The only time Suns fans really hear from Robert Sarver, the managing partner of the team, is when he’s on The Burns & Gambo Show to break down his decisions. Rarely do Valley hoops lovers get to learn about the man whose face is the symbol behind any of the highs and lows the team goes through.
An appearance last week on The Outlet, the Suns’ in-house podcast, gave fans a peek behind the curtain at the Wizard of Oz, so to speak, the man pulling the strings within the organization. Sarver talked about where his competitive streak came from, what inspired him to invest in an NBA team, and the ways the Suns have given back to the community during the NBA stoppage.
“Trying to figure out how to maneuver and grow as an owner of the team has been something that’s been a challenge to me,” Sarver admitted, “and I like challenges. In some ways, I look at it like a board game. What are the pieces, how do you have to improve and get better?
“It’s been a real energizer at this stage of my career, to try to get this team back to where I want it to be,” Sarver continued. “I think we’ve made a few steps the past few years, but there’s a long way to go.”
When Sarver was a kid, he told host Lindsey Smith, there was a tennis court in the small townhome community he grew up in. A young Robert would challenge his dad to games of tennis routinely, and when he became a teenager, his skills started to match his dad’s, so the father resorted to mind games. When those stopped working too, the elder Sarver quit while he was ahead, ensuring Robert never bested him.
Those games are what Sarver attributes his competitive edge to, but it was a happenstance conversation with the late NBA commissioner David Stern that put Sarver in position to own the Suns. As the president and CEO of Western Alliance Bancorporation, Sarver had a lot of business in Las Vegas, and as the league was putting down roots in the area, Stern connected with Sarver to gauge his interest in team ownership. As a Tucson native, Sarver was a natural fit for the Phoenix Suns, and the rest is history.
Once Sarver took over the Suns, he said, the philanthropic efforts that have continued during the pandemic were second nature. Despite growing up in a blue-collar family without a lot of extra money, Sarver’s parents encouraged giving and connecting with the community. With more money and assets at his disposal running the Suns, Sarver has continued that work. He told Smith the Suns put $12 million back into the Valley community in 2019.
One wonders whether more of this would help Sarver’s cause. Not that I’m the type to give out free PR advice to millionaires, but why not do more?
A former Suns employee once told me that the main reason most of Sarver’s public comments come from Arizona Sports on the radio is because that’s what Sarver is most comfortable with. Yes, Sarver was around for the ground-breaking of the team’s training facility in Phoenix, speaking extensively with media, but prior to that, the last time he spoke was in July 2017 when James Jones was hired as VP of Basketball Ops.
It’s not that Suns fans wouldn’t still have qualms with their owner. It’s part of being a sports fans to be angry about ownership. Sarver is no exception, though some stories paint him in a bad light even by sports owner standards. Wouldn’t more of this help?
A guy whose reputation is of poor management will have problems, but a guy like that who is a complete mystery to his company’s customers will have it even worse. I have a hunch Sarver is a persona non grata in part because he looms silently over everything. The only time you hear from him is when he’s explaining upheaval or bad stuff comes out through the media. That’s a recipe for disaster.
While we’re on the topic, this felt like a missed opportunity for Sarver to be definitive about the uprisings around the country and the continuing battle against white supremacy in the United States. Monty Williams and Aron Baynes were incredible messengers for the franchise in recent weeks, but Sarver’s voice rings over everyone’s.
As we’ve seen with the reaction to statements from other companies, teams, publications and celebrities, the bar is high. (Maybe there’s room to argue if it’s entirely fair, but I suggest reading this from Zito Madu to understand why empty words are so damaging.) The Suns have engineered their stance perfectly, with two great communicators in Williams and Baynes going first.
It can’t stop there. I certainly don’t think it will. Players are working to create a unified front against white supremacy if and when they resume the NBA season in Orlando, and the Suns will be part of that, in one way or another. Their work in the community is admirable and won’t stop as long as Sarver is in charge.
Still, this moment demands more. It demands rethinking what had previously seemed impossible or too far. It demands continued, determined fighting, with words, actions and capital. It demands leadership that is hip to the movement and conducts these efforts.
This is not to question Sarver’s beliefs or righteousness — though, again, we don’t hear from him enough to know. But going out to speak amidst all that is going on and ignoring this fight is a missed opportunity, especially when others are putting their necks out to breach new territory in a movement that has lasted generations.