MILWAUKEE (AP) — The Associated Press will periodically look at the changing landscape of the NBA during the season from varied perspectives: A player’s viewpoint, from the bench, and from the business side. In this installment, the new Milwaukee Bucks ownership group provides an inside look from the front office:
When Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry jumped into the NBA last year with a $550 million bid for the Milwaukee Bucks, they saw an opportunity to become members of an exclusive club. They now own a franchise in a league with a global reach, giving the New York financial titans a chance to mesh business and sports in a way they had never before been able to do.
They also saw a blank slate.
The Bucks have made it out of the first round of the playoffs one time in the last 25 years, play in a dinosaur of an arena and in need of fresh ideas to breathe some energy into them.
In just about seven months, Lasry and Edens are well on their way. The Bucks have been one of the feel-good stories in the league.
Edens and Lasry have quickly remade the business side of the operation and engaged a community worn out by years of mediocrity. No, they won’t be part of the Christmas Day lineup — not this year. But general manager John Hammond, new coach Jason Kidd and a promising young roster featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker have pushed the team to a 14-14 record, just one win away from the victory total for all of last season.
The venture capitalists have put a barber’s chair and Xboxes in the practice facility to make it more enticing for the players to hang around, designed a new downtown office for the business side that will open in early 2015 and hired more than 40 new staff members, including a director of merchandise to get Bucks shirts and jerseys into stores across Wisconsin.
Lasry and Edens made the changes without much opposition or debate. It’s not like they were making over the San Antonio Spurs, who have an established culture and proven track record of success.
“It’s better than the Spurs. Those are the old guys,” Edens said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Would you trade Giannis and Jabari and all the rest of the young guys for them?
“The Spurs have been amazing and they’ve also had great fortune. They’ve had a couple franchise players and done a tremendous job building around them. And they are a real model for a small-market team, for sure. But we want to start with the same core, and we think we have it, and build it into something that is going to have that longevity and success.”
Edens spoke to the AP before the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Parker was lost for the season with a knee injury. But the Bucks have remained competitive without the 19-year-old No. 2 overall draft pick, and if he makes a full recovery as expected, the future appears to be bright in Milwaukee for the first time in a long time.
“They are very hands-on, aggressive guys and they’ve brought that with them here,” Bucks center Larry Sanders said. “We can feel it. There’s a big emphasis on changing the culture, starting new habits. That’s what they’ve been doing.”
The price tag was viewed far too high for a small-market team when Lasry and Edens made the purchase in April. But five months later former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer purchased the Los Angeles Clippers for a landmark $2 billion dollars and the league announced a new $2.6 billion television contract, suddenly making the Bucks look like a bargain, even with another $100 million pledged toward a new arena.
“I didn’t feel like we were overpaying,” Edens said. “We were paying more than anyone else has ever paid, but that was a dated marker because the league is moving on. Next to soccer, it’s one of the great sports in the world. It’s got so much potential, not just in the U.S., but around the world. It’s a phenomenal business asset.
“In fact, that’s one of the fun things about that. It’s such a nexus of sport and business.”
The Milwaukee duo also represent a new breed of NBA ownership that has steadily worked its way into the league, joining the likes of Josh Harris in Philadelphia, Tom Gores in Detroit and Joe Lacob in Golden State, Lasry and Edens compiled their wealth through venture capitalism. They view their teams as potentially lucrative investments that when smartly managed can pay off in a big way.
“I think we’re going to do what we need to do to win. But you’ve got to do it within the parameters of a business side,” Lasry said. “I think we’re pretty good at running businesses. And I think we’re pretty good at bringing people in. So I think over the course of the next five years you’ll see that.”
Even though Lasry previously was a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets and Edens has rung the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange so many times he’s almost lost count, the transition to the driver’s seat in the very public realm of the NBA was jarring at first.
“I thought, ‘I’ve worked with public companies that it would be just a transition from that.’ And this has been vastly different,” said Edens, who founded Fortress Investment Group, a publicly traded hedge fund that manages $62 billion in assets.
“We could own a $10 billion semiconductor company and nobody would really care. You own the Milwaukee Bucks and your cab driver is telling you who you should draft. It’s a much more personal, much more in-your-face.”
That was most apparent in their courting of Kidd, a friend of Lasry’s, from the Nets during the offseason. The new owners didn’t seek input from their GM and didn’t notify incumbent Larry Drew while they were negotiating with Kidd, and it turned into a public relations nightmare.
“I think at the time we thought we were doing the right thing and did not realize there’d be this media firestorm over it,” Lasry said with a shrug. “I think it sort of quickly introduced us to the NBA. We thought we were trying do the right thing and it was like, whoa, what happened?
“Welcome to the NBA.”
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