Lacob: 'I'm happy we could give the fans a good product'
Joe Lacob stands by the trade of Monta Ellis, saying it had to be down in order to turn the team over to Stephen Curry. (USATSI)
Former Warrior Rick Barry (right) attempts to get the crowd at Oracle Arena to stop booing owner Joe Lacob during the halftime ceremony to retire the #17 jersey of Chris Mullin on March 19, 2012. (USATSI)
Tuesday marks the third anniversary of new Warriors ownership, fronted by Silicon Valley business executive Joe Lacob and entertainment executive Peter Guber. With that in mind, CSN Bay Area spent some time with Lacob for his assessment of the franchise. Comments are edited for brevity and clarity.
Question: In the three years since your group took over the organization, the Warriors have gone from doormats to contenders. Are you surprised it has happened so quickly?
Answer: I guess I should be humble and say I am. But I did believe that we had a plan that could and would work. I said that we were really going to change the culture and we were going to be relentless in pursuing everything, that this was a passion for us. We had watched this team for many, many years and I've been involved with the Celtics, so I knew I wanted to focus on defense, rebounding and size. I wanted to be big at every position, starting with Klay Thompson, a 6-7 two guard. Size matters. With defense, it was hiring a coach who was absolutely committed to defense. There's a mentality change here; that's what hiring Mark Jackson was all about. I didn't know if he could coach. Nobody knew that, and everyone pointed it out. One thing I did know, because I've interviewed a lot of people in my life, is that he would come in and really change the mentality. That has happened. Did I think it would turn around in three years? I hoped it would, and I thought it could, but there are no guarantees. So I was prepared for the prospect that it might take longer.
Q: When you hired Mark, you took some flak because he had no experience. What do you say about that now?
A: I understand the concerns and questions at the time. I interviewed 12 candidates, and he was the first one that I personally interviewed. He stuck with me from the moment we met. He had the kind of leadership qualities I thought were necessary. You have to have hired a lot of people to believe you know it when you see it. I felt that I knew it when I saw it. He was a risk; it's always a risk when you hire someone who hasn't done something before. But we're risk-takers. We're not trying to do things status quo. We want to break the mold a little bit and hire very aggressive people that are really smart. It's not just Mark Jackson. He's just representative of everything I'd like to think throughout the organization.
Q: At what point did you realize the culture actually had changed?
A: Walking through the administrative offices, it was a very dark and dour environment, with a lot of walls and not a lot of light. We wanted to take out all the walls and use glass. It was a symbol of transparency in that we were all working together, all being one. Some people fought it initially. After a while everybody understood what it represented and why it was important. At the team level, it was the same thing. Mark Jackson was not going to stand for anyone who was not a team player. You could feel it and see it coming.
Then last year, you could see we had a team system, especially defense. It covers for some things. Even though we didn't have a lot of great individual defenders, you could feel they were really working to become a great defensive team. And we started winning. When Andrew Bogut came back, healthier than he had been all year, that was sort of the final piece. When we made the playoffs, and then the way we played in the playoffs, that is when we could see it really had changed. And now everyone can see this is who we are and what we are on the court and in the offices. Now there are expectations. We have to live up to those. That's even harder.
Q: Was there a single wisest move along the way?
A: It's hard to point to one move. But the hiring of Jerry West is, from the standpoint of the average fan and even to the rest of the NBA, representative. He's had five decades of success. Having him being associated with us, and being very committed to the change we're trying to bring out, that certainly was a big move that started us in the right direction. Hiring Mark Jackson was not as clear to people, but it was very important. And then the Monta Ellis trade (sigh) . . . while difficult for a lot of people to handle, was probably a representative move that needed to happen to turn the team over to Steph as our emerging leader. It had to be done. And it also represented bringing in Bogut, even though he wasn't healthy, because it showed our commitment to changing what and who we were as a team – defense, size and rebounding.
Q: Was there a single toughest moment?
A: Personally, the booing. It was a little unexpected. Perhaps it should have been more expected. That was a very tough individual moment. But from an organizational standpoint, it was the number of people we had to let go. That's what no one ever sees. We wanted to see what we had, give everybody a chance, when we took over. But in May and June and July of 2011, even into September, we made a lot of changes. At one point we had like 50 positions open. We had a business to run. People were going to show up to watch basketball games and there was nobody to run this place. There was a moment of absolute fear. We were very fortunate to start at the top, getting a commitment from Rick Welts to be president and chief operating officer. There was a scary 30-60 days before we opened the season, because we did not know who was going to run the show.
Q: Re-signing Curry and Bogut in each of the past two Octobers were pre-emptive strikes with guys who have injury histories. What's the philosophy behind re-signing guys in that situation?
A: With Curry, Bob (Myers) and I felt strongly that we had rarely seen an ankle destroy somebody's career. A knee, yes. But ankles usually recover. And we had to make a decision on a guy who was everything we wanted to represent the franchise. He's a great player and person. He also had to take a risk. It was risky, but assuming he was going to be healthy we thought we were getting a pretty good deal. I'm sure he'll make plenty of money in his career, get it back someday if he feels he is underpaid. He certainly could make that argument. We felt the ankle wasn't going to destroy his career.
With Bogut, you have to look back and say, yes, he has been injury-prone. There is a big risk here that we're going to be signed up for four years on a guy who may not play as much as we'd like. But you have to look at free agency next summer. There's not a lot. We would be fighting, like we were two years ago, looking for a center. We like Festus Ezeli, but we believe in being good and big and having depth. We had to take a chance. We decided he plays the exact type of basketball that we want to base our team around. So, let's take a chance. Hey, you're not going to win on all these things. But he fits very, very well with what we're trying to build.
Q: On another topic, do you still believe it's doable to build an arena in San Francisco by 2017?
A: I do. I'm an optimist. There are people who, from day one, said it's not going to be possible. No one ever said it's going to be easy. Unlike Sacramento, which is getting $300 million in public money, this is a privately financed arena. Not only is it privately financed, but it's costing $200 million more than an equivalent arena somewhere else because we're fixing the foundation, the piers, for the city. So it's literally a gift to the city of San Francisco. This is not just a condominium project or something like that. This is a civic gift, in many ways. It's something that all of the people can use, not just the Warriors. Not everyone is going to agree on this, but we think the majority of San Franciscans support this. To be attacked by someone like Art Agnos, who is a voice of the past . . . to say that we are billionaires trying to take over the city is a joke. That's absurd and it's insulting. What is he trying to do for the city? We're trying to do something positive. It is going to be tough. We're going to have to convince him and others – or outvote them – that what we're doing is in the best interest of the majority of San Franciscans and people of the Bay Area. We're going to try like hell to do it by 2017. But if it takes longer, it takes longer. We want something everyone can appreciate, use and be proud of. Just like the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, nobody wanted it. Now it's a great thing.
Q: Is it safe to assume the realist within you have Plan B, and Plan C and beyond?
A: We have great fans in Oakland. It is the oldest arena, though remodeled. We're trying to make it better every day, spending millions every summer to improve it. Because we also recognize there is a possibility we'll be there longer. If it is, it is, and we'll make the best of it. That's certainly an alternative plan, to stay where we are. There are alternative sites, though it's very hard to find a site in the Bay Area that can accommodate a building like this, with good public transportation. So while we do have a Plan B and a Plan C, and at some point they'll become more publicly vetted, the truth is we have evaluated all of them and we believe this is the best single site for the majority of our fans and all Bay Area residents. I guess what I'd say to you is that we have alternatives – I'm not a fool – but we're going to real hard to do this, even though it's more expensive than any other plan by far. It's not even close, and that's just the arena itself, not the surrounding area. We think for the next 40 years, 50 years, it will be something that all people of the Bay Area can be proud of, a great civic accomplishment. We're willing to spend the extra money. If people vote and they don't want us to do it, we'll go back and do something else. It'll be cheaper.
Q: What have you learned in your three years as an owner of an NBA franchise?
A: I've run a lot of businesses, 50 or 60 of them over 30 years. This isn't the largest I've been associated with, but it's probably the most complicated. There are so many constituencies. There are the fans from different areas, with different views. Some are from Oakland, and they want the Warriors to stay there. There are voices on the peninsula and in San Francisco. There is the media, which it's a really hard thing to deal with. You have to have a thick skin, but it's what I signed up for. At the end of the day, because of all the different facets of running a sports business, it's just a lot harder than almost any business I've ever been involved in. The great thing about is, we get instant feedback. Each game leads to feedback. You hear about it. It's on the Internet. And that's hard when you're trying to run things with a long-term perspective. People want their team to win now.
Q: What has changed for you?
A: It's very rewarding to see there are so many nice people in the Bay Area. People want to talk about the Warriors. People, for the most part, have been so nice to me when I see them on the street. They've been complimentary. Even in the wake of the booing incident, people have come and said they were sorry about it. One guy came up to me, a UPS guy, and said he did boo me, that he now he realizes he was wrong because things are turning around. I guess the point is I'm really enjoying the reactions of all the people. I think they realize this is not an easy thing to do. We're trying really hard and we're really passionate about it. At the end of the day, all I care about is winning and having something we can all be proud of as a basketball team and an organization.