The Los Angeles Lakers made a very public mess of the family business recently. Legend Phil Jackson is dating the owner’s daughter, a team vice president once photographed with basketballs covering her bare chest, and this entanglement is not without its complications given that her father and brother run the Lakers. Regardless of what you believe — that the Lakers simply decided that the coach with zero rings was a better fit than the one with 11, or that Jackson was trying to wrestle power from the owner’s son with his leverage — the result recently was two-fold:
1) The legendary boyfriend of the owner’s daughter was embarrassed for all to see.
2) The legend is not in charge of the Lakers today.
That had to be a fun Thanksgiving meal at the Buss household, huh?
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Compare that to the stability atop the Miami Heat, who went through a noisy turbulence at the start of the LeBron James experience not unlike the one that has engulfed the Lakers in this season’s first month. The Heat also is run by a father-son tandem. The Heat, too, has a powerful basketball legend in its employ. But there have been no ego fights or public messiness here even as Nick Arison has climbed over the years from former Heat ball boy to Heat CEO.
Consider that Nick, now 30, was so star-struck around basketball royalty that he could not bring himself to speak at all at the yacht dinner interview when his father hired Pat Riley. Consider, too, that today Nick is very much Riley’s boss.
Nick Arison is not interested in the lights or the glory. Like father, like son. They’re in it for the winning, basketball as a bond, the franchise hand-me-downed like an heirloom from Grandpa Ted. Here’s an idea of the family attitude when it comes to the spotlight: Micky tried to avoid collecting the trophy in front of everybody at one of the playoff presentations last season by telling his son to please go do it, only to turn around and see his son shaking his head no and scurrying away in the other direction.
The Arisons know this, too: The Legend Of Riley is good for recruiting — and, by extensions, good for business. So they go out of their way to let Riley have all the public credit. Heat fans know the famous story of closer Riley dropping all his championship rings on the table in the recruitment of LeBron. What is less known is that there was only one person in that room with whom LeBron was already comfortable, and that was Nick, who was the team manager on the 2008 Olympic team that won gold.
Nick, who has a lot more in common with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh than his father or Riley, has more to do with this Heat merger than anyone knows, at least in part because that’s the way he prefers to do his work — in the shadows. But this Heat bond began forming in 2008, emotionally and with patriotism, on a team that Nick managed. When Kobe Bryant first met Micky — and the Arison kids love to tease Dad about this one — he referred to Micky not as the Heat owner or cruise magnate but with a, “Hey, aren’t you Nick’s dad?”
Riley had an ownership stake with the Heat, but he sold it back years ago to the Arisons. Now Nick is the limited partner. There has been three-pronged agreement between Riley and the Arisons on all the major basketball decisions since Nick came into power — Bosh as the No. 1 power forward available, Shane Battier and Ray Allen as the most coveted offseason acquisitions. But if Bosh had gone elsewhere and there had been disagreement on, say, whether to acquire Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer or David Lee, Micky would have deferred to Nick, who might or might not have deferred to Riley.
Micky told Riley a long time ago, as Nick was coming up, doing the organizational grunt work, that Nick would one day be running the team. What Riley didn’t know is that it would be quite this soon. But Ted put Micky in charge of the family cruise business when Micky was 30, and Micky decided to do the same for his own son because he liked the circle-of-life symmetry and because Nick had earned it by working in every part of the family business over the past decade. Nick had internships in arena operations, community affairs, sales and marketing. It is a tribute to how small his ego is that he is very quietly running the loudest sports show in town.
Magic Johnson recently scorched Lakers management for not hiring Jackson, saying he does not trust the decision-making of Jerry Buss’ son Jim, even as Jim is the one who acquired Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
The Heat has no such issues at least in part because the guy who is actually in charge doesn’t need anyone to know it.