The Top 5 Current/Former NBA Players Who Would Make Great Team Owners

By: 04.10.12
Penny Hardaway

Penny Hardaway

As Kentucky’s championship celebration from Bourbon Street to Lexington drew to an end, baseball’s Opening Day debuted this past weekend. In between the taste of alcohol in N’awlins and smell of hot dogs filling the lazy summer days at the ballpark, the Los Angeles Dodgers are now relevant again thanks to one of the city’s own original caretakers: Magic Johnson. He became the first African-American owner of a MLB team and instantly the face of one of the most iconic franchises in sports history.

Unlike His Airness‘ whack track record running the Charlotte Bobcats, Magic Johnson is determined to make the $2 billion investment translate into perennial World Series success for the Dodgers. When Magic sold his 105 Starbucks franchises along with his 4.5 percent stake of his Showtime Lakers for a combined $100 million in 2010, one knew he was up to something bigger and better soon. We just didn’t know at the time exactly what his next move would be. After flirtations with his hometown Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors and the pipe dream of bringing the NFL back to L.A., he seized the opportunity to hit a home run and honor the values of Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier nearly 70 years ago.

Moreover, Magic Johnson’s ownership of the Dodgers represents his humility, business acumen and friendly personality that any city and fan base would embrace. Players don’t have to possess a cold-blooded disposition like Jordan or his game-winning jumpers to own a team some day. With so many cats going broke like Antoine Walker, Magic sheds light once again on what it takes to be successful after one’s playing days.

These next five players come from a similar cloth as Magic; and would make great owners for any professional sports franchise.

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5. PENNY HARDAWAY
Yea, he’s been out the league for five years now. But so what?

Since his flattop days as Butch McRae in Blue Chips, Penny Hardaway has maintained a well-liked reputation in the public eye. Despite the numerous injuries that cut his career too short, basketball fans and sneakerheads have a distinct reverence for him that other retired superstars lack. Most players just fade into the shadows and are never heard of again. Penny, however, has recently made strides back into the mainstream. With All-Star Weekend in Orlando this season, it’s been a natural and gradual reemergence for one of the all-time greats.

In order to be a great owner, a player needs to understand what it takes to build a winning team and be a part of it. That Blue Chips acting gig proved to be the initial signs of what greatness looks like. Apparently, Penny’s hoop skills were not outshined by playing as one of the protagonists in the film.

Shaq and I had hit off so well, the chemistry so great, that big man coach Pete Newell — God rest his soul — he was telling Shaq, ‘You need this guy in Orlando with you,'” said Penny to us here at Dime in an exclusive interview a few months ago.

The first basketball movie that actually let real basketball players act as basketball players set the stage for a real little man/big man combo to develop into a fearsome duo right from the jump. The time they shared together there immediately sparked the Orlando Magic to a 167-79 combined record and an Eastern Conference Finals and NBA Finals appearance to show for it. This brief three-year run showed how to build a contender with two superstars instantly. For his part, Penny dropped better stats virtually each season during that span. Whether it was points (16.0, 20.9, and 21.7), field-goal percentage (47, 51, and 51 percent), dimes (6.6, 7.2, and 7.1), or overall PER impact (17.4, 20.8, and 24.6), he brought it every night and made everyone better in the process.

As the Magic quickly climbed up the ranks, they only scratched the surface of their potential. Everything was in place for them to continue to rule the league throughout the mid ’90s like Biggie and Tupac did the rap game. Of course, it’s normal for anyone to wonder what could’ve been had Shaq not dipped to Hollywood, but particularly for Penny himself.

“I was crushed! I thought that we would at least have one championship, I thought multiple…things would have definitely gone different with Shaq staying around and not leaving,” said Penny as he reminisced further on those glory days.

Besides the familiarization of a winning team environment, owners have a duty — or should make it a high priority at least — to grasp the culture of the community and give back at the most grassroots level. Those that neglect or dismiss this important responsibility are bound to alienate their entire fan base. Just ask Los Angelinos about Frank McCourt or New Orleanians about George Shinn. Penny, though, has long had an affinity and passion to lend a helping hand to his native Memphis.

This past year Penny returned back to his middle school to coach kids as a favor for a friend who was battling cancer. He took this opportunity to instill values of education and self-confidence in these kids’ lives. It’s one thing for kids to cop his kicks still and recognize him because of them; it’s another for these same kids to see firsthand how he genuinely cares about them through spending the time he did.

“I wanted to make sure they understood that education is more than sports. A lot of these kids go from home to home to live. I had to make sure they’re doing their homework, make sure they’re going to class, and make sure they’re not sleeping in class. It’s all to make them know that I do care,” said Penny in a recent CNN profile.

Some of the coaching Penny preached sounded like this: “Don’t use not having a father as an excuse. There are a lot of people who came out of adverse situations and made it. Use it as motivation. Use it to drive you.”

And how did these kids feel about him?

“Penny loves me. And I love him,” said Robert Washington, the team’s star who posted a stat-line of 23 points, 17 rebounds, and five blocks per game, all while, most impressively, he increased his GPA from a 2.0 to 2.9 with Penny on the sidelines.

If Michael Heisley were to ever seriously consider selling the Grizzlies, he should look no further than in Memphis’ own prodigal son. All Penny has to do is tell Nike to produce some more Lil’ Penny ads and it’s money in the bank.

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4. CHRIS PAUL
After going through The Decision, ‘Melo-Drama, and the ongoing after-effects of The Indecision, Chris Paul’s exit from The Big Easy to Lob City remains the lone standard of how a superstar can exercise his right to play elsewhere in a professional and respectful fashion.

Whether it’s LeBron, ‘Melo, or Dwight, their collective inability to handle their respective situations appropriately demonstrated an absent sense of real leadership and ownership (All of them are still struggling with these missing traits as this season has progressed.) Despite all the money and power they have inherited — rightfully or not — they do not seem as ideal prospective owners after retirement as much as CP3 does.

When the media swarmed Paul to find out the inevitable, he steadfastly kept the same stance and maintained whatever conversations he had private.

“I don’t think about it, to tell you the truth. I’m just ready to get out here and compete and hoop. This is what I do. I love it. I have a very tight circle and they know this whole lockout thing’s been driving me nuts, so I’m just happy to get out on the court and compete,” said CP during training camp this season as a Hornet.

CP was committed to his previous squad through thick and thin. He understood the dynamics of the team would be in flux without an owner in place, leading to personnel losses like David West. He let the people behind-the-scenes do their jobs throughout the process rather than placing himself at the center of the unnecessary hoopla. As a player, Paul knew what he could control then and didn’t waver to express his dedication to the Hornets.

“Right now my position is to win a championship right here in New Orleans,” said CP at the time.

Paul’s foresight as a point guard surely played a role on how he handled his situation. This same foresight is what will make him a great owner one day. As much as he would’ve liked to remain a Hornet for life, it wasn’t his fault that David Stern is calling the shots there with a vacant ownership. That alone provided too much uncertainty for him to sign long-term. Perhaps, though, the vision that is most impressive was him realizing the vast basketball upside he could have with Earthquake Blake and the Clippers, of all teams.

Free agents and marquee players routinely dissed the Clippers as a real opportunity because they had Donald Sterling and his bigoted and penny-pinching ways. There was no way LeBron was ever going to seriously consider the Clips during his summer 2010 courtship as long as Sterling was around. Yet Paul saw past what most people believe is the worst owner in sports. Now this foresight and audacity has placed the Clippers as a virtual lock to play in, and possibly host, an opening round playoff series.

Back in N’awlins, however, Chris Paul won’t soon be forgotten. He is still dedicated to the elementary afterschool program he started with Chase Bank to donate $1 million in funding. Prior to his return game, CP made sure to pay this school a visit and the impressions he has left remain priceless.

“I think he truly had a genuine commitment to the people and fans of New Orleans. Although the business side of things can lead us in different directions, he was coming from his heart. When he repaved parks basketball parks and redid parks, when he invested in our program, his commitment was truly from his heart,” said the program’s director Korbin Johnson.

CP shared how he felt about coming back to play in the Big Easy with ESPN’s J.A. Adande: “I still love that city. I always will. It’s going to be crazy to be a different uniform, especially playing against them. I’m so emotionally attached to the city and that team.”

Paul is forever engrained in New Orleans like Lil Wayne‘s The Carter II and is at the forefront of what’s next in LA like Kendrick Lamar‘s upcoming album Good Kid in a Mad City. So Mike Jordan might want to fall back from owning, and give the keys to the Bobcats to CP3 soon.

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Steve Nash

Steve Nash (photo. Dove Men+Care)

3. STEVE NASH
He is 38 years old and second in the league in dimes with 11.1 a night. And even on his 16th year as a pro, it somehow doesn’t get old to watch.

As the NBA dawns on a point guard renaissance with younger cats dominating the highlight reels, it’s Steve Nash who’s quietly not letting the Suns set into the abyss. Their playoff hopes rest entirely on their leader that doesn’t draw attention to himself nor the outside noise others have on his future.

Nash is having a super efficient season. Although he is only scoring on a 12.8 daily clip, he is tops amongst point guards in true shooting percentage (63 percent), tops in assist ratio (45 percent), and tied for sixth in PER (21.24), based on ESPN’s John Hollinger’s stats. It is this singular focus on the task at hand that’ll make him a great owner.

Scratch that. Nash is already a principal owner for a professional sports franchise, MLS’ Vancouver Whitecaps. He’s known as an avid soccer fan having grown up playing the sport as a kid. For the past few years, Nash has hosted a charity summer soccer pick-up game in NYC dubbed “Showdown in Chinatown.” These matches have been held at the L.E.S’ Sara D. Roosevelt Park and grew such huge interest in the city last summer they netted a presenting sponsor, Osboro.com, and it streamed live online. Seeing the immediate success of this grassroots event, one can only expect Nash will play an integral part on his Whitecaps squad.

“I’d like to be connected in different ways. I’d like to have my hand in the structure of the athletic side of the club, the development of the players, their fitness and training, the culture of the club — I think those are the areas of the club where I could lend my professional expertise. I want to add value there and whatever else I can but, for the most part, I’m just going to be a superfan. I want to cheer for my local team and be there to support our club with our local community,” said Nash in an interview with MLSsoccer.com.

Like Nash setting up and controlling a pick-and-roll, he knows when it’s better to dish to the roll man and when he should look to pull-up for a shot. His innate ability to read defenses in this scenario is the same approach he’ll look to implement as the owner of the Whitecaps. Sometimes an owner is best-served to stay on the sidelines and root for his team than to meddle too much on what’s transpiring on the court and off. Nash understands his role as a player and how much energy he should exert to impact the outcome of the game. Thus, he won’t have a problem providing his input as a pro athlete and simply serve as a cross between Mark Cuban and Clipper Darrell. This balance of the two roles is what adds credibility to how Nash bestows as an owner.

When asked about the underlying reason why two NBA teams have relocated from the Pacific Northwest, Nash replied: “I think the NBA left Vancouver and Seattle unnecessarily. They had great support in Vancouver, regardless of reports. It was difficult at times with sponsorship because the Canadian dollar wasn’t that strong back then, but we had an owner come in and realize he could make a lot of money by buying the team and moving it to Memphis. So the league can pin that on the city. And Seattle — it was the arena. Their lease agreement was not good and they couldn’t get a new one built. They’re an unbelievable sports town with great fan support but it was just another deal where another owner came in and decided that I could be more profitable in another city. That’s just what happens.”

Nash’s astute knowledge of how to break down defenses and the business dynamics behind pro sports are unique. David Stern has mentioned on a Bill Simmons podcast that his biggest regret during his tenure as commissioner was leaving the Vancouver market. He should pay close attention to not only whether Nash can rally the Suns for one final playoff run, but the success of his MLS Whitecaps.

“Vancouver’s dying to have another NBA team,” said Nash. He should ultimately be the one runnin’ and gunnin’ the return of pro hoops to his hometown in seven seconds or less.

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Grant Hill

2. GRANT HILL
Before Drake and LeBron were shooting Sprite commercials, Grant Hill had kids dreaming drinking Sprite would make them nice like him.

Now it’s hard to believe that G-Hill is the second oldest player in the league behind Kurt Thomas (by a single day). Still, he is currently the game’s best example of a former superstar-turned-effective role player in the twilight of his career. A whole generation of kids don’t have the slightest clue he was once the first in line for the “next Jordan” title. His game, however, is as smooth as ever. But it’d worthwhile to recall a bit of his prime and why everything he has done since then supports the likelihood he’s an owner in the making.

Fresh off leading Duke to the title game without Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, Hill came into the league ready to fill the hype and void that His Airness left to play baseball. He became the first player in league history to get the most fan votes as a rookie for the All-Star Game with a total of 1,289,585. What’s more impressive is that this feat wasn’t accomplished by any other athlete in the other major pro sports previously until he did it.

Hill went on to share Rookie of the Year honors and top Jordan himself in All-Star votes the following season when he came back from retirement. His popularity was soaring higher than when he dunked it on ‘Zo. After making five straight All-Star Games, and four All-NBA teams as Detroit Piston, Hill decided to part ways with the squad that drafted him and entered the biggest free agent summer at the time. That 2000 free agent class was highlighted by him, Tim Duncan and Tracy McGrady — the Heatles wouldn’t be able to compete against that trio had they all joined forces in Orlando.

“There was a standard in Detroit and that standard was Isiah. He grew up in Chicago. He was tough. He played hurt. He had that great game against the Lakers in The Finals (on a twisted ankle). He was the face of the franchise and I’m sort of the opposite. I’m sure there were Isiah supporters within the organization. Who knows? I can only speculate. But it was like no matter what I did, it wasn’t as good as Isiah…I wasn’t trying to prove how tough I am. I was just trying to win,” said Hill on a Jason Whitlock podcast.

However, the promise of a G-Hill and T-Mac tag-team quickly took a back seat as Hill dealt with too many injuries. In his six seasons with the Magic, Hill played a total of 200 out of 492 games. What could’ve been the best perimeter duo since Jordan and Pippen never took flight. T-Mac was left alone to carry the team and motivated by winning scoring titles. The entire medical situation with respects to Hill’s injuries was mishandled and didn’t help him get back on the court any faster.

“I don’t think it was a conspiracy that, ‘Hey, we gotta get him out here.’ Someone just didn’t read the protocol, which is crazy. You invest $92 million in somebody…I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t believe how poorly mismanaged this has been,'” reflected Hill about his time as a Magic.

Nevertheless, these extreme highs and lows Hill endured only made him stronger and tested his will to come back. As an owner, the ebbs and flows of a season can challenge their pledge on a rebuilding process. G-Hill has ridden the rise of stardom and fall from grace without pointing fingers or blaming anyone for his misfortunes. He witnessed how organizations dealt with him as a superstar and the expectations they had as a byproduct of it. This experience will bode well for him as a future owner because he’s realized the importance of following the course and fighting adversity when it’s at its bleakest moment. The best owners don’t question the plan in place and don’t blink under the outside pressure of the media and fan base.

Perhaps because his mom was roommates with Hilary Clinton, or perhaps it’s his Duke education and Coach K‘s lessons, but Hill has always distilled a rather presidential aura about himself that rubs well on his teammates and fans. This likeable, diplomatic and honest personality would garner the same amount of votes as his past all-star days. If he were to call it quits at season’s end, who knows, maybe Hill could make a run at the office against Obama.

Or maybe the city of Orlando can impeach Rich DeVos as owner and let Hill micromanage the Dwight Howard situation. That way it won’t end up resembling anything like when he was the cornerstone of the Magic. Then Sprite could market him to kids as a true role model rather than a hooper.

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Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O'Neal (photo. Chenoa Maxwell)

1. SHAQUILLE O’NEAL
“Excellence is not a singular act, but a habit. You are what you repeatedly do,” the words from the wise The Big Aristotle.

Shaquille O’Neal has done anything and everything anyone could imagine to do in a lifetime, except he’s done it all by the age of 40. The plethora of nicknames, the hilarious sound-bites, and the mad nice rapping skills are as much a part of his ongoing legacy as his emphatic dunks, four championships, and his beef with Kobe. Every fan has some lasting memory of Shaq that they’ll always remember him by as a player. As The Big Ticket once said, “If you don’t love Shaq, you don’t love basketball.”

And quite frankly, while some people may not think The Diesel is that good of an analyst on TNT’s “Inside the NBA”, the man still knows how to remain in the spotlight. Regardless of whether his comments are insightful or critical, there’s something about his larger-than-life presence that draws one in to listen to what he has to say. So, even if this stint as a basketball expert doesn’t last much longer or ends up a total dud, so did Kazaam and he pocketed a light $7 million to do it. Shaq makes the most out of every business decision he’s made. The last frontier for him to conquer, though, would be ownership of a pro sports team.

Shaq has always been a man of the people. He may stand 7-1 but he’s the friendliest giant anyone could come across. The Shaqs-giving and Shaq-a-claus initiatives he’s routinely done for inner-city kids over the holidays show that he cares about the communities in need. Neither of these efforts he’s cared to do for much publicity. Shaq’s a big kid at heart and doesn’t lose sight that the smallest gestures can draw a smile and happiness to these children’s lives. It is because of giving acts like these that people in Orlando, L.A., and Miami still love him when he comes back. He has touched every city he’s played for, which enables him to relate to people from all walks of life.

Back in 2008, Shaq entertained the possibility of owning the Orlando Magic with Grant Hill: “Yeah, it’s serious. Grant, who’s like my best friend now, we have a relationship with the DeVos family. So we always throw out Grant president, me general manager. We always throw that out just to see what they say. Hopefully, they bite that. But if not, just put together a group and try to get something somewhere.”

The Magic dismissed Shaq’s overture quicker than when he dipped town in 1996. They didn’t have any incentive to sell the team when they had the new Amway Arena in place along with a top five player in Dwight Howard. Shaq had a better chance of making his free throws than realistically gaining any steam to purchase the Magic from the DeVos family, whether it was then or now. This doesn’t mean he won’t inquire about future opportunities when they arise either.

At any rate, no other past superstar knows how to initiate and stop controversy better than Shaq. He deemed the rivalry between him and Kobe as “all marketing.” And that feud was at the time as big a news story as The Decision. Nobody had any idea what the potential fallout after the Lakers defeat to the Pistons in The Finals would be. Shaq, as always, presented himself as a victim to the public… that Dr. Buss‘ favoritism towards Kobe and not getting his rightful due resulted in him getting traded to the Heat. The soap opera Shaq created in Hollywood couldn’t have been scripted by anyone else. These events alone make him an ideal candidate to own a sports franchise in the near future. There isn’t anyone else that can come close to matching the total package that Shaq brings to the table.

The Hornets are in the process of being sold soon, according to reports. I wouldn’t count Shaq out of a last minute bid to bring Mardi Gras back to N’awlins. After all, the great Aristotle would agree that The Big Promise Keeper has a habit of performing excellence in whatever endeavors he persues.

Which five current players or former NBA players would make the best owners?

Follow Freddy on Twitter at @RealFreddyMack.

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