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NBA at UA: UA grad hopes to build Suns into champions

Josh Fields/Arizona
Daily WildcatRobert Sarver, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1982, bought the Phoenix Suns last year for an NBA-record $401 million. The Suns didn't disappoint in his first season as owner, bursting of out the gate with a 31-4 record en route to the Western Conference Finals.
By Michael Schwartz
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
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An Arizona graduate decked out in Phoenix Suns purple-and-orange-striped shoes, casual blue jeans and a plain gray shirt strolls along the sidelines of McKale Center watching the Suns prepare for another grueling NBA season.

He remembers going to classes, working and having a good time at Dully's and Dirtbag's at night, en route to earning his bachelor's degree in business administration in 1982.

This isn't any old Arizona alumnus and Suns fan.

It's Phoenix team owner Robert Sarver, who never dreamed of owning the franchise he grew up loving as a kid in Tucson.

Sarver's ride up the team ladder started back in the Old Pueblo, when he told Arizona men's basketball head coach Lute Olson he wanted to buy an NBA team.

It took another Wildcat, former Arizona player Steve Kerr, to get the ball rolling.

"Lute told him to call me, and he knew about my involvement with the NBA," Kerr said. "He knew that I'd know the right people to get him on the right track, and that's how it all got started."

With Kerr as an investor, Sarver bought the Suns for an NBA-record $401 million on June 30, 2004, and he hasn't looked back.

With Sarver in charge, the Suns raced to the NBA's best record last season before bowing out in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the team's first conference finals appearance since 1993.

Sarver enjoyed the kind of campaign in his first season that many owners never witness, with the team enjoying success to a degree that not even Sarver himself anticipated.

"We started winning a bunch of our games," Sarver said of the team's league-best 31-4 start. "Then I remember a weekend in Phoenix when we just crushed Miami and Indiana back to back, and I said, 'Man, we really have a chance to win this thing. We're really good.'"

As Sarver gets his feet wet in the owner's box, he has been able to count on the guidance of Suns chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo, who has been involved in Suns management since the franchise began in 1968. Colangelo will stay on in this capacity for two more seasons.

"What I've attempted to do is make it an easy transition for him," Colangelo said. "From the standpoint that he's my successor, I've done what I can to kind of pave the way for him in understanding the league business, the operations of the NBA and basically in every respect trying to impart my experience. He's been very receptive to me."

While discussing the possibility of selling the Suns to Sarver, Colangelo said he told Sarver that he has invested his life into the franchise.

"It's like giving birth to a child, watching them mature, and then you've got to open the door, to let them go, so to speak," Colangelo said. "I wanted him to know what values are important to me and how important community was to me. I felt very comfortable that he was going to continue a legacy."

Since their inception to the league, Colangelo's guidance as owner, general manager and through other official capacities has led the Suns to own the NBA's fourth-best all-time winning percentage (.548).

"I've got big shoes to follow," Sarver said. "I kind of look to him a lot on a lot of the basketball decisions, all that kind of stuff. He's created quite a legacy, and I try to learn a little bit just from the things he's done and what's made him successful and the things that are important to him."

Suns forward Shawn Marion, the team's most tenured player, having spent six years with the club, said he's enjoyed playing for both owners.

"Jerry's more laid back," he said. "Sarver, he's just passionate. He's going to be out there.

"Both of them are good owners, though," he said.

While many owners watch the action from the comforts of their own private box, Sarver chooses to see the action up close and personal in his front-row seats.

He's thrilled fans in America West Arena with his Phoenix Suns foam figure and with a trampoline stunt most owners would never dream of attempting.

He's also drawn the ire of opponents, like the time he clucked like a chicken at the Spurs bench after the Suns' rival rested stars Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili during a regular-season showdown.

"I would say I'm pretty passionate about the game," Sarver said. "I think I'm a fun owner. I try to have fun for myself, and I try to create an environment for the fans where they can enjoy and have a lot of fun. So far, we've had good success last year."

Kerr is also aboard the Suns ship, albeit as an investor and adviser while also doing TV work for TNT.

Because Kerr broadcasted many Indiana games during last year's playoffs, he said he offered Bryan Colangelo his opinion on former Pacers forward James Jones, whom the Suns acquired in the offseason.

"You always want to know as much as you can about the player," Kerr said. "Since I'm broadcasting games, I see a lot of different players up close, so I think that's something that I provide for the Suns, just somebody who sees a lot of players and can offer an opinion."

While Kerr helps out on the basketball side of operations, Sarver's administrative experience makes him a natural fit for running the team's business operations.

At 43, the banking and real estate executive has a resume that already sports a laundry list of achievements, including being the youngest person, 23, to open a national bank.

Sarver is the founder of Southwest Value Partners, a San Diego-based private investment firm that manages office buildings, and is the chairman and CEO of Western Alliance Bancorporation, a bank holding company rooted in Las Vegas.

A 1979 graduate of Tucson's Sabino High School, he said he hopes to forge a relationship between his team and hometown.

With Suns games not televised nationally, available on only Fox Sports Net Arizona, Sarver said he's working to get all Phoenix games televised in Tucson, if nothing else so his mother can watch the team.

Sarver said he thinks the team developed many fans across the country last season because of its exhilarating style and winning ways, and he said he hoped that that trend would continue in Southern Arizona.

"I think Tucson caught on a little bit," he said. "Obviously, Tucson's a big basketball community.

"They love the Arizona Wildcats. They'll always be number 1, but hopefully we can be close to number 2," he said.

As Sarver enters his second season as the man in charge of one of the league's most successful franchises, he has two years left to help Jerry Colangelo win that NBA championship ring that has long eluded him.

While the defending champion San Antonio Spurs still stand in their way, the rebuilt Suns should stand a better chance this year with the added defense and toughness from newcomers center Kurt Thomas and guard Raja Bell.

As Sarver grows into his position with the help of one of the most experienced executives in the league, his first order of business involves helping the Suns and Colangelo win the club's first championship in its 37-year history.

After that, Sarver said, he anticipates a bright future for his exciting Suns squad.

"I think this team is stronger, tougher, deeper and built better for the playoffs," Sarver said. "We want it. I think it's coming.

"I think with (forward) Amaré (Stoudemire), we've got the opportunity for a number of years to have a great team," he said.

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