Michigan Moses: New Suns Majority Owner’s Brash Ambitions for Pro Basketball in Phoenix

Craig OuthierSeptember 1, 2023
Share This
Mat Ishbia on the basketball court at United Wholesale Mortgage headquarters in Pontiac, Michigan; Photo by Brad Ziegler
Mat Ishbia on the basketball court at United Wholesale Mortgage headquarters in Pontiac, Michigan; Photo by Brad Ziegler

New Suns majority owner Mat Ishbia has brash ambitions for pro basketball in Phoenix. Can he lead long-suffering fans out of the NBA championship desert?

The new master of the NBA’s Sonoran Desert barony is sitting courtside at a 2023 Summer League game in Las Vegas with a retinue of coaches and executives when a passing fan taps him on the shoulder.

Cloaked head-to-toe in team-branded apparel, with wild branches of gray hair pressed down under a Phoenix Suns visor, she clearly is no casual admirer of the team. Casual admirers do not fly or drive hundreds of miles to watch rookies and development leaguers play in a junior varsity scrimmage against the New Orleans Pelicans. She’s a superfan. A loyalist. 

And she’s very happy to meet Mat Ishbia.

“Thank you for saving us!” she effuses to the billionaire, who rises from his seat next to first-year head coach Frank Vogel to shake her hand and offer a broad smile. The Michigan native seems to genuinely enjoy the interaction. And the sentiment.

The Suns were competitive prior to Ishbia’s acquisition of a controlling interest in the team (along with its WNBA counterpart, the Phoenix Mercury) last February, so whether the franchise needed “saving” is a philosophical matter. But, as a beloved Arizona institution that will celebrate its 55th anniversary this season and has yet to hoist a Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, it could certainly stand to win an NBA title or two.

On that topic, Ishbia confidently sketches out a vision for the Suns that looks, on its face, just as kooky as any costumed superfan.

He envisions a Phoenix that sheds its inferiority complex and takes its rightful place among the elite NBA cities. That outmaneuvers rivals for free agent talent and hovers near the top of the standings, year in, year out. That avenges itself on the likes of Los Angeles and San Antonio, and creates its own traditions of dominance.

Like a Peter Pan audience urging Tinkerbell back to life, you just need to believe.

“We gotta think of ourselves differently,” the mortgage mogul says, back in his office in Pontiac, Michigan, a few weeks after the conclusion of the Summer League, with near-religious zeal. “I think this is a better destination [for players] than L.A., New York, Miami. Phoenix is the place to be. Players love it… they’re drawn to the fans, the culture and the community that we have [and] I’m telling you, we’re not missing out on free agents. [Players] want to be part of the Valley.”

Exciting words, possibly wishful words, but the United Wholesale Mortgage CEO has backed them up during his short tenure as Suns owner, acquiring two elite on-court talents in Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal, resetting the culture in the front office, orchestrating a fan-friendly TV deal and generally looking like a basketball prophet come to lead Phoenix and its long-suffering fans out of the NBA championship desert.

Saving us? Remains to be seen. But he’s definitely making some moves. And it’s all so crazy, it just might work.

Despite his brash entrance last season and wheeling-and-dealing summer, Ishbia is still generally an unknown entity to the average Suns fan as the NBA prepares to tip off its 2023-2024 season on October 24. But we do know a few things. From his memorable on-camera dustup with Nikola Jokić in last season’s Western Conference semifinals – wherein the Denver Nuggets star ripped a loose ball out of Ishbia’s hand and sent the 43-year-old tumbling over nearby seats – we know he’s got a feisty, competitive streak. Ishbia concedes as much, and sources familiar with his career in Michigan say his smashmouth instincts spill over into many aspects of his business and life – which should paint certain Suns matchups with a particularly intriguing subtext this season.

We also know he has a bit of money. Owning an NBA team is no longer a wealthy man’s pursuit – it’s an obscenely wealthy man’s pursuit, which has eroded regional ownership traditions as sellers reach across whole continents, and sometimes oceans, to find sufficiently well-capitalized buyers. With an estimated net worth of $5.3 billion, Ishbia was one of a handful of basketball fans on the planet with the means to buy out a scandal-plagued Robert Sarver last winter when the Suns and the Mercury were jointly valued by the NBA at $4.1 billion.

Ishbia walks the footbridge connecting the 1.5-million-square-foot UWM campus; Photo by Brad Ziegler
Ishbia walks the footbridge connecting the 1.5-million-square-foot UWM campus; Photo by Brad Ziegler

In the process, he become both the NBA’s youngest majority owner – supplanting 45-year-old Memphis Grizzlies managing partner Robert Pera – and the first Suns boss without deep roots in the Valley.

For his part, Ishbia says one facet of his personality rises above all others when it comes to his merits as an owner: his love of basketball. A high school standout point guard and walk-on at Michigan State University when the Spartans won a NCAA Championship in 2000, Ishbia entertained the idea of a coaching career after graduation and sounds like he never truly checked out of the locker room. “I just love the game,” the father of three says. “I’m like every other fan out there. I’m a fan and I want to win and compete.”

Together, wealth and basketball guided Ishbia to Phoenix – and his journey on both paths originated in his hometown of Birmingham, Michigan.

Born to Jeffrey, an attorney and entrepreneur, and Joanne, a schoolteacher who worked in nearby Pontiac, Ishbia was the younger of two boys in a small, tight-knit Jewish family. (His brother, Justin, is an attorney and investor who also has a stake in the Suns ownership group and serves as alternate governor.)

If being Jewish in an affluent, predominantly Catholic-Protestant suburb of Detroit didn’t make Ishbia feel like an outsider, it certainly gave him perspective, and presumably engendered certain feelings of kinship with Birmingham’s also-tiny African American population. Mostly, Ishbia remembers Birmingham as a great place to learn basketball, with long days and nights shooting hoops with his brother in front of the house. Since this was the late 1980s and early 1990s, he concurrently developed a healthy Detroit Pistons fixation.

“Of course, I was a huge Pistons fan,” he says. “That was the Bad Boys era, with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman and Bill Laimbeer. And the back-to-back championships. It was pretty cool.”

One vivid memory: scoring nosebleed seats to Game 2 of the 1990 NBA Finals against the Portland Trailblazers with his dad – the only game the Pistons would lose that series, ironically, en route to the NBA championship. “But I loved it… they won in five games,” he remembers.

If there’s one narrative that Ishbia seems sensitive about, or wishes to dispel, it’s the idea that he grew up as a 1-percenter, with access to locker rooms, luxury suites and other rich-kid entitlements. He’s careful to point out that he attended the public school in Birmingham – not “Country Day,” the tony private school attended by friend and former NBA star Shane Battier, who also grew up in Birmingham – and that he never set foot in an NBA locker room until a few years ago, before his company became a patch sponsor for the Pistons.

By the late 1980s, his father had already founded United Wholesale Mortgage, the company that Ishbia would one day take over and turn into the No. 1 home lender in the U.S., but back then it was a side business, a startup. The Suns money would come later.

Meanwhile, Ishbia was developing into a talented prep point guard, averaging more than 23 points and seven assists a game his senior season at Seaholm Maples High and drawing college attention. “His basketball IQ is as high as anybody I’ve ever had on the team,” his coach, Dave Watkins, told a local newspaper in 1998. “He really understands the game. He’s not the tallest or the quickest, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody smarter than him on the court.”

Ishbia (No. 15) joins the joyous huddle around tournament MVP Mateen Cleaves (No. 12) at the conclusion of Michigan State University’s victorious 2000 Final Four run in Indianapolis; Photo Courtesy Phoenix Suns
Ishbia (No. 15) joins the joyous huddle around tournament MVP Mateen Cleaves (No. 12) at the conclusion of Michigan State University’s victorious 2000 Final Four run in Indianapolis; Photo Courtesy Phoenix Suns
celebrating with his parents, Jeffrey and Joanne; Photo Courtesy Phoenix Suns
celebrating with his parents, Jeffrey and Joanne; Photo Courtesy Phoenix Suns
Ishbia watches Game 1 of the Suns’ first-round 2023 NBA playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers with his family at Footprint Center; Photo by Matt York/AP Images
Ishbia watches Game 1 of the Suns’ first-round 2023 NBA playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers with his family at Footprint Center; Photo by Matt York/AP Images

Ishbia received multiple offers from “small Division I schools,” he says, but ultimately decided to forego a scholarship and follow his brother to Michigan State University – an NCAA basketball powerhouse led by legendary coach Tom Izzo, who could only offer Ishbia a walk-on roster spot.

For Ishbia, who craved the company of greatness more than playing minutes, that was good enough. He generally rode the pine during his four years at MSU, becoming something of a garbage-minutes cult favorite of the MSU student section, a “15th man” à la Dallas Mavericks oddity Boban Marjanović.

But even on the bench, according to one Detroit journalist who asked to remain anonymous, Ishbia was an effectual presence on the team. He motivated. He supported. He played the patsy on offensive drills and performed many of the functions of a student-coach. “I mean, I was a [prototypical] small, smart point guard,” he says, with a faintly gravelly Midwestern accent. “I understood the game when I was in college. You know, I’d watch film with our team and prepare our starters for games… if we knew who was guarding [first-team All-American] Mateen Cleaves, I would play that guy in practice. I understood where players should be going, positioning, all the little things.”

MSU proved a wise investment for Ishbia. His playing career at the school coincided perfectly with its epic run of three straight Final Four appearances (1999-2001) and three Big 10 championships, cementing Izzo as an all-time great and giving Ishbia memories for a lifetime. “It was quite a haul, and every one of those [tournament runs] is special,” he says. “Because [winning] creates a platform for camaraderie and friendship that lasts forever, you know? Even to this day, I still see those guys. A bunch of us work together at my mortgage company.”

According to Ishbia, six of his former Spartans teammates are currently employed at United Wholesale Mortgage, which he’s grown into a nine-figure behemoth, some insiders say, by running it much like a sports team. (Tellingly, Pistons legend Thomas, now a friend of Ishbia’s, sits on the company’s board.)

After getting his bachelor’s degree, Ishbia enrolled in MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business and immediately joined his father’s company upon graduation in 2003, starting as a lowly account executive. UWM had 11 employees in 2003. By the time Ishbia seized the reins as CEO in 2013, it had 1,200, with a loan volume exceeding $20 billion. By 2015, it had surpassed rival Rocket Mortgage as the largest lender in the country.

To the last, anonymous insiders interviewed for this article give Ishbia credit for the transformation of UWM. They say he found ways to give mortgage brokers, who ultimately are the real clients of lenders like UWM, faster satisfaction on loan rates and overall more tailored service. According to UWM, one of Ishbia’s early innovations was to bring the company’s account managers in-house “and give brokers direct access to them.”

A team huddle, in other words, that lasts all day long.

Little wonder one anonymous source likened UWM’s current 1.5-million-square-foot campus in Pontiac to a “pep rally,” complete with a large auditorium for mandatory spirit events and other motivational uses. Cleaves, the undisputed star player at MSU during much of Ishbia’s tenure on the team, is believed to lead the company’s leadership development team – essentially, an in-house inspirational speaker for the company’s 7,000 employees.

True to the sporting model, Ishbia also likes to go after competitors and trash-talk a bit. One of his favorite targets is Rocket Mortgage majority owner Dan Gilbert – who, as a fellow MSU-educated mortgage mogul, has made a natural foil for Ishbia over the past two decades. Gilbert also happens to be owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, setting up an irresistible CEO-vs.-CEO narrative that will undoubtedly power a few sports-talk shows prior to the Suns’ and Cavs’ two games this season. (As this issue went to press, the NBA had not yet released an official schedule.)

Ishbia holds up a jersey as he is introduced to the media after acquiring his controlling interest in the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury in February 2023; Photo by Rick Scuteri/AP Images
Ishbia holds up a jersey as he is introduced to the media after acquiring his controlling interest in the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury in February 2023; Photo by Rick Scuteri/AP Images

Ishbia rightfully scoffs at the notion that he bought the Suns to troll Gilbert. But his wording does suggest that he views the team as part of a greater portfolio of American business dominance: “You know, Dan has a mortgage company and a basketball team that will obviously compete with us. What I say is that we want to win at everything we do – not just playing the Cavs, and not just [competing with] mortgages.”

So, why did he choose Phoenix for his entrée into professional basketball?

By his own admission, Ishbia’s connection to the Valley was not especially deep prior to the Suns. He knew Greater Phoenix mainly from the many mortgages he’s sold here. “A lot of my time in Phoenix was for business,” he says. “It’s such a great housing market… great for brokers, who are our clients. So, a lot of the times I’ve been in Arizona, it’s been for speaking at [industry] events.”

In a perfect world, he certainly would have made a play for the Pistons, his first basketball love. But the Pistons are happily owned by private equity savant Tom Gores, yet another MSU graduate, who has given no public indication he wants to sell. (United Wholesale Mortgage signed on as the Pistons’ uniform patch sponsor prior to the 2021-2022 season, an arrangement that Suns personnel have privately indicated might have to be reexamined in the wake of the Ishbia-Suns union.)

Even so, Ishbia – flush with capital in 2022 after taking UWM public in a merger deal valued at $16.1 billion – denies the Suns were any kind of consolation prize. “Quite honestly, when the Suns became available, I couldn’t believe [the] opportunity,” he says. “Phoenix is like the dream city, right? It’s a great basketball town, a great hub of opportunity.”

Likening the Suns to a “sleeping giant,” Ishbia says he was particularly motivated by the opportunity to employ 26-year-old All-Star guard Devin Booker, a fellow Michigander embarking on his ninth season with the team. The team wrapped up Booker with a massive five-year, $220 million contract extension in 2022, and Ishbia views the contract as the cornerstone of the franchise. “Devin Booker is a superstar, one of the best players in the league and one of the best people in the league… so I’ve always been a fan of his, [and] the reality is, this is the team I wanted.”

The final bill for Ishbia, according to a February article in The Athletic: $2.28 billion, representing a 57 percent controlling stake in the organization.

Ishbia is careful to credit Suns general manager James Jones – an NBA Executive of the Year in 2021 – with creating the foundation for the Suns’ current era of competitiveness, which explains in large part why Jones survived a round of coaching and front office changes this summer, following the team’s playoff ouster to the Nuggets.

Surprising some pundits, Ishbia fired head coach Monty Williams – just one year removed from an NBA Coach of the Year award – and brought on Vogel, known as a tactful, defensive-minded coach who managed to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to its “bubble championship” in 2020.

Rumors had previously swirled that Williams alienated some players, particularly center Deandre Ayton, during the 2022-2023 season and playoffs, but his reputation in league circles remained golden. Tellingly, Williams landed another head coaching gig within a month of his firing, in Detroit.

Ishbia’s other big personnel move was to pluck assistant general manager Josh Bartelstein from the Pistons and install him as the new CEO of the Suns and Mercury, replacing 11-year organization vet Jason Rowley. Also a former walk-on college point guard with Michigan roots (he played at the University of Michigan), the 32-year-old Bartelstein has obvious dress-like-your-boss appeal for Ishbia, and is known as something of a front office prodigy in Detroit sporting circles.

As part of his job training, Bartelstein spent a few weeks in Pontiac, bird-dogging Ishbia on the UWM campus to “see how he built the company,” Bartelstein says.

Lauding his boss’ ability to “see a vision and bring it to light,” the young executive also took in deep draughts of UWM’s sports-influenced “team culture,” with Ishbia playing the role of energetic head coach or friendly school principal, flitting from department to department to spread brio and lift spirits. “Every day, he’s walking through and talking to people, asking them about their weekend and their kids and what they’re doing after work. He bought the Phoenix Suns, and he’s still the same person in terms of how he relates to people.”

Skeptics might dismiss that as company-line hokum, but would any Phoenix basketball fan complain if Ishbia transformed the Suns into the NBA’s version of United Wholesale Mortgage?

That’s the vision the parallel-minded Ishbia is offering us: disruption and dominance.

Naturally, any number of things could go awry. The 34-year-old Durant could begin showing more of his age; the bench rotation players the Suns signed this summer to restock their trade-depleted roster could not pan out; the four first-round picks the Suns surrendered to get Durant and four pick swaps they traded to get Beal could cripple their player development for years to come, etc.

Of all those concerns, the draft picks seem to bother Ishbia the least. Asked if he no longer views the Suns as a “rebuild” team, i.e., one that tolerates years of irrelevancy to rebuild through the draft and then begins the cycle over again, Ishbia postures like someone who plans to run a “reload” team – one which uses free agents, spending and contract assets to stay consistently competitive.

“We’re gonna try to win all the time, right? People say, ‘Oh, wait, what about the draft picks?’ I say, ‘I’ve got Devin Booker. He’s 26 years old. He’s got 10 more years left in Phoenix.”

Perhaps a more touchy issue is how his front office will mesh. Though Jones held onto his GM title, Bartelstein’s official authority encompasses both the basketball and business sides of Suns-Mercury operation, and he’s much more of a “basketball guy” than his predecessor, Rowley, whose background was in land development.

Bartelstein says it will be fine. “In respect to Mat, James and me, we’re three people who are really collaborative in nature. James does a great job leading the basketball side, and we both work for Mat, and we talk it out together.”

Asked how much of a hands-on owner he plans to be, Ishbia – who recently bought a home near Piestewa Peak in the Paradise Valley-lite part of North-Central Phoenix – doesn’t explicitly reject a Jerry Jones or George Steinbrenner comparison. But he also hopes to be better.

“I look at it like, I’m very hands-on with everything I do,” he says. “But my job is to empower people and give them the resources to execute. Do I talk to James and Josh every day? Absolutely. I’m the active, engaged owner who actually cares and knows the game, but also is smart enough to know who the experts are.”

Ishbia will need to lean on his experts and proxies in Phoenix because, for now, he will remain primarily a Michigan guy. Recently divorced from Emily Ishbia, a blogger and model, the businessman subsequently broke ground on a 60,000-square-foot residence, humorously dubbed an “amusement park” by local press, in Bloomfield Hills just a mile or so from where he grew up.

He and his ex-wife are “on good enough terms” to alternately use the Paradise Valley home as they co-parent their three children, ages 8 through 12, and shuttle them between states.

Though he politely demurs when asked if he’s dating anyone, Ishbia seems to be embracing what must be a transitional point in his life. New city, new side business, new marital status. New dreams.

“We’re going to make this the hub of basketball,” he says, finding more of that evangelical fervor. “We have the WNBA All-Star game coming, we’re working on getting the NBA All-Star game. This is going to be the place to play, and people are beginning to see it.”