Months before he agreed to purchase the Utah Jazz for $1.66 billion, Ryan Smith, who was formally approved as owner by the NBA's board of governors Friday, said he was "really close" to making a bid to buy the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Smith, who made his fortune as the co-founder of the Utah-based tech firm Qualtrics, had several detailed discussions with Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor last winter. Smith was seriously considering taking the next step until his wife, Ashley, voiced her objection.
"With my wife, something wasn't right. She was putting her foot down," Smith told ESPN. "She was like, 'You know we're Jazz fans, right? That's what we do, and I'm not moving.' She doesn't put her foot down very often, but it was a nice reminder that I was kind of getting caught up in this other world because I liked the business side of it."
Smith then approached Gail Miller, whose family had owned the Jazz for 35 years, about potentially buying a share of the team. He was initially rebuffed, but they reengaged in discussions over the summer and worked out a deal for Smith to buy the Jazz along with Vivint Arena, the team's G League affiliate and the Triple-A Salt Lake City Bees.
"Ryan Smith is a forward-thinking, community-minded entrepreneur and business leader who will be a fantastic addition to our league," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "As a lifelong fan of the Utah Jazz and more recently as one of their key marketing partners, Ryan has demonstrated his deep commitment to the Jazz and the Utah community, and there's no doubt he will bring that same level of dedication to the operation of the team."
Part of the agreement calls for the team to remain in Utah, which was never a question for Smith, a lifelong Jazz fan whose courtside seats in recent seasons have been next to Greg Miller, Gail's son and the franchise's former CEO, and his wife, Heidi.
"Adam Silver said some people get the rare, rare opportunity to get a piece or even an entire NBA team," Smith said. "He said, 'But no one, no one gets their team.' For me to be in a spot here where we get to start this new chapter with our team is why this is so unique, but it's also daunting, right?"
Smith, 42, a self-described basketball fanatic who plays early-morning pickup hoops at alma mater BYU several days a week, does not intend to make any major immediate changes. He has picked the brain of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a similarly passionate basketball fan who made a fortune in the tech world before buying an NBA franchise at a relatively young age.
"I'm upset after talking to him," Cuban wrote in a reply to ESPN. "He will be a great owner for Jazz fans, which I find unfortunate. :)"
Smith, whose previous relationship with the Jazz included sponsoring the "5 for the Fight" philanthropic jersey patch that has raised more than $25 million for cancer research, deeply admires how the Miller family ran the franchise, noting that Utah ranks second in the NBA in wins over the previous three decades.
"I feel that responsibility of that stewardship," said Smith, who still operates as Qualtrics' CEO after the company sold for a reported $8 billion. "So when you say, 'Is this a hobby or is it a business?' I really don't know how to answer that, because I feel like it's a stewardship for the community of Utah.
"I'll be just straight up -- I mean, I don't plan on selling it, so out of all the business ventures I've got, this is not the greatest one. You have to do this because you're passionate and you want to help the community and do good. We want to win and do good here in Utah. I think the Millers have shown that, and if I can just step into their shoes, it's a perfect handoff. I'm bullish on Utah."
Smith said he anticipates needing to "be on a learning curve" as he takes over ownership of the team, especially on the basketball side, expressing great confidence in Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey, general manager Justin Zanik and coach Quin Snyder.
The Jazz have made the playoffs four straight seasons and have a core in place built around the All-Star tandem of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell -- "a pretty cool spot to be in and a great team to take over," Smith said.
Smith has similar confidence in Jazz president Jim Olson and the team's business operations. He said he has been "blown away" by some of the ideas he has heard from that side of the franchise. A driving force in the development of the booming "Silicon Slopes" tech community in Utah, Smith is particularly fascinated by the implementation of tech to improve the fan experience and expects to be immediately involved in those aspects.
"When it comes to that, I definitely have ideas," Smith said. "I probably don't have that many ideas yet on, 'Hey, this is the play Quin should be running.' He's teaching me. He's pulling me aside, like, 'Hey, come sit in this meeting. I want you to understand defense and, like, this is how we're going to get matched up against.' He's awesome. It's a whole other world."
Smith, a father of five, said he plans to travel with the Jazz when possible but joked, "I'm not going to be in the layup lines with them." He plans to figure out how he can help maximize the experience of playing for and being a fan of the Jazz.
"We definitely feel the responsibility of that," Smith said. "You're trying to have everyone else have an amazing experience and allow that as opposed to maybe doing it for yourself. I'm switching shoes definitely with Greg and the Miller family because I've been the one next to him, just having fun with the experience, and they've been the ones hosting the party.
"Oftentimes, you don't enjoy that as much as you did when you're a fan, but one of my commitments is that's not going to change. I'm going to have fun."