Mat Ishbia’s presence signals end is near for Suns’ long off-court chapter

Jan 20, 2023, 4:16 PM | Updated: 4:29 pm
Incoming Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia attends the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Footprint Cent...
Incoming Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia attends the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Footprint Center on January 19, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — The basketball game was irrelevant.

On Nov. 4 of the 2021-22 season, the Phoenix Suns beat the Houston Rockets.

That would not be in the headlines the following 24 hours. The game was lucky if it was even mentioned. When head coach Monty Williams and his players entered the press conference room, they were hardly asked about it.

That same day, ESPN’s Baxter Holmes dropped a bombshell report of accusations in the direction of owner Robert Sarver for racism, misogyny and bullying inside a toxic workplace.

Phoenix would go on to play a few more games where the bigger story was off the court than on it.

The latest was on Thursday but it was far more positive.

Incoming owner Mat Ishbia, who finalized his purchase of the franchise from the suspended Sarver in late December, sat courtside for the Suns’ victory against the Brooklyn Nets.

He did so while in Sarver’s old seats.

While the process of Ishbia taking over the team is still pending league approval, a process that could still take a few more weeks, his presence indicated all is well on that front and it is a question of when and not if.

For the Suns, I’m sure Ishbia’s physical presence meant a lot.

There was a sense of dread that hung over the team’s media day and a subdued tone from just about everyone that spoke. You could feel it in the room. On top of the team’s embarrassing exit in the playoffs, the findings of the league’s investigation of Sarver had come in, along with the owner’s decision to sell the team.

The flat nature of everyone’s mood came through center Deandre Ayton as well, who was coming off an eventful offseason of restricted free agency and his last time on the court had ended with a verbal spat involving head coach Monty Williams as he checked out of the game. His complete lack of energy on media day led to overreactions and subjective takes on how to interpret it, including from myself.

In reality, the group was likely closed off to match the severity of what they had to discuss within the investigation’s findings of Sarver, with good reason. Each player was asked about it and they knew that was going to be the case.

That’s one of the examples you can pick out of this year-plus for the Suns in which they will not have to handle that distraction, handle being asked about that distraction and so on.

Ishbia’s arrival at Footprint Center signaled the end is near in a good way.

Williams said after practice on Friday he met Ishbia for the first time that day.

“I think it’s great for the team, the organization and the community to have someone like Mat in place,” Williams said. “To have him courtside probably allows for everybody to finally put a face to everything that’s been talked about and what hasn’t happened officially but it kind of lets everybody know, ‘OK, this is our guy.’ I got a chance to meet him today for the first time briefly.

“It was short but everything that I’ve heard about Mat, his family and the way that he runs his business — it’s been pretty cool to hear all that. Getting a chance to talk to him today was something I had been looking forward to. I’m sure our fans can finally say, ‘That’s our guy’ as we go forward.”

This is nothing new for Williams. In his second head-coaching stint, this will be the fifth owner he’s worked for. He sounded eager to start to form a connection with this one.

“I know I have to continue to do my job but I also have to understand what he wants me to do,” Williams said. “It’s not about me giving him a list of demands. … I want to hear his vision and I heard a little bit of that this morning. But in detail, I just want to sit and listen and hear his value system and hear the way that he wants to run the team and what he wants to do in the community and it’s on me to carry out that vision.”

Ishbia has a natural link in his life to basketball from his days playing for Michigan State under long-time head coach Tom Izzo.

As it turns out, Williams has his own connection there too.

When Williams was an executive with the San Antonio Spurs and went out on scouting trips, his coaching brain was still there. While visiting some of the top college basketball programs in the country, Williams took videos on his phones of drills from some of the game’s elite minds. He absorbed in everything he could about philosophies, what former players now in the NBA do for their program and more.

Michigan State was one of those schools that gifted Williams the opportunity to continue developing his internal idea of what his own program would look like if he got another crack at it.

“I couldn’t pay for what they did for me the two times I went up there,” Williams said of Michigan State. “They showed me everything.”

Williams called it “pretty cool” to know Ishbia is someone who came out of that program.

Soon enough, Williams will be having the extended conversations he wants with Ishbia, who will join the brain trust of Williams and president of basketball operations James Jones in the shapers of the Suns’ foundation.

Williams co-signed the notion of this transition allowing the Suns to move on from the Sarver saga but made sure to point out it can be done without disparaging Sarver.

“Robert did a lot for this team, he did a lot for this city, he did a lot behind the scenes that people will never know about it,” Williams said. “It’s an unfortunate ending. Me personally, I still think about his kids, I wish them well. (Sarver’s wife) Penny was a sweet lady. But now as we turn the page, you start to look forward to what can be with the team with ownership and I think that’s OK. I think it’s really great for the community to be able to finally say, ‘That’s our guy. That’s who we’re moving forward with’ without being disrespectful or piling on to what’s already been talked about a lot.

“So I think you can balance those things out and I think you can do it in a way that disrespects the people that were hurt in that situation. I’m thankful that we’re turning the page and able to go forward and I hope we do it in aw ay that’s respectful and handled with a great deal of integrity.”

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