Grizzlies' Michael Heisley Dismisses Contraction Talk, Excited About Conley
"No. 1, I don't think David Stern would do that,'' Heisley said in an interview with FanHouse on Tuesday about possible contraction. "And, No. 2, I think it's speculation. I'm not even sure that the league has the authority to shut a franchise down without the cooperation of the owner.''
On a recent national conference call, Stern said talk of eliminating teams would be discussed in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement but that he's "not spending a lot of time on it.'' He was asked if contraction should be a "chilling word'' in Memphis, a small-market team that was 28th in the 30-team NBA last season in attendance and is losing money.
"No, it shouldn't be,'' Stern replied. "It's a good word to use, especially in collective bargaining.''
Heisley said he wasn't at last month's owners meeting in New York in which contraction was brought up. But he's not about to cooperate with anything that has to do with the Grizzlies leaving Memphis. He reiterated the team, in its 10th season in Tennessee after moving from Vancouver in 2001, isn't going anywhere any time soon.
"My plans are to be in Memphis,'' Heisley said. "I don't want to say forever because I'm 74 years of age. But my plans are not to move out of Memphis.
"I've got contracts. I've got commitments in Memphis. People have been raising this question (about the team possibly leaving) since the day I moved to Memphis, and I keep saying, 'No.' I've been there 10 years and they've been saying it for 10 years. It's not going to go away if you print in there, 'Absolutely, in blood, Memphis is not moving.' It ain't going to have any effect. All I can tell you is we have no plans to relocate the franchise.''
Even though the Grizzlies have been 28th or worse four straight seasons in attendance, Heisley rarely has felt as good about a Memphis outfit as this one. He believes the Grizzlies, who went a surprising 40-42 last season and are 2-1 this season, have a team that will bring more fans into the 18,119 FedExForum than the average of 13,485 that showed up in 2009-10.
"I got all five of my guys back,'' Heisley said of starters Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley. "I got a much stronger second team. I made a commitment to the people of Memphis that I think we've got a good chance of getting in the playoffs. That's our goal this year. And I've said this is one of, if not the best team, we've had since I've been in Memphis. ... I think it's our job to make our franchise and our basketball team attractive to the fans, not the fans' responsibility to come to the game to keep the team there.
"If we start winning and we're exciting, (the Grizzlies will draw). ... Sports fans (appreciate) a young team that is on the move up and (have) kids in the city people really look up to and admire, and I think that's true of our team. I think we will eventually start having much larger crowds at the game. ... That's my responsibility to make sure that we basically put an exciting team on the floor so people want to come to the games. It's not their responsibility to go to the games to help the franchise keep from losing money.''
Heisley said he didn't have specifics on how much money the Grizzlies have lost. But Heisley, a businessman ranked 252 on Forbes' list of the wealthiest Americans with a net worth of $1.6 billion, can absorb losses better than many NBA owners.
"It's pretty well known that we have not made money except in very rare occasions in Memphis,'' said Heisley, whose team did make the playoffs in the springs of 2004, 2005 and 2006 but got swept 4-0 in the first round all three times. "But we did do OK, we didn't do great, when we had the three years when (executive) Jerry (West) was there and we were in the playoffs. And I'm looking for this team to basically bring that back, and if we do then we'll make some money.''
Heisley showed his confidence in his current team by signing Conley to a five-year, $40 million (with $5 million additional in possible incentives) contract extension reached just before Monday's midnight deadline. However, Conley's deal, which begins next season, has been deemed excessive by some.
Heisley didn't want to speak about Conley's contract, saying, "I'm not going to justify or listen to criticisms and so on of what we did. It's a negotiation and we made the negotiation and it is what it is.'' However, Heisley was willing to speak about the improvement the fourth-year point guard has made on the court.
"If you go back and look at Mike Conley the last month of last year, he really came alive,'' Heisley said. "When we drafted him, he was a very, very good defensive point guard in the league putting pressure on the guy with the ball. And I think he's been much more cautious. I think he's finally coming into his own. I think we now have the player we drafted. I would have liked to have had him two years ago, but we didn't.
"Lionel Hollins (the Memphis coach), who was a point guard (on 1977 champion Portland and played in the 1980 and 1982 Finals with Philadelphia), basically has told me over and over and over again that Conley is going to be a good point guard, one of the better point guards in this league. That why we've got confidence. If you had to go up to somebody and ask them whether a guy's going to be good point guard in this league, it helps that the guy that's telling you was (an NBA champion with three overall Finals appearances).''
Conley is off to a good start this season, with averages of 15.0 points, 8.3 assists and a league-high 3.67 steals in his three games. Heisley sure hopes that continues.
Yes, Heisley did discuss a New York Times 2005 article about how much money the Grizzlies have donated to charity. And he did bring up a recent independent study that found the Grizzlies and FedExForum generate an annual economic impact of $223 million for Memphis.
But this owner really wants some victories. The Grizzlies had gone 68-178 over three years prior to last season's 16-game improvement.
"I want to be a winner,'' Heisley said. "I never had any idea how bad it hurts to lose when you're an owner because everybody, you're identified with the team. If the team loses, you're a loser. I've had a fairly successful career in my life. When I was a kid, I wasn't a great athlete but I was a fairly successful athlete. Now, losing all the time is not my idea of fun.''
But Heisley likes his current team even if he did quip, "If Kobe (Bryant, the Lakers' star guard) would suddenly come over and want to play for me, I might be better off. But I don't see that happening.''
For now, the Grizzlies face the Lakers on Tuesday night at the Staples Center. Heisley is intrigued about how Memphis, which had a 91-90 road upset last Friday at West heavyweight Dallas, will look.
"If we go out and demolish the L.A. Lakers in L.A., then I will be sky high,'' Heisley said. "I'm not holding my breath (on that happening). But, hey, (guard Tony) Allen might earn his oats helping us slow Kobe down a little bit. Nobody can really slow him down. Maybe he just won't have as prolific of a night as he normally has against us. But we beat L.A. last year (in Memphis). It's not completely out of the question.''
But what Heisley says is completely out of the question is the Grizzlies leaving Memphis any time soon.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson