Owner says he never bought the Vancouver Grizzlies intending to move them
Worst trade in NBA history? 'It depends'
By Brad Ziemer, Vancouver Sun
May 12, 2010
Michael Heisley bought the Vancouver Grizzlies 10 years ago and it took the Chicago businessman less than a season to decide that the NBA team could not be financially viable in Vancouver. He moved the team to Memphis, where it remains. Sun sportswriter Brad Ziemer, who covered the Grizzlies for most of their six years in Vancouver, caught up with Heisley in Chicago this week and reports that nearly a decade later Heisley still isn't making any money in Memphis.
CHICAGO - Michael Heisley doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about what might have been.
That's not how you rise from humble origins to become a self-made billionaire who now ranks among the 250 richest people in America. Reflection is not a big part of his business repertoire.
But occasionally, very occasionally, Heisley does think about Vancouver and wonder how things might have turned out if now was then.
When Heisley bailed on Vancouver, the Canadian dollar had sunk as low as 67 cents. It's now nearly at par with its American counterpart and the city has prospered in the last decade, successfully hosting the Winter Olympics.
Heisley, who has visited Vancouver a half-dozen times since moving the team, has noticed the changes.
"I think the dollar would have helped tremendously," Heisley said in an interview this week. "Would it have made it then? I think it would have. Absolutely. I think it was a perfect storm, but how did I know when the Canadian dollar was going to get back to par. My only question would be whether the community would ever have supported both of them [the Grizzlies and Canucks] the way they are now supporting the hockey team."
Heisley maintains he lost something north of $40 million in his one year in Vancouver. Nearly a decade later he's still losing money in Memphis, but not nearly as much of it.
"I don't like to fail and I consider that one of the biggest failures in my career," he said of his decision to move the team from Vancouver. "But I make the decisions based on what the facts are when I make the decisions. I have made a lot of decisions in my business career and if I sit back and sort of look back and say I wish ... I can't afford to do that or I would be miserable. My point is you make the best decision you can make, it was very painful for me to make that decision, it was very painful because I know a lot of people who had counted on me felt like I had let them down."
Heisley chuckles when told of a recent comment by Toronto Raptors coach Jay Triano, who called the move to Memphis from Vancouver the worst trade in NBA history.
"Well, it depends on what you are trading," Heisley said. "If he wants to say we were trading one set of losses for another, it was a great move. I truly love the people in Vancouver. I was extremely happy to be there, it's just that we were talking about between $40 [million] and $60 million a year in losses. Those are big numbers. I couldn't in good conscience continue to lose that kind of money for a basketball team. We haven't made any money in Memphis, but the losses have been close to zero or not nearly as bad."
It bothers Heisley, who is now 73, that some people still believe he bought the team with every intention of moving it. He swears that was not the case.
He said the team he hired to advise him on the possible purchase of the Grizzlies from then owner John McCaw painted a much rosier picture of the team's finances than what he inherited when he took control.
Season-ticket sales stalled at about 8,000 and Heisley was paying to rent General Motors Place and not getting much in the way of revenue from concessions or corporate suites. And the Canadian dollar was killing him.
"I always thought that Vancouver was the most beautiful city in the western hemisphere. I thought it was great when I was there and I think if anything it's even greater now. I love the city. People who think I got out for some reason other than financial are crazy.
"We were dividing the market with the Canucks, and they were not doing well at the time, either. In fact, John was trying to sell them, too. And he tried to get me to buy both and if I had been smart I would have bought both. It would have been easier to operate."
In Memphis, he owns an arena -- the FedEx Forum -- that was largely built with public funds. Still, it has been a struggle. Tickets to a Grizzlies game in Memphis can be had for as little as $5 and the team averaged only 13,385 attendees a game this past season, third worst in the NBA. The Grizzlies have made the playoffs in three of their nine seasons in Memphis, but have yet to win a post-season contest.
Heisley took on some minority owners a few years ago and hoped they would ultimately buy him out. But that now seems unlikely. He has said he'd like to sell the team to local owners, but has received no interest.
So he hangs onto it and sees about 20 to 25 games a season in person and catches most of the others on TV.
"I made it clear when I went there that I thought the team ultimately should be owned by local people and not by somebody from Chicago. I still feel that way. But I have not found the right people.
"I own more than 98 per cent of the team. It used to be 70 per cent, but the minority partners didn't want to cover the losses the team was suffering. So over the years I have ended up with about 98 per cent."
Despite all the losing -- on the court and off it -- Heisley said he has no regrets about his decision to become an NBA owner. The Grizzlies are just one of more than 40 businesses Heisley owns.
"I think the experience has been interesting. I would have liked to have been a lot more successful. Let me tell you, people don't realize as an owner when you lose or have a bad team you can't imagine how bad it is to your psyche."
Asked if he felt the Aquilini family, the current owners of the Canucks and General Motors Place, should perhaps consider giving the NBA a second chance in Vancouver, Heisley said: "My advice to them would be, be happy with what you've got."
Despite the money he lost and the heat he took when he announced the team was leaving Vancouver, Heisley insists he has one memory that makes it all worthwhile.
He made good on a promise to sing the Canadian anthem at the Grizzlies' home-opener of the 2000-01 season at GM Place.
"That was the thrill of a lifetime, I'm not kidding," he said. "A great memory. Because I had to practise that thing over and over, I've got 12 grandchildren who can all sing the Canadian national anthem."
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