MEMPHIS — Majority owner Michael Heisley has been trying to sell his Memphis Grizzlies for years to just the right person, and the Illinois billionaire finally found his buyer: Robert J. Pera, a 34-year-old billionaire from California.
Heisley said Monday he has an agreement to sell his NBA team to a group headed by Pera. Heisley made the announcement less than a couple hours after published reports of a deal selling the team he moved from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001.
"I am confident that the franchise will continue its development toward being a perennial championship contender and an important member of the Memphis community," the 75-year-old Heisley said in a statement. "I am particularly gratified that we have put together a team which is poised to continue its development. We have an outstanding team of players, coaching staff and basketball and business management."
The sale is subject to approval by the NBA Board of Governors and other conditions.
Heisley had a deal in 2006 with a group headed by Christian Laettner that fell through in January 2007 when they failed to line up financing the $252 million to buy his majority share. Heisley had been talking to Oracle founder Larry Ellison earlier this year about a possible sale before backing off, saying he didn't want to sell to someone who would relocate the team.
ESPN.com reported the sale would be for approximately $350 million.
Pera is a former Apple engineer who left in 2005 to start Ubiquiti Networks, a communications technology company that makes WiFi networking equipment. He became a billionaire in October 2011 when his company went public with a fortune estimated at $1.5 billion in March. A stock dip earlier this month has left the man described as a big basketball fan who loves to play the game worth an estimated $980 million
"I am excited about the opportunity to build on the work that has made the Memphis Grizzlies a highly competitive NBA team," Pera said in a statement. "I look forward to getting to know the Memphis community and to continuing the team's success in Memphis."
Heisley bought the then-expansion Grizzlies in 2000 and moved the team to Memphis in 2001. He lured Jerry West to Memphis as the Grizzlies' president of basketball operations in 2002, a job he held for five seasons.
The Grizzlies moved into the FedExForum for the 2004-2005 season during a string of three straight postseason appearances, but they set the NBA record for futility losing their first 12 playoff games.
Heisley was heavily criticized for a February 2008 trade that sent Memphis' only All-Star and all-time leading scorer, Pau Gasol, to the Lakers. But the trade landed Marc Gasol, who was named an All-Star this season. The Grizzlies won only 22, 22 and 24 games in three straight seasons before a rebuilding program resulted in playoff berths the past two seasons.
The timing to sell couldn't be much better.
The Grizzlies went 41-25 this season and reached the playoffs a second straight year, selling out each home game. They took Oklahoma City to seven games in the second round in 2011 and lost to the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games in the first round last month after blowing a 27-point lead in the opener.
The team's lease at the FedExForum would make it very costly to leave before 2021. Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Gasol and Mike Conley — four of five starters — are under contract for at least the next three seasons.
NBA REFEREES WILL HONOR LONGTIME OFFICIAL: NBA referees will wear the number 57 on their jerseys during the Finals to honor longtime official Greg Willard.
The National Basketball Referees Association says Willard — who wears the No. 57 referee's jersey — was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Willard worked games in this season's playoffs, including one just last week between the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics.
The NBRA says it's doing so as a "gesture of support" for Willard and his family, and is doing so in cooperation with the NBA.
Willard has been an NBA referee for 24 seasons, with more than 1,500 regular-season games, 120 playoff games and a Finals appearance since 2010 on his resume.