PHOENIX – Long before he became the leader of the country’s largest overall mortgage lending company, Mat Ishbia was a driveway floor general dreaming of playing in the NBA.
The 5-foot-10 Ishbia never did achieve the pro hoops goal he imagined during icy Detroit winters spent shooting hoops with his older brother Justin and his friend Jon Borovich, but the 43-year-old billionaire might have accomplished the next best thing.
He bought an NBA team.
And it didn’t take long for the new owner of the Phoenix Suns to put his imprint on the franchise. Only 12 hours after Ishbia conducted a motivational introductory news conference, the Suns pulled the blockbuster trade for 13-time NBA All-Star forward Kevin Durant, who makes his home debut Wednesday with the team.
Ishbia pushed to close the deal to purchase the Suns from embattled previous owner Robert Sarver before the NBA trade deadline with an eye on obtaining Durant, ESPN’s senior NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski reported.
The quick impact probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those who have known Ishbia since those days in the driveway.
“When it comes to Mat Ishbia, anything is possible,” said Borovich, Michigan State’s director of recruiting operations. “When he sets his mind to something, he’s going to do everything he can to try to accomplish that.
“I think when the opportunity presented itself and the possibility of being an owner of an NBA franchise (was there), he was going to do whatever it took to not only become an owner, but he’s going to try to be the best owner, try to win championships and help that community get to a great level.”
For Ishbia, it was all part of his reconfigured NBA plan.
“My life has been completely tied to basketball,” Ishbia said. “Basketball is my life, a huge part of my life. It always has been.
“When I realized I wasn’t good enough to be in the NBA, I thought, ‘How could I, instead of playing in the NBA, maybe own a team?’ I didn’t know how realistic that was, but when you set big goals, you say what’s important now and you start working towards them.”
Borovich witnessed that Ishbia drive in the driveway and on other Detroit basketball courts he shared with Mat and his brother when the three were growing up in the 1990s.
“I was in the driveway with those guys many times playing hoops,” Borovich said. “It was always highly competitive, and it wasn’t just basketball. It’s everything. Whether we were playing hide-and-seek, it didn’t matter. They wanted to win.”
Borovich and the Ishbia brothers were on the playgrounds of their elementary school, going head-to-head daily. The battles traveled from the schoolyard back to the Ishbia residence.
Justin compared the relationship he had with Mat to the rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, which confused Borovich because they were all die-hard Pistons fans.
Despite the murky analogy, sports – and especially basketball – connected the trio.
Mat’s father, Jeff Ishbia – or “Mr. Ishbia,” as Borovich still calls him to this day – coached their Little League and AAU basketball teams where Borovich first witnessed Mat’s competitive spirit.
“He and I were really close because of basketball,” Borovich said. “I loved it. He loved it. We worked out together all the time. In the summers, he was really dedicated and committed to being phenomenal at the game. That’s a common bond between the two of us.”
Mat’s “fiery” attitude carried him through his high school basketball career at Ernest W. Seaholm, where he showed early that his acumen as a point guard was off the charts.
A year older than Mat, Borovich watched as his childhood friend quickly climbed the ranks from junior varsity to varsity in only his sophomore year. And while neither was the “greatest” athlete, their competitive spirit motivated them to work to reach the mountaintop.
During his senior year, Mat averaged 25 points a game and had real aspirations to reach the pros. His passion for basketball amplified his work ethic as he was determined to take his game to the next level.
Justin Ishbia remembers that Mat was so obsessed with improving that he often found creative ways to get better, even recruiting his father to help him.
“I went off to college, and I came back one day. It was early, and (Mat) was out at 8 a.m. shooting baskets,” Justin said. “My dad made a makeshift pole with a hand over it. Mat was shooting over a pretend person that was 8-feet tall.
“I said, ‘Mat, nobody in high school is 8-feet tall. What are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m going to be in the NBA one day.’ I know he really believed it.”
Justin called his brother a “star” on and off the court, who hustled to become the player he was in his career. Despite the high school success, Mat went to Michigan State as a walk-on, where he was coached by Tom Izzo, who would become one of the most influential figures in his life.
“He made a huge impact on my life,” Mat said. “I learned so much from coach Izzo on team and family but also straight out work ethic, outwork everybody, and that’s a big part of my mentality. Tom Izzo has been a huge part of my life.”
Mat pokes fun at suggestions that he “played” at MSU, noting that he mostly “sat” during his career with the Spartans. He did appear in 48 games during his career and started once.
However, even while riding the bench, he was absorbing lessons from Izzo and contributing as a team leader.
The Spartans reached the Final Four during each of Ishbia’s first three seasons in East Lansing, and during his senior year a familiar face joined him. After finishing his basketball career at Central Michigan, Borovich joined the MSU coaching staff as a graduate assistant for the 2001-02 season, Ishbia’s final season.
The two rekindled the bond forged in their driveway battles, and while Mat didn’t see much playing time, Borovich said his impact on that Spartans team was apparent.
“He was such a big part of the program, what the program stood for and the culture the coaches really built here,” Borovich said. “He got that group together whether it was on the court or off the court and unified them both from a basketball standpoint and just a social standpoint …
“He was always fun to be around. He wanted others to be successful and was willing to do whatever it took for the program to continue to play at the championship level.”
As a graduate assistant, Borovich again witnessed Ishbia competitive spirit on display. During practices, Mat would take the scout team, go head-to-head with the starters, and cause chaos. His basketball IQ was something to marvel at, according to Borovich, and illustrated his desire to win.
The duo shared special moments during Mat’s senior campaign, including a 3-pointer he buried in a victory over rival Michigan. After hanging up his basketball sneakers, Ishbia traded his jersey for a polo shirt and joined Borovich as a graduate assistant on Izzo’s staff.
The new Suns owner took away life lessons as a Spartan because of Izzo’s leadership, which had a direct impact on his life outside of East Lansing that he has put to use in his business career.
He succeeded his father as CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage about a decade ago, and like his quick start with the Suns, he wasted no time making an impact. Under his leadership, the company grew into the largest wholesale mortgage lender in the U.S. in each of the last seven years.
And in 2022, the company surpassed rival Rocket Mortgage as the top overall mortgage lender in the U.S., according to Business Wire.
Rocket Mortgage is owned by Dan Gilbert, who also is owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and reportedly was the only NBA owner who voted against granting Ishbia the Phoenix franchise.
Ishbia poured himself into taking UWM to No. 1, and now he hopes to take a Suns franchise that has been among the NBA’s best teams but has never won a championship to that same high perch.
While he now owns an NBA team in the desert, his basketball passion has never traveled far from that frozen driveway in Detroit.
“I’m a fan,” he said. “Growing up, my dad would take us – whether it’s an upper deck (ticket) or a lower deck or whatever – and if a player waved at us, that was like a birthday present and the best thing ever.”