DURING a late timeout in his team’s pre-season game against San Antonio Spurs last October, Robert Sarver stood up and shuffled along the courtside seats at the US Airways Center.
When he reached the scorer’s table, he leaned over and asked for a microphone, at which point the spotlight fell on the Phoenix Suns owner. “Hey everybody, I wanna thank you for coming out tonight,” he said to the assembled basketball fans before quickly getting to the point.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
“This is not the game you paid your hard-earned money to watch,” he said, wagging his finger in frustration. “I apologise for it. And I want you to send me your tickets – if you come tonight – with a return envelope. I got a gift for you on behalf of the Suns for showing up.”
Sarver, who gave them a refund, believed that his team’s supporters had been short-changed by a visiting side that did not include some of its star players, such as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. It was also a dig at Gregg Popovich, the Spurs coach, who had not seen fit to be in Arizona with his squad.
Asked later about Sarver’s intervention, Popovich said that Duncan and Ginobili had been rested after a two-week trip to Europe. Leonard had an eye infection. “The silliness begins,” said Popovich. “Most wise individuals would check facts before they make statements. Unless you’re interested in putting on a show… the only thing that surprises me is that he didn’t say it in a chicken suit.”
A chicken suit? Those with long memories, including Popovich, have not forgotten the regular-season game against Phoenix in 2005 when San Antonio pulled out Duncan and Ginobili an hour before tip-off. Angry that it devalued the occasion, and indeed his team’s victory, Sarver flapped his arms at the Spurs bench in a “chicken” gesture.
Those were the early days of his ownership, since when Sarver has matured somewhat, but the tale is instructive. The 53-year-old American who has tabled a £20 million bid to assume control of Rangers Football Club is a passionate, competitive operator who is not afraid to say what he thinks, even if it rubs one or two up the wrong way.
Sarver is a successful businessman, one of the NBA’s more prudent franchise owners, but he is a curious character, in public and private. Those who have been in his company speak of his clumsy manner, his tendency to blurt out unexpected, sometimes inappropriate, remarks almost before he thinks, which perhaps explains his interest in taking over one of the biggest basket cases in world football.
He was born in Tucson, son of Jack Sarver, a big cheese in banking and hotels. A graduate of the University of Arizona, Robert founded the National Bank of Arizona at the age of just 23. He needed a significant loan from his wealthy family to get started, but he made the most of it, selling up for a huge profit in 1994. He is now – amongst other things – chairman and chief executive of Western Alliance Bank, the biggest financial institution headquartered in his home state.
He plays golf, tennis and volleyball, but there is no history of interest in soccer. Basketball has always been his bag. He attended his first Suns game at the age of eight. On their first date, he and his wife, Penny, watched an NCAA match at his house. When he bought the club in 2004, he was the archetypal child in a candy store. “Every kid wishes he was in this business,” he said. “For those of us who can’t play, it’s pretty exciting to own a team.”
His enthusiasm was reflected in his early behaviour. Where Jerry Colangelo, the Suns’ popular and highly-respected previous owner, would watch games from the shadows, Sarver was to be found mid-court, front row, responding to every basket with a wave of his foam finger. As part of the team’s interval entertainment, he danced with cheerleaders and kicked souvenir balls into the crowd.
“He can be a nutjob, but aren’t all multi-millionaires?” says one source close to the financier, whose ten years at the helm have been as unpredictable as he is. Some of it has been good, some of it bad. Colangelo fostered a family atmosphere in Phoenix, but the organisation has been short of stability under Sarver, who has allowed too many key figures, on and off the court, to leave.
Finance is frequently the reason. While Sarver is far from the stingiest owner in the league, his need to extract value for money has tested supporters’ patience. During the NBA lockout of 2011, when the league’s players called for improved working conditions, Sarver was a vocal proponent of the owners’ argument, a hawk who adopted a hard-line approach to the stand off.
In one meeting with his players, they talked about the “mid-level exception”, a loophole that allows teams to increase the wages of mid-range players without falling foul of salary-cap restrictions. Far from entertaining the idea, Sarver said that he would take the exception home to his wife in a Gucci handbag.
It was his idea of a joke, but the players didn’t find it funny – if they were even listening.
“He talks so much and says so many outlandish things in these meetings that people tune him out,” said one respected journalist on a local radio show. “You know him in Phoenix, he can erode his credibility just by opening his mouth.” When it comes to the big decisions, Sarver’s judgment has been questioned. High-profile players have left, claiming they were under-valued. Draft picks have been sold for cash. He has a reputation for refusing to loosen the purse strings, even when his team move closer to the NBA title that has always eluded them.
The question is whether that is anything to be ashamed of. “It’s not just about the money, it’s about creating space for other players,” says Seth Pollack, a sportswriter who has covered much of Sarver’s time in charge. “Whatever you think of his decisions, I think they were made for genuine basketball reasons, not just him trying to save every last penny.”
If Sarver were successful in his bid to take over Rangers – and with 75 per cent shareholder approval required, the odds are against him – he would be willing to take unpopular decisions. He would also appreciate the need to sacrifice short-term success for the club’s overall benefit.
When Amar’e Stoudemire asked for a lucrative, long-term contract in 2010, despite chronic knee problems, Sarver played hard ball. He refused to comply with his star player’s demands, offering only a short-term, performance-based deal. There was unrest in the bleachers when Stoudemire left for New York, especially when results suffered, but they are not complaining now. A new Phoenix team has evolved, and Stoudemire has been plagued by injuries.
For every correct decision, there has been a wrong one. Just before Stoudemire left, Phoenix also lost Steve Kerr, their general manager, who had led them on a surprise run to the Western Conference finals. Kerr asked for a wage rise, Sarver said no and, before they knew it, the owner had taken control of his longstanding colleague’s duties.
It didn’t work out, but for that short spell as general manager, Sarver lived the dream. If he could, he would take full responsibility for the trading process. He would be in the locker room, rubbing shoulders with the team and talking tactics with the coaches. His office in downtown Phoenix overlooks the basketball arena.
“He is a very hands-on owner, very controlling,” says Dave King, editor of Bright Side of the Sun, a fans’ website. “He has backed off in the last couple of years because he has finally hired really good guys who know what they are doing, but when he doesn’t trust his front office, he is all over them. Every day.”
King suggests that the current shortage of fires to fight could be behind Sarver’s interest in Rangers. There are not many other plausible explanations, except perhaps a conversation with David Robertson, the former Rangers defender who is now executive director of Sereno Soccer Club in Phoenix. Robertson, who coaches Sarver’s three sons, is reported to have alerted him to the Ibrox club’s plight.
Sarver sees a business opportunity in Rangers, but if a little bit of him is also taken with the chance to do some good, it wouldn’t be entirely out of character. Over the years, he has given plenty back. A $1m donation by his charitable foundation helped to establish the Children’s Museum of Phoenix. The Suns’ community work includes the “adoption” of an inner-city high school, where they have ploughed time and money into reducing drop-out rates.
Sarver, who also owns Phoenix Mercury, of the women’s NBA, was so opposed to the introduction of Arizona’s controversial immigration law in 2010 that he used a Mexican holiday – known as Cinco de Mayo – to make a political statement. In a game against San Antonio, Phoenix wore their “Los Suns” jerseys, hitherto used only to promote the NBA’s Hispanic marketing campaign.
If there was an element of the publicity stunt about it, at least he had the courage of his convictions. Sarver doesn’t mind putting himself out there. When he took over the Suns, his early on-court antics included dunking basketballs from a trampoline. If he shows up on the pitch at Ibrox any time soon, we are in for quite a ride.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS