HOUSTON — Tilman Fertitta, 24 years after he first tried to buy the Houston Rockets, finally achieved his longtime dream of owning the NBA franchise in his hometown.
Fertitta, a Texas businessman who lost out to a bid by Leslie Alexander when the Rockets were sold for $85 million in 1993, was giddy to get the chance to pay $2.2 billion — the most ever for an American sports franchise — when Alexander put the team up for sale this past summer.
“I got to a point where I said, ‘Gosh, if I laid my head down on the pillow for the last time, the one thing I never got to accomplish was owning a team in my hometown,’” Fertitta said during an introductory news conference Tuesday at the Toyota Center. “I’ve looked at other teams in the last few years, but it’s just not the same. You just can’t own a team not in your hometown, as far as I’m concerned.
“I started listening to the San Diego Rockets when I was junior high school when they said they were moving to Houston, Texas, with Elvin Hayes. That’s when I became a Houston Rockets fan, when they were in San Diego, so I’ve been on the ride from the beginning. Les kept me involved with the team. I have the two championship rings from ’93 and ’94, but this is a different feeling, let me just tell you guys. I feel very special that this opportunity came to me.”
Fertitta, 60, the owner of Golden Nugget Casinos and Landry’s, a Texas-based restaurant and entertainment company, called the Rockets “a generational asset” that his four children (sons Michael, Patrick and Blake and daughter Blayne) would run long after he dies.
“Honestly, nothing even compares,” said Fertitta, who kidded that his friendship with Alexander didn’t earn him any favors in negotiations. “Nothing compares whatsoever. This is the ultimate. It’s the ultimate. You’re in a club of 30. Anybody can go build a boardwalk, anybody can build an aquarium, anybody can build tall buildings, but not everybody gets to own an NBA franchise. And, gosh, to get lucky to pay $2.2 billion, how lucky can I be?”
Fertitta does not plan to make significant immediate changes to the Rockets. He said he would have the final say on future personnel decisions that involve the luxury tax, but he intends to rely heavily on the advice of a staff headed by Daryl Morey, whom Fertitta called “the best general manager in the NBA.”
“I know what I know, and I know what I don’t know,” Fertitta said. “On the business side, I’ll be a huge support to [Rockets CEO Tad Brown], not that he needs it. I’m into details. I’m not into micromanaging. But I can tell you this, I thought I knew a lot about basketball. I’ve learned more about basketball in the last 30 days than I learned in the last 30 years, hanging around Daryl and the basketball people. It’s a different technology and a different science than what the fan sees. Like I said, I know what I know and what I don’t know. I just don’t want surprises.
“Are there tough decisions to make? Absolutely. And does the buck stop with me when things are good and they’re bad? Yes, but I rely heavily, heavily, heavily on the people that get up and do this every day.”
Fertitta joked that he would have preferred to pay a billion dollars less for a franchise that lacked established superstars. Turning serious, he laid out the high expectations for Houston after Morey engineered an offseason trade to pair Chris Paul with James Harden.
“To walk into this situation with James Harden and Chris Paul is unbelievable,” Fertitta said. “You’ve got to remember the name of the game is to get to the playoffs, and this is a superstar league. You are not going to get to the playoffs every year and likely make it to the second round if you don’t have a James Harden playing for you. You add a guy like Chris Paul, and you should get to the Western Conference finals.
“That’s the way the league’s going is two or three stars per team. And you know what? If we don’t get where we need to be this year with two superstars … we’re going to make good decisions, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to win. I can promise you that.”