Suns owner Ishbia’s culture commitment tested by Isiah Thomas report

Feb 8, 2023, 4:27 PM | Updated: 6:53 pm

PHOENIX — Mat Ishbia took the podium for his introductory press conference Wednesday at Footprint Center as the symbol of positive change. It wasn’t anything of his doing but simply because of who he replaced as the new owner of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury.

Ishbia replaced Robert Sarver, who ultimately sold the Suns for a total reported valuation of $4 billion after an investigation into the workplace culture, along with his alleged use of racist language and misogynistic comments toward women that led to a year-long suspension.

While the first of the four key bullet points from Ishbia, a mortgage loan firm executive, was about creating a business with a strong culture built by good people, the 24-hour news cycle already put the spotlight on how challenging that can be considering his personal associates.

TNT’s Chris Haynes reported on Tuesday that Isiah Thomas, who as New York Knicks president of basketball operations faced sexual harassment allegations that ended in a 2007 settlement, had plans to take a prominent role in the Suns’ front office. Ishbia’s spokesperson told Arizona Sports’ Kellan Olson soon after that Thomas was not to be part of the Suns’ new leadership team.

Ishbia on Wednesday did not rule out any future hire when he was twice asked about Thomas specifically.

The new owner did say, however, that he has no plans to make any new hires in the immediate future.

“I love, love, love basketball. I love business,” he said when asked specifically about Thomas. “But the next 60, 90, 120 days is about listening and learning, and you’re gonna hear a lot of things about … I have a lot of great friends in basketball. I know you mentioned Isiah, but I have friends. I’m friends with Magic Johnson, I have connections with Tom Izzo. If you read all the things I’ve heard that will happen, I mean, we’d have 72 people running the company with me here.

“I will be direct. I will be transparent. When I’m gonna hire someone or bring someone on, you’ll hear it from me first. Don’t listen to the rumors because you’ll hear from me. You can just call me and ask me I’ll pick up the phone and say, ‘no, we’re not doing that’ or ‘hey, we’re thinking about this in the future. Here’s what we’re looking at.’ But there’s nothing happening right now.”

Ishbia’s press conference ran a clean half-hour in front of several former Suns players: Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers, Cedric Ceballos, Alvan Adams, Mark West and John Shumate. Hall of Famer Ann Meyers Drysdale and Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego were also in attendance.

Ishbia began by outlining four goals for the team: resetting a culture, dominating the fan experience, making an impact in the community and winning. The first and last items he tied together.

“You can’t win without happy people,” he said.

His brother Justin, also a new owner and alternate governor, gave a speech about their Michigan-based family investing in Arizona’s first major pro sports team.

Then, Ishbia took questions: about his commitment to spending to keep the current team humming on the court, about how involved he’ll be and also about the headlines that swallowed up much of the time as the Suns beat the Nets on Tuesday. The possibility of bringing in someone with Thomas’ history of workplace conduct tarnished what otherwise was a lively, energetic scene attended by many Suns employees who served years under the Sarver regime.

The final question from reporters circled back to the possibility of Thomas being hired down the road.

“Here’s what I’ll say: There’s a role for you in the future. There’s a role for anyone in the future, the way I look at it,” Ishbia responded. “When I see things tweeted out — and I’m learning quick right? I’m learning (how reports spread quickly) … I have no plans for anybody to come into my organization at this time until I evaluate what we’ve got, whether it’s you personally, whether you say Isiah Thomas, whether you say any name you want to use, Magic Johnson.

“When I have an idea and you think I’m gonna do something, you’ll hear from me,” he said. “I’ll tell you exactly and I’ll tell you why. And I’m focusing on winning, community fan experience and culture, and if I feel like anybody, whether it’s a marketing person, an executive, a former NBA player, a new owner … you’ve got to understand and have the same vision (as me). And so I’ll let you know when we look to hire someone. I promise you it will not come out via any tweet and no one will know about it until it gets announced by me and you can always call me and ask me, and I’ll tell you the truth about what’s going on, but there’s no people that we’re hiring at this time.”

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