Minnesota’s Taylor continues team makeover adding new partners, helping league with globalization of game
LAS VEGAS — Lizhang Jiang was in middle school when the NBA began to feed live telecasts of its games into his homeland and the timing couldn't have been better. Michael Jordan still was winning championships with the Chicago Bulls, so even if the proverbial billion people in China -- actually, more like 1.3 billion -- didn't give a hoot, one passionate and impressionable young man did.
“I was impressed by his spirit and also his basketball skills,” Lizhang said Wednesday. “I would often skip classes to watch the games.”
Lizhang didn’t skip too much else, though, in founding and running a powerful sports-marketing first, Shangai Double-Edge Sports Company, that he eventually sold. Now he has plowed some of his profits into a reported five percent stake in the Minnesota Timberwolves and the WNBA Lynx, becoming the first Chinese minority owner in league history.
Lizhang, who goes by the name “John” to make things easier on his American partners and friends, bought into the Wolves last month but was meeting with majority owner Glen Taylor and other NBA honchos and insiders this week in Las Vegas. So was Meyer Orbach, the New York real-estate investor who also has purchased a chunk of the Wolves (an estimated 10 percent).
They’re both part of a new era dawning on Minnesota, from the young talent on the court (including Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Kris Dunn) to a pair of bosses in Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden who are bringing fresh credibility to the sideline and the front office.
For all the new, though, there was an old face in the back of the posh meeting room in one of The Strip’s newer showpiece casinos: M.L. Carr. The former Boston and Detroit role player, a two-time NBA champion who later coached and ran the Celtics, was beaming like a proud papa on maternity day.
In his current role as a venture capitalist, at the behest of former NBA commissioner David Stern, Carr had helped broker the deal that positions the Wolves not just for Taylor’s succession plan but for newfound levels of popularity and profitability through Lizhang and the vast Chinese market.
“This is a great thing for the NBA, having the first Chinese national as an owner,” Carr said.
He’s 65 now but he could pass for 10 years younger, all the more impressive since Carr played the last of his 678 NBA games in 1985. He was Boston’s GM from 1994 to 1997, taking over as coach during that time. Later he served as the Celtics’ director of corporate development, which led to his position as special partner with New Technology Ventures in Newton, Mass.
“It opens up all types of opportunities,” Carr said. “You’ve got NBA China already going on. ‘John’ is such a smart guy, he’s an innovative guy. He already is talking about the economic impact he’d like to see this have on Minnesota. We’d like to have Shanghai adopt Minneapolis as its sister city. ‘John’ has a great vision. When I saw that, I thought, ‘This is the right guy.’ ”