Grit and grime

Quiet for much of his first year-plus as Griz owner, Robert Pera (left) has reclaimed the spotlight. Joe Murphy/Getty Images

The morning of Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, was the first time most of Memphis laid eyes on Robert Pera.

The then-34-year-old tech entrepreneur, baby billionaire and new controlling owner of the Memphis Grizzlies sat at a dais with Jason Levien, an experienced operator within NBA circles whom Pera had known for roughly a year but still called his “best friend.”

Levien had just put together an ownership group with Pera at the helm to purchase the team from Michael Heisley, and at this introductory news conference in the lobby of FedExForum, Pera seemed quiet and uncomfortable. Levien did most of the talking.

A few hours later, Pera, wearing Grizzlies warm-up gear, exited through the front door of the Westin Hotel across the street, heading to the Grizzlies' practice court to break in his new toy. As Pera was walking out, not 10 feet away, Heisley, not invited to Pera and Levien’s welcome party, sat having a “last supper” of sorts with his wife, attorney Stan Meadows, now-neutered general manager Chris Wallace and other confidants. Neither Pera nor Heisley -- they had spoken only twice at this point -- was aware of the other’s presence.

The contrast that day felt greater than the 41-year age difference between the two men. It was tech versus industrial. Soft-spoken versus blustery. Cool versus hot. Deferential versus assertive. Heisley had famously belted out the national anthem before a Grizzlies playoff game. When Pera was given the microphone that night to address fans before the game, he quietly muttered a single sentence. David Stern took it back to ask, for us all, “Is that it?”

Heisley, after a period with Jerry West at the helm, had seized control of the day-to-day operations of the Grizzlies. Pera, still building the company, Ubiquiti Networks, that had made his basketball purchase possible, seemed content to cede it to the more experienced Levien, who closely shepherded his new charge through his first day of NBA ownership.

Levien took on an unprecedented organizational role in Memphis as CEO and managing partner, overseeing all aspects of basketball and business operations and managing the large ownership group he had assembled. He overshadowed the absentee Pera and, from a distance, Pera seemed comfortable with that arrangement. Writing that day, I suggested that Pera seemed less visionary leader than willing vessel. For Levien to finally get control of an NBA team after falling short in Sacramento and Philadelphia. For minority owners in Memphis seeking to jettison Heisley, with whom their relationship had badly deteriorated, and further secure the team in Memphis without shelling out full price themselves.

Eighteen months later, unseen cracks in the foundation of this relationship have given way to a violent shift in the landscape of Grizzlies basketball. Levien has been deposed. A willing vessel no more, Pera is turning his “controlling owner” title into a day-to-day reality. And the most crowd-pleasing scene of this soap opera belongs to Wallace, back in the saddle, albeit with an “interim” tag: After a year on paid exile, the GM for four seasons before the ownership change was spotted at a Memphis clothier two days before the cataclysm, when hardly anyone in the Grizzlies organization knew what was coming, getting fitted for new suits.

The most unsavory ongoing -- unending? -- aspect of sorting through the debris of the past week has been the wildly imbalanced, conflicting narratives that would have you believe either that Pera is a lunatic or Levien is a scoundrel, with legitimate ammunition on both sides. The awful truth of their break-up, though, is likely more human-scale and unknowable.

In the one time after the introductory news conference that Pera addressed the media alongside Levien, the pair wore matching track suits, as if reenacting a scene from The Royal Tenenbaums. There was the weird announced one-on-one game with Tony Allen, appropriately and inevitably scuttled at the last minute. Pera’s Twitter avatar demonstrates his jump-shot form above this bio: “Change the Game. Don’t Let the Game Change You.” He’s achingly new to all of this and it’s showing in dramatic ways, his union of naivete and confidence -- his net worth, via Forbes, nearly tripling since he took ownership -- both palpable and disconcerting.

Levien has a history, and in Memphis he erected a structure with himself at the center of everything, all while maintaining a similarly comprehensive role with D.C. United, the MLS team he owns. The sense you get from talking to people around the situation is that, in taking on so much, he cut corners and was perhaps not as attentive to Pera as he needed to be, or as Pera increasingly demanded him to be. More than one person within the organization has reported epiphanies since Levien’s departure, as people who once operated through Levien have begun communicating more with each other.

And yet, though this break-up may look inevitable in retrospect -- Pera’s assertion of control incompatible with Levien’s total stewardship -- it didn’t have to be this messy or damaging to the team’s short-term reputation.

Whatever problems may have existed between Levien and Pera or on the periphery of that relationship -- and concerns about the influence of former Levien protege David Mincberg on Pera are so vast that they can’t be dismissed -- Pera has blown up a front-office core that seemed to be functioning smoothly and smartly. Levien, top lieutenant Stu Lash (collateral damage in this divorce) and VP John Hollinger (still on board until further notice) worked well and effectively together, with a roster-management track record that speaks for itself.

Sacrificing that about a month before the offseason officially begins, at a particularly precarious time in the team’s competitive arc, is a risk that we can’t be sure Pera has weighed as heavily as he needed to.

Wild stories about Pera continue to circulate, but the apparent retention of Hollinger, business-side honcho Jason Wexler and now head coach Dave Joerger -- Levien hires all -- suggests more stability than many outsiders will allow. Joerger, in particular, despite his seemingly near departure, may be returning in a stronger position, with a sweetened contract and more personal connection to his top boss.

Pera’s approach to both internal communication and public relations has been unconventional to say the least. He flew into Memphis last Monday to sever ties with Levien and met with a couple of key local figures, but then left town and communicated with other minority owners via conference call. The few people speaking on his behalf, such as Chris Wallace -- who has valuable experience with temperamental billionaires -- don’t really know him well. Does anyone?

Pera’s disregard for traditional media management and seeming discomfort with direct contact has left a news vacuum others are eager to fill and confusion on the ground in Memphis that Pera has begun to clean up in the past few days. Pera already seemed something like a voice in a machine, and then, on Sunday night, with unexpected reports emerging that Joerger -- presumed Minnesota-bound -- would return to Memphis, this happened:

Some things we learned from the chat:

  • Joerger, with whom Pera claims he had previously never spoken one-on-one, will be the team’s head coach next season.

  • He didn’t know who the Grizzlies’ barbecue sponsor was. (Oops!)

  • He wants Chris Wallace to stay with the organization in some yet-to-be-determined capacity.

  • He likes Dante Exum in the draft. (Double oops!)

  • He’ll entertain the luxury tax.

  • He’s all wrong about Kanye West album rankings. (“Graduation”? Please.)

The Facebook page for Pera’s Ubiquiti Networks says the company “designs and manufactures disruptive technology platforms.” Perhaps, as an NBA owner, Pera is what he makes.

By not pushing his side of the story through media channels, Pera has disrupted the usual chain of NBA information, ostensibly to his detriment. But while he’s going to have to speak publicly at some point, and take questions tougher than those he self-selects from a social media chat, there are elements of charm and charge in Pera’s apparent guilelessness, his disregard for standard procedure.

Where Pera once seemed so different from the late Heisley, now the similarities are coming into view: Both self-made tycoons with a stubborn resolve to do things their own way regardless of public backlash, both making some messes along the way.

But if Pera is going to become a new-age Heisley and take a hand’s-on role in shaping his team, he’s going to need advice from somebody with institutional knowledge of the NBA. And how that manifests itself in the team’s current front office search -- and beyond -- is, like so much else around the Grizzlies right now, troubling and unclear.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.