Many Rockets fans woke up on Tuesday morning to the news that billionaire restaurateur and casino owner Tilman Fertitta had reached an agreement with Leslie Alexander to buy the team for a reported $2.2 billion, a record for an NBA team. Setting aside the size of that amount for a moment, it underscores the fact that when Alexander makes a decision, he doesn't mess around.
His July announcement that he would sell the team he had shepherded for 24 years, which included back-to-back NBA titles in his first two years as owner, caused many to speculate it might be months before a new owner was found. It took less than eight weeks.
From nearly the moment the team announced Alexander's intentions, Fertitta voiced his interest. A lifelong resident of the area and a billionaire — a prerequisite for owning any team on your own these days — he seemed a logical fit. But so often owners can come out of nowhere and there were certain to be plenty of suitors from all walks of the business world. Even former players, like Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutumbo, showed interest. In the end, it was the first guy who said he wanted the team who won out.
Most sports owners grow in fame (and infamy), like Bud Adams, but Adams's profile grew in relation to his team, the Oilers, not because of some pre-existing fame. Fertitta is already famous, at least around here, which makes him a bit of a different animal. Additionally, his businesses and personality have made him a somewhat controversial figure over the years. But what does that mean for the Rockets?
For fans, a competitive nature, the willingness to spend money, level-headed decision-making, ties to the community and the desire to give back are the main characteristics they should want in an owner. How does Fertitta stack up?
Fertitta didn't become the "World's Richest Restaurateur" through his award-winning food. He is one of the most competitive businessmen in the region, notorious for his nearly constant expansion and acquisition, perfect for a sports owner.
Willingness to Spend Money
Gamblers tend to fare well in sports because they are willing to take risks. Alexander was nothing if not aggressive when pursuing deals, even if it cost him a hit to his wallet in the short term, knowing it would pay off later. There is no reason to think Fertitta is any different (he does own casinos, after all), and his deep pockets afford him the opportunity to do that.
Level-Headed Decision Making
This might be the wild card in the discussion. Many would-be great owners can go off the rails by meddling too much in the affairs of their team — cough, Jerry Jones, cough. And we probably won't know who Fertitta is in this regard for a while. With new contracts for the coach, GM, team president and best player, plus plenty of additional talent throughout the organization, he won't have to do much right away. Stay tuned on this one.
Ties to the Community
Though born in Galveston, Fertitta is a longtime Houstonian with deep roots in the community. His family has been on the island for more than a century. His donation to the University of Houston landed his name on the basketball arena. In other words, he (and, more important, the team) isn't going anywhere.
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The Houston billionaire has long supported numerous and diverse charities, from kids to cops. He sits on the board of a number of organizations, from the Texas Heart Institute to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. That diverse array of interests bodes well for Houstonians.
And while he checks off all those boxes, there is another that makes him rather unique: He's a genuine fan. Not only was he an unapologetic backer of UH (he's currently on the Board of Regents), but he could regularly be found at Rockets games posting selfies with his kids and cheering like a normal fan, albeit one who sits in the most expensive seats in the building.
Perhaps the closest example of what type of owner he could be resides a couple of hundred miles to the north in Mark Cuban. Both are entrepreneurs. Both are fans. Both are outspoken and somewhat controversial. Both have reality TV shows. Cuban may rub the NBA and fans of other teams the wrong way, but as an owner, he has been great for the Dallas Mavericks.
Fertitta's clearest example in how to run a team, however, comes from his predecessor. Alexander is the best owner in Houston team sports history and, quite frankly, it's not all that close. Fertitta has a long way to go to even approximate what Alexander has done, but if he is able to follow Alexander's example and add a dash of Cuban's flair for fanaticism to his tenure as owner, he could make for a very interesting, and perhaps competent, owner, and that's really all fans can ask for.