By Rich Myhre
SEATTLE — Early in a recent game, Desmond Mason of the Seattle SuperSonics rose for a short jump shot. The ball arched toward the basket, only to be swatted away near the apex by Jermaine O’Neal of the Indiana Pacers.
The crowd at KeyArena erupted in protest, believing O’Neal guilty of goaltending. One fan, in fact, leaped from his courtside seat and gave an arm’s-distance scolding to NBA referee Ted Bernhardt as the official raced to the other end of the court.
That fan was Howard Schultz, the Starbucks Coffee baron and new principal owner of the Sonics.
In that moment, Schultz answered a few questions. For instance, is he knowledgeable about professional basketball? Without a doubt.
Is he passionate about the game and the team he owns? You betcha.
Is he vocal? Well, just ask Bernhardt, who got a second helping of Schultz’s dissent while running by moments later. Then, as Bernhardt came sprinting past a third time, Schultz was in his ear once more.
There might be many ways to contrast Schultz with former Sonics owner Barry Ackerley, but in one obvious respect — a pure and sometimes overflowing enthusiasm for basketball — Schultz clearly stands above his predecessor.
"Howard cares deeply," said Wally Walker, the team’s president and chief executive officer, and a member of the ownership group headed by Schultz. "He confessed, and this was very early in the season, that there were a couple of (defeats) after which he didn’t sleep at all. It’s just evidence of how much he cares."
Added Walker with a chuckle, "I’ve done my best to advise him that it’s a long year, and he really has to do his best to pace himself."
"I’m not," Schultz admitted, "a person who accepts losing very well."
Unlike Ackerley, who appeared infrequently at KeyArena in recent years because of business and health concerns, the 48-year-old Schultz is a mainstay at Sonics games. Though he usually is accompanied by family members and friends, his attention stays mostly fixed on the game. His usual posture is leaning forward, elbows on his knees, staring intently at the court. He frequently calls encouragement and praise to Seattle players. And when good things happen, Schultz will spring from his chair and thrust a fist in glee. Or, as he did in another recent game, push both palms to the ceiling in a "Let’s raise the roof" gesture.
Yet he remains a genial host. He visits cordially with fans, which seems partly due to his nature and partly to convey the appreciation he has for them.
"The experience that the fans have in the arena is very important to me personally," Schultz said. "In my view, and this comes from speaking to so many of the fans, it’s clear that an arrogance had seeped into the Sonics organization that needed to be changed. A trust had been broken to the point that it needed to be rebuilt.
"All of us in this organization are going to do everything possible to renew the level of trust and confidence that the community and the fans hopefully have in this team," he said. "At least for the last few years, the Sonics have been an underachieving team and organization, and I wanted to change that. Our goal is to return this team back to the NBA elite, and every day we are committed to doing that."
Like their athletes, NBA owners come in many types. Some are elderly and stoical, like Herbert Kohl of the Milwaukee Bucks. Others are boyish and cocky, like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks. A few are notoriously tight and sometimes foolish with the dollars they spend, like Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers. Others, like Paul Allen of the Portland Trail Blazers, throw their cash around like confetti.
It is an exclusive club, and one that Schultz was preparing to enter a year ago. It was in early January, while the Sonics were on an Eastern Conference road trip, that news of the impending sale was reported. A few days later, when the team returned to Seattle, formal announcement of the $200 million deal was made at a press conference. Then, in late March, the transaction was ratified by a vote of NBA owners.
Officially, Schultz is chairman of the board of the Basketball Club of Seattle, which also owns the Seattle Storm of the WNBA. He is actually one of 14 entities — some are individuals, others are groups — that comprise the team’s ownership group. Schultz owns just under 40 percent, with the next highest owner at around 20 percent and Walker’s share less than 10 percent.
Since taking over the team, Schultz has made a handful of public pronouncements. One was his vow to build the team around top athletes who also were good citizens. Hence the decision to dismiss forward Ruben Patterson, a free agent who was not re-signed last summer. Patterson was an outstanding player who could have made great on-court contributions to this season’s team. Yet two criminal charges in less than a year — one for assault, the other for attempted rape — led to his banishment.
Then last spring, and with surprising candor, Schultz criticized underachieving forward Vin Baker. Later, when it became obvious that Baker’s huge contract and diminishing statistics were making him difficult to deal, Schultz took a different approach. He reached out to Baker and a friendship was conceived.
"Howard is one of the top six or seven people I’ve ever met in my life," Baker said. "He’s past being (my) owner. He’s a friend now. The feeling I have is that he cares about my well-being. What he cares about is beyond basketball and he expresses that every day.
"Probably the best story I can tell is that I’ve seen Howard in about five or six (team) meetings get welled up in his eyes when he talks to us. I don’t know if anybody else saw it, but I did and I think that bonded me to him right away because I’m the same way. When that happened, it wasn’t planned and it wasn’t public. And you can’t fake that. I think that’s one of the most genuine things I’ve seen."
Sonics coach Nate McMillan has similar feelings about Schultz. "If I had a personal problem and there was no one else I could tell it to," McMillan said, "I would feel comfortable speaking to him in private. He just gives off those vibes that he is concerned about you as a person first and after that as his employee."
Beyond his interactions with the players and staff, Schultz has left basketball decisions to Walker, McMillan and new general manager Rick Sund. His own efforts have focused on making game nights at KeyArena entertaining and memorable in ways that go beyond the contest on the court.
"Howard has expanded the vision of the organization to be this fan-centric, this customer-comes-first (approach)," Walker said. "Not that this wasn’t a focus before, but now it clearly dominates everything we do. … He has a great eye and he’s one of the great marketers of all time. He has a great feel for what the customer wants and sees, and he has a history (with Starbucks) of delivering that."
Still, Schultz is confronting an uphill task. Sonics attendance is off (as it is around the NBA), with the team averaging just 13,302 fans over its first nine home games, a figure almost 2,000 below the lowest per-game average in six previous seasons at KeyArena. And that number is tickets sold, not actual fans in the building. On many nights this season, no-shows have left the arena looking barely half-filled.
Ultimately, Schultz knows, victories will produce sellouts, not handshakes and well-meaning words. "Let’s not kid ourselves," he said, "owners are not going to win games. At the end of the day, fans want to be part of a winning team.
"This is a tough business," he went on. "There are a lot of things out of your control. And you need a little luck. But my commitment to this is very, very strong and long-lasting. I believe in what we’re doing and the way we’re doing it, and I believe we’re going to be successful.
"I don’t think you get into this with a short-term goal or a threat that if it doesn’t happen you’re going to get out. You get into this because you have a very strong belief in yourself, in the people around you, and that you can turn it around and make a difference. That’s how I feel, and I’m more optimistic today than I was when I initially bought the team."