PHOENIX — Before addressing assembled media, former Phoenix Suns players, city officials and others during his introductory news conference Wednesday morning at Footprint Center, billionaire mortgage lender Mat Ishbia first spoke to Suns employees in an upper-level food court at the arena.
Ishbia, who was approved Tuesday to become the Suns’ new governor after buying a controlling 57% stake from Robert Sarver for $2.28 billion, didn’t talk for long, with his remarks lasting about 10 minutes to a group that numbered well over a hundred employees. The 43-year-old former Michigan State men’s basketball walk-on acknowledged that some may be wondering what changes will take place under his reign. But Ishbia said that change will wait because, first, he wants to listen.
He said he wants to hear from employees about what the organization does well and what needs improvement, and, Ishbia added, he wants their ideas, big and small, on everything.
Throughout the brief comments, Ishbia centered on one theme, first and foremost: the Suns’ workplace culture.
“We’re going to win together, we’re going to lose together — as a team — and we’re going to be a family,” Ishbia told employees early on in his initial remarks, according to team sources. “We’re going to take care of each other. We’re going to care about each other.”
Ishbia’s remarks about culture came with the backdrop of years of workplace misconduct allegations against Sarver — first reported by ESPN in November 2021 — that led to a 10-month NBA investigation and, ultimately, to Sarver selling the Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. There were also allegations of workplace misconduct from some top Suns executives under Sarver, all of which contributed to what some employees described as a sometimes toxic and hostile work environment.
While questions remain about Ishbia’s leadership structure, his vow to improve the Suns’ culture — a theme that he hammered on throughout his talk with employees and later during a news conference, which many employees watched from a distance — addressed head-on a major concern among many whom Ishbia is inheriting from Sarver’s nearly two-decade tenure as owner.
Ishbia told employees that everyone’s role matters, that he wants the Suns to be an elite place to work, and that — as with United Wholesale Mortgage, the Michigan-based mortgage lending giant that Ishbia runs — he doesn’t refer to employees as employees but rather as “team members.”
“The team-member experience is everything,” Ishbia told employees. “I want to make this the best place to work. I want to get great people to join. I want to train them and coach them to be the best version of themselves and treat them so well that they don’t ever want to leave.”
He later added, “It’s all about people. People is everything. That’s the most important thing. Without great people, without people that care, you’ve got nothing. So we’re going to start with culture and team.”
After his final words with employees, Ishbia was greeted by cheers and applause, and Ishbia reiterated similar sentiments as he stood on a small stage before family members, Suns minority partners, Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and rows of media.
Speaking at a mile-a-minute pace next to the lectern rather than in front of it, Ishbia displayed the enthusiasm of someone who has finally fulfilled a yearslong goal of buying an NBA team and with the energy of someone who, it would appear, had just consumed a gallon of strong coffee.
Looking out at a group that included players from the Suns’ past, including Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and Tom Chambers, Ishbia introduced his family, including his brother, Justin, who is the team’s second-largest shareholder and will serve as the team’s alternate governor. And Ishbia, perhaps harkening back to language used by former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, referred to himself less as an owner than as a “steward” of Arizona’s first professional sports franchise.
“I look at it as a community asset,” Ishbia said. “I’m not the owner of the Suns and the Mercury. I’m the steward of it.”
Ishbia later added, “I do want to thank Robert Sarver. He chose me to be the next owner. And I think he did a really nice job of trying to think what was best for the community. I think he had great intentions, and I’m proud to be the next owner.”
Ishbia also sought to clarify reports that he would be hiring former NBA star point guard Isiah Thomas, who was sued in 2007 for sexual harassment by a New York Knicks executive during his time as the Knicks’ head coach.
Ishbia said he had no plans to hire Thomas but didn’t rule out hiring Thomas in some role in the future. A spokesman for Ishbia later told ESPN, “This is day one and it’s important to note that Mat is not going to respond to every tweet and leak speculating about the team. Mat and Isiah are good friends but he is not being hired by the Suns in any formal way.”
Ishbia assumed his role just prior to the NBA’s Feb. 9 trade deadline. He was asked about his willingness to expand the luxury tax bill for the Suns for the sake of potentially improving the team not only at the trade deadline but in the years ahead.
“The way we look at it is, how do we improve our team?” Ishbia responded. “I’m not going to be sitting here counting the dollars. We’re going to focus on, how do we improve our team? If there’s a way to improve our team, we’re going to look at doing it. We’re not going to sacrifice long term or short term, but we are going to try to win every game.”
Ishbia said he would be present in Phoenix while splitting time between running his mortgage company in Michigan. He said he would have a hands-on role while empowering those in key positions to make decisions. He referred to his ownership of the Suns and Mercury as a “dream opportunity” and that he couldn’t believe either became available.
“I’m not just a short-term thinker. I’m also a long-term thinker,” Ishbia said. “I’m gonna 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.”