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Exclusive interview with Mat Ishbia on leadership, Chris Paul, trade deadline and much much more

The new boss man is a boss, man!

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New Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury majority owner Mat Ishbia made a splash Wednesday.

He held a press conference inside Footprint Center that showcased his savviness as a businessman, lecturer and hopefully for the city, a community leader. He told reporters he is focused on building the Suns around four areas: community impact, fan experience, team-member culture and winning.

“I’m not just a short-term thinker. I’m also a long-term thinker,” Ishbia said. “I’m going to be here for 40, 50 years. ... I’m going to be here a long time. I know you can’t win every single day, but we’re going to try.”

The Suns made a huge splash overnight. They acquired Brooklyn Nets superstar forward Kevin Durant in exchange for starting forwards (and our twins) Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Jae Crowder. TJ Warren is also involved in the package for Durant and will return to Phoenix after he played there from 2014-15 to 2018-19.

Phoenix also gave up four first-round picks and a pick swap in exchange for Durant.

Ishbia is knowledgeable with basketball – he played at Michigan State under legendary coach Tom Izzo and won a national championship with the team in 2000 – and should be able to provide a perspective for the team that might be rare for ownership in the NBA. If he has shown anything already, it’s that he is ready to win now.

Bright Side of the Sun publisher Dave King had a one-on-one interview with Ishbia that occurred after his introductory press conference Wednesday morning. Here is everything that transpired from that interview.

Dave: I personally am really big, Mat, on leadership and how people approach leadership. In my day job, that’s my whole life. And so when you say you’re a very hands-on person – I asked you this question in the opening presser – but I want to follow up a little bit more about it. You’re really hands-on, you know what people are doing every day. You want to touch. Right? The physical touch, even if it’s not ‘physical’ physical. I’m really wondering how you’re going to accomplish that here, living in Michigan.

Mat: Well, I’m going to be active. I’m going to be out here getting to know people, like you said. But I got to get hiring people, like we talked about earlier. Hiring people, giving them resources they need to be successful, right? Do everything I can to put them in positions to succeed. And then trust them. But then of course, verify it. And so, but the way I’m going to be verifying it is being out here, talking to people, spending time with people and getting – you mentioned it – my Thursday walk-arounds of what I do. And we’re going to do the same thing when I’m out here too. And so the difference is, my organization back in Michigan is over 7,000 people. Here, is 400 people or so, 450 people or so. And I’m excited to get a chance to know them. So I feel like I got an opportunity to meet a lot of people, spend time with them and listen. So I’m meeting with them all tomorrow, as an example, and find out about what they love about being here and what I can make better. And then I’m going to start incrementally inching us better every day. And so I’m really big on leadership, culture, team, like that’s what I do. And if you’re ever out in Michigan, I’d love to show you my office and you can understand what I mean.

Dave: OK, thank you very much. I appreciate that. I’m wondering, as a new owner, as you said, over the next 90 days you’re going to watch and listen. Are you focused more on the business side for the next 90 days or on the sports side for the next 90 days?

Mat: I’m focused on it all. So the way I look at it is, obviously, the basketball side is really important over the next, what, 36 hours or so? That’s obviously understood by me. But the basketball side is always important. The business side is always important. You can’t focus on one and not the other. It’s all one team. And so, I’ll be very involved going from a meeting with, what we call, with James Jones to meeting with the head of sales to meeting with the head of legal. Like, I’m involved with all of those details. I can’t say I’m going to focus on one or the other. Because I’m going to be involved with everything.

Dave: You obviously did your own due diligence on the Suns organization before putting in a bid. You’re not going to spend all this money and not know what you’re getting. Was there anything about that due diligence process, that research that surprised you, that you didn’t expect?

Mat: Not really, definitely not anything negative. Only more excitement. The more I dug in, the more I learned. I don’t know if I could have been more excited when I first thought, and then I got even more excited digging in. And the opportunity ahead of me, the people, the opportunity with the team, the opportunity with the business side. I feel like there’s so much – I think I can add a lot of value. And so if anything, I got more excited when we started to do the due diligence. And I think that’s hard, when you’re not 100/100 excited about the Phoenix Suns and Mercury, it’s like, ‘How do you get above that?’ But I did once I started reading into it more.

Dave: OK. And on the other side, the other NBA owners, the board of governors, the league, had to look into your background and make sure everything was straight. Was there anything about that process that you’re willing to share that surprised you that they discovered and had to ask you about?

Mat: Not at all. No. I thought they asked me questions and they dug in and did as thorough of an investigation and detail about, people I haven’t seen in 20 years, getting calls and I’m sure they do a great job, which is great. Got to get the right people, are out there, and the right people are joining their group, their ownership group. And so nothing surprised me at all. I thought it was very detailed and that’s fantastic. And I hope they do that with every owner, because it’s a community and it matters. And so getting the right people in the organization is important.

Dave: One of the things that (Dallas Mavericks owner) Mark Cuban said years ago when his organization team had some investigation into harassment and things like that and misogyny, and then there was the (former Los Angeles Clippers owner) Donald Sterling issues that he had. He (Cuban) said (paraphrasing), ‘You know, it’s really hard for us to to vote against one of our guys, one of our fellow owners. We don’t want to set ourselves up.’ He actually said this in an interview, ‘We don’t want to set us up for our own look-back later.’ Was there some, do you feel like, extra concern on part of the owners when they were vetting you to make sure that they weren’t bringing in anybody that they’d have to later – did you feel like there was extra focus?

Mat: I don’t. I knew a lot of the owners, I met them over the last couple of years, built relationships with them. They know who I am, I know who they are. And once again, the thoroughness of the NBA is beyond what I think people would understand and expect. There’s a lot of people that can say rumors and say random things. The NBA found out the details and found out exactly the way things were and every aspect of everything. And so I don’t think there was any more concern by any of the NBA owners at all.

Dave: Let me turn over to the other owners. With the other owners that, you said, you’ve met them and all that, what you model yourself more like, ‘Hey, I want to be like a (Clippers owner) Steve Ballmer or a (Golden State Warriors majority owner) Joe Lacob. Or is there an owner you would align yourself with as like, the perfect situation, ‘I want to be that kind of owner?’

Mat: You know, I don’t have an owner that I would model myself after. I am who I am and Mat Ishbia is who Mat Ishbia is. And understand I can do what I can contribute. I’ve obviously studied the NBA and the NFL and the owners that are most successful. And figuring out what traits that I can pull from all of them, like key names, (New England Patriots CEO and president, respectively) Robert and Jonathan Kraft. Which trait can I pull from a Mark Cuban?

What traits can I pull from these guys and add and accentuate that about who I am? But not trying to be anybody else. I’m going to be who I am. I’m proud of who I am, and I think I can do great at this job. And at the same time, I’m going to try to steal as many tricks from other people as possible.

Dave: Your views on leadership and accountability in a team context. I guess I want to ask this in terms of the actual guys on the court, the Phoenix Suns. One of the greatest leaders in the history of basketball is (starting point guard) Chris Paul. And yet he’s getting toward the end of his career and his impact on the court is marginally less than it used to be and now, he’s got contract issues coming up. And yet for this Suns team, he is the greatest leader that they’ve had since (former guard) Steve Nash, probably. How do you see team-building? Is it more important for you to keep the leadership around, or what rubric do you consider when you think about the future an aging veteran like that on the team versus developing new guys?

Mat: Yeah, highly, highly value leadership. I happened to be at the (Detroit) Pistons-Suns game in my hometown last week. And sitting there — my seats happened to be right next to the bench, the Suns bench. And seeing how Chris Paul interacts and seeing how Chris Paul leads, I know what a winner is. That guy’s a winner. And so I value leadership heavily. Obviously, I understand all the things that people like to talk about with, ‘Oh, he’s 37, 38 years old.’ I understand that but I also understand leadership and leaders. And so winners and leadership matters, and you can have people that have that trait and people that don’t have that trait. Very few have it at the highest level and I think that Chris might be one of those guys.

Dave: Ok final question. This is going to be out of left field. One of my readers asked me to ask this question of you. When you were voted in by the board of governors or when you met the board of governors, was there a point at which you were told all the deep, dark secrets of the NBA that — you know — the rumors like, ‘Was the (NBA draft) lottery envelope really frozen? Was Michael Jordan really suspended for two seasons?’ Did you get read in on all this deep, dark secrets of the NBA?’

Mat: (Laughs). No, no I did not. I really don’t know if there are deep, dark secrets. (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver, his whole executive team, everyone in the NBA was first class. They welcomed me, they asked me questions. They explained things. When I had questions, they responded. It was first class. I don’t know all the NBA secrets or hidden secrets or rumors. None of that was ever brought up or discussed. But it’s been a great (inaudible) so far.

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