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For Tilman Fertitta, owning the Houston Rockets was always a dream. It’s one he’d been waiting more than 20 years to see come true.
Fertitta, the 60-year-old CEO of the Landry’s dining and entertainment group and Golden Nugget Casinos and Hotels, was one of the original investors in the NFL’s Houston Texans. He then tried to buy the Rockets in 1993, only to be outbid by Leslie Alexander. Fertitta spent the next two years serving as an advisory director instead.
“He was just always enthusiastic about the team, always wanted to talk about basketball,” recalls former Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson. “He loves the game.”
Then, in September, Alexander announced that he was putting the team up for sale. Fertitta, who’s owned courtside seats at Houston’s Toyota Center for the past few years, decided to pounce. He purchased the team in September for a record $2.2 billion.
So how should Rockets fans feel about the man now in charge of their franchise?
“I think he’ll be a great owner,” says former Rockets player and current Houston resident Tracy McGrady. “His personality, I think him caring about the people of Houston, he’s a real people person. I think he will get out and do whatever it takes to make this team successful and have people fill those seats. He’s the perfect guy…he’s a great successor to Les.”
Bleacher Report spoke with Fertitta in a wide-ranging Q&A about topics such as: the price he paid for the Rockets; the economics of the modern NBA; the long-term prospects of the NBA vs. the NFL; learning the inner workings of the game from famed general manager Daryl Morey and Fertitta’s thoughts on Houston superstar guard James Harden.
Bleacher Report: Does the $2.2 billion number worry you?
Tilman Fertitta: First off, that’s just what the team was going to cost. I think (former Rockets owner) Les wasn’t going to sell the team unless he could do so for a new record. Before I made the deal I talked to people all over the country in the sports world. Houston’s been one of the top-tier teams for many years, from the perspective of income but also a stabilizing of franchise—I just knew it was going to take over $2 billion (to buy the team).
If I wasn’t willing to pay that—teams now aren’t selling for less—then I’d have to move on. But I wanted to buy the team, and do I think that it will be worth more in a few years? Absolutely. Not that it’s something I’m looking to flip in a few years. I like to create, I like to own assets. This was just something that I wanted to own and, financially, it made sense. It’s taking liquidity out of one asset and moving it into another asset.
B/R: So you spend all that money on the team, which makes it seem like you thought it’s valuable, but that also goes against the claims from NBA teams that they lose money.
TF: I think revenue sharing plays a role. Anybody that’s writing out the checks every year, we’re not excited about it. But those are the rules of the NBA and the NBA is trying to make a strong league, so I get it. I knew the rules when I was going into this, that’s just the way it is. Once again, I understand why they’re doing it and no owner, if you interview him, is going to agree 100 percent on everything. If you’re getting money you’ll think you should get more money, if you’re paying money you’ll think you should pay less. That’s just life.
B/R: Is there anything else about the NBA that you, as a prospective owner, were drawn to?
TF: Let me tell you something: The NFL is wonderful and we all love it, but there’s stuff coming out, people that are very familiar with the NFL have said they’re not sure where the league is going to be in 25, 50, 100 years. I was looking at this as a generational asset. MLB has older fans, I believe. So I just felt like this was the best asset. Of course, this was also the only one I had an opportunity to buy, but if I had my choice of the three I’d choose the NBA.
B/R: How involved with basketball decisions do you plan on being?
TF: I have a huge company that I operate; I think I’m more valuable over here running this company than running talent. I do think there’s going to be some synergy in things like basketball and marketing and sales, but absolutely, from a basketball standpoint, I think I’ll leave the guys there to evaluate talent. There will be some tough decisions to make, like on the luxury tax and certain things like that. But day-to-day, I think I have an excellent team in there.
B/R: Are these the kind of things you’ve been discussing with (general manager) Daryl Morey, and what have they been like?
TF: Those talks have been less about individual player talent. But, you know, the issues you have with things like luxury tax and what goes on in free agency—these guys are all really smart and make really good decisions. All you can do is listen to what they recommend. I think we have one of the best basketball operations in the country.
B/R: You bring up the luxury tax—is that something you’re willing to pay?
TF: When you start looking to the future and into keeping this team together, if that’s what it’s going to take then I’m going to leave it to the basketball people and look at their recommendations. These guys are smart, they know you don’t want to be in the luxury tax unless you think you have a team that can take you to the Finals—if that’s the case then who cares about paying that tax? You do whatever you have to do.
B/R: So if you feel the team is championship-level, you’re open to paying that price?
B/R: What have your talks with Daryl (Morey) been like?
TF: I’ve been around basketball for 35 years and I’ve learned more about it in these past 30 days.
B/R: Do you have an example of something you’ve learned that’s surprised you?
TF: You know, I can’t think of one off the top of my head—not that I’d tell you anyway. But I’ve been at school for these past 30 days.
B/R: Did you know James Harden at all beforehand? What have you two spoken about since you became the team owner?
TF: I knew James a little bit before. James wants to win, I can tell you that. We’re all on the same page there.
B/R: He was in the news this week for that back-and-forth with Kevin McHale, about (Harden’s) leadership. Is leadership the kind of thing you’d talk about with him in the future?
TF: You know, we can all get like that: a rise, sometimes. I understand how James feels, how he was hurt by that. And, you know, McHale’s paid to talk about basketball to TV. It’s the kind of thing that happens.
B/R: Do you plan on remaining in your same courtside seat now that you’re the owner?
TF: Yeah, I’m very comfortable where I am.
B/R: You’ll probably have more eyes on you, though.
TF: You know, I’ve been sitting center court, next to Les, and as one of the most prominent business owners in Houston, for a long time. It’s not really new. I’m not going to act differently at games. It’s not like I yell at referees or anything.
B/R: It’s an interesting time in the league now, with talk about season length, All-Star Game format—things like that. Are there any big changes you’d like to see made? Any pet interests that you’d like to be involved with?
TF: I really haven’t gotten that far yet. Right now I want to make sure we’re having a competitive team. But, yeah, I’m going to enjoy being involved, it’s a team of 30 (owners) and excited to be a part of it.