The relationship between Robert Pera’s ownership group and the city of Memphis has been cold since the start. Memphians were wary when Pera & Co. were announced as likely buyers of Michael Heisley’s franchise, and justifiably so: ownership transitions are often bumpy, and they tend to result in relocation (Heisley himself moved the franchise from Vancouver to Memphis after promising not to when he took over as majority owner.)
Pera, a self-made tech entrepreneur from California, had no ties to Memphis and his motives for buying the team sounded whimsical. When it was reported that this net worth had been shrinking rapidly, many speculated that he might move the franchise, which ranks near the bottom of the league in profitability, to a more lucrative market in California to bolster his personal wealth. These rumors were squelched when a deal was brokered to include local notables Peyton Manning, Penny Hardaway, and Justin Timberlake as minority owners.
After Pera took over, those who expected to see him and Jason Levien, his right-hand man and orchestrator of the purchase, in FedEx forum on a nightly basis were sorely disappointed. It’s unreasonable to expect Mark Cuban-levels of involvement from every team owner, but Pera’s truancy was off-putting. Why was the self-proclaimed basketball junkie not interested in watching his new “toy?” Why buy a team in Memphis when he spent all of his time out west? Cooler heads tried to persuade fans that Pera, like Heisley, might take a detached, laissez-faire approach to managing the Grizzlies – but they were proved wrong in January.
Just three months into his reign, Pera proved he was willing to make unfavorable decisions in the name of business: he dealt Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington, Josh Selby, and a draft pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Hollinger-approved but little known Jon Leuer. He then traded leading scorer Rudy Gay (and fan favorite Hamed Haddadi) away for three smaller parts, none of whom could individually replace the Rudy-shaped hole in the box score, or the Hamed-shaped hole in fans’ hearts.
The trades infuriated Memphians. Even those who thought Rudy should go believed we had undersold him. Angry locals, national sportswriters and even his own head coach villainized Pera, saying the cost-cutting efforts were badly timed, and that a promising season was now in the drain. The naysayers were wrong in the end, but the damage to Pera’s favorability was done.
The straw that now threatens to break the camel’s back came after the season, when Jason Levien notified Hollins that he would not return to coach the team he had built into a conference finalist. Again, staunch defenders of Pera’s ownership decisions – and even the optimistic “keep calm and grind on” types such as myself – had their voices drowned out by bitter, fuming, riotous fans. Local reporter Ron Tillery all-but-openly took sides against Levien and Pera.
Now, two weeks later, the angry mob outside Pera’s door is still there – lulled to sleep by Levien’s deliberate interview process, but still in place. The Grizzlies right now are like a ship without a sail, and skittish fans want something: a sign of hope. A comforting reassurance. A reason to believe again.
So why has no one offered it?
The front office that fired its head coach for communication failures has been largely incommunicative. It’s pretty unforgivable, and it makes it easy to imagine that whoever replaces Hollins, even in-house assistant Dave Joerger, might get the fan base’s loyalty all to himself. Rather than reach out to fans to explain their reasoning, their ideas for a new coach, and their vision for the future, the front office has locked its doors and elected to play damage control through local radio interviews. And anyone who has listened to Jason Levien give an interview knows just how empty and unsatisfying his answers can be.
Grizz fans are right to be concerned. The team it supports, however unprofitably, is being withheld. Its owners are sabotaging the relationship with the fans through silence and unpredictability. It may be just business, but it feels personal, too.