisley’s world, it is best to start the destruction as quickly as possible. This mercenary approach was foreign to Memphians prior to Mr. Heisley’s arrival.
But Heisley has been good for Memphis and for the Grizzlies. His style may have been uncomfortable but it was the tough love the team needed to become successful and that success brought fans to watch them play.
The Grizzlies were a floundering franchise when they came to Memphis. Heisley brought in Jerry West, Hubie Brown, and Chuck Daly to help turn the franchise around — and those moves gave the city a taste of playoff basketball. When that team reached as far as they could, Heisley wasn’t content to slowly slide back into the cellar. Instead, he blew up the team and rebuilt it. He alone stood up and took the heat from the fans, the media, and even so-called NBA experts and despite the criticism, he did what he knew was the right thing to do.
And he was right. He wasn’t popular, but he was correct. His radical moves have been used as a model for how teams will be rebuilt moving forward. Last night’s opponent, the Orlando Magic, are a prime example of a team following the Heisley strategy when they traded Dwight Howard for cap space and prospects.
What’s more, Heisley really did love this city and this team. He told fans at this year’s State of the Franchise talk that what he accomplished here is the greatest thing he has accomplished in his life. A self-made billionaire who has turned around numerous companies and yet he feels the Grizzlies are his greatest accomplishment.
Does this sound like a man who didn’t care about the city or the team?
When he brought the team to Memphis, he charged the lowest prices in all of the NBA — and 12 years later they still have the lowest ticket prices. He hasn’t raised the prices of tickets on season ticket holders in years despite losing millions on the bottom line. Instead of gouging fans, he gave them the biggest bargain in the league.
Does this sound like a man who only wanted to line his pockets at the city’s expense?
He didn’t wipe his hands of the situation when times were darkest with the franchise. Instead, he came here and took personal responsibility to make things different. He worked behind the scenes, questioning his staff and making the final calls on every major decision. He took the heat for his mistakes, and Thabeet was a major mistake, but he allowed his staff to take the credit for the right moves like insisting on Marc Gasol being included in the trade for Pau and then went to Spain and offered to pay him not what a 2nd round draft pick would be paid but what a high lottery pick would be paid to make sure he came to Memphis. He celebrated every victory and when games were lost he couldn’t sleep at night.
Does this sound like a man who didn’t concern himself with the product he put on the court?
Mike Heisley will never be a Memphian. It’s not his style, but what he has done for this city, despite the anger and vitriol he suffered along the way, is something everyone should thank him for. He hasn’t been perfect but he has been responsible and successful and in the end isn’t that all you could ask of an owner?