PHOENIX – Mat Ishbia always thought he would make it to the NBA. His dreams started in the mid-’90s during backyard battles against his brother Justin.
“Mat was Magic Johnson,” Justin said. “I was Larry Bird.”
At 5-feet-10, Ishbia was no Magic. Still, he later would attend Johnson’s alma mater, Michigan State, as a walk-on with the men’s basketball team, where he was part of the 2000 national championship team coached by Tom Izzo. He averaged only 2.4 minutes a game and scored 28 total points in three seasons.
“When I realized I wasn’t good enough to be in the NBA, (I thought) maybe (I could) own a team,” Ishbia said during Wednesday’s introductory press conference at the Footprint Center.
Under Izzo, he developed the leadership, attitude and work ethic that helped him build United Wholesale Mortgage from a small company into America’s largest mortgage lender. With a successful career as president and CEO of UWM, Ishbia once again finds himself entrenched in basketball, this time as a team owner alongside Justin, who will serve as alternate governor.
Ishbia had been linked to purchasing other sports teams in the past, but basketball is where he wanted to ultimately land. When the opportunity to buy the Suns and Mercury came, he and his family pounced at the chance and purchased the teams for a record-setting $4 billion.
“This is the dream city, the dream opportunity, the dream organization,” Ishbia said in front of a crowd consisting of friends, family, Suns Ring of Honor members and Phoenix mayor Kate Gallego. “This city is unbelievable. This is not just another NBA team. This is the Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Mercury. I want to be part of this with you guys.”
Ishbia takes control over a team that has been the subject of controversy for the better part of the last year and a half. ESPN first reported in 2021 how former team owner Robert Sarver fostered a toxic workplace environment permeating with racism, misogyny and verbal abuse among other workplace misconduct allegations. Later in 2022, an investigation found the allegations from the ESPN article to be true, culminating in Sarver’s suspension and subsequent sale of the team. Ishbia hopes to correct the wrongs done by his predecessor.
“I have to start with our people here,” Ishbia said. “I don’t call them employees, I call them team members. We want to treat (our employees) so well they never want to leave. We’re going to go forward and make some changes, and make this one of the best places to work across the country.
“I’ve come here to listen. The next 60, 90, 120 days are about listening and learning. I need to put the right people in place, give them all the resources and support to be successful and let them do a great job.”
Growing up, Ishbia said some of his most cherished basketball memories were from going to games and having a player wave hello to him. He wants every fan to have an enjoyable experience when visiting the Footprint Center. He wants players willing to give fans the same experience he had before, and gameday employees always offering a smile and willing to help.
“We can’t win all the games,” Ishbia said. “But we can win every kid’s heart and every person’s mindset. Every single game we’re making a fun experience, even when we lose.”
Part of creating a great fan experience is putting a winning product on the court. With the trade deadline looming Thursday afternoon, Ishbia will have the final say about roster moves. Jae Crowder is known to want out of Phoenix, while names such as Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant, Toronto’s OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, and Atlanta’s John Collins are reportedly on Phoenix’s wishlist. Whether any of those names arrive in Phoenix or not, Ishbia isn’t going to be afraid to make moves. Even if it means dipping further into the luxury tax.
“I’m not going to be sitting here counting the dollars, I’m going to be focused on how we improve our team,” Ishbia said. “We’re not going to sacrifice long term for short term, but we’re going to try and win every day.”
The last year and a half has been filled with off-court distractions for a Suns team trying to win its first championship. After digging an early hole, the Suns (30-26) have braved the storm and can see brighter days ahead with the fifth seed in the Western Conference, Devin Booker’s return from a lengthy injury, and now, a new team owner committed to all facets of the team.