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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Milwaukee owner succeeds in sports with same skills he has used in other business ventures

COURTESY: GETTY IMAGES - Milwaukee Bucks owner Wes Edens graduated from Oregon State in 1984.The co-owner of the NBA's best team won't be on the scene at Moda Center Saturday night to watch his Milwaukee Bucks play the Trail Blazers.

But he'd like to.

"I've been out to Portland several times because I love to come to Portland," Wes Edens said in a phone conversation from his office in New York City. "When we were looking to build a new arena (Fiserv Forum in 2018), we came out to check out the arena and visited their practice facility. We saw a lot of valuable things there.

"Portland does a lot of things well. The food and wine culture is great. I love it out there."

Edens, 58, has plenty of familiarity with the state of Oregon. He attended Oregon State from 1980-84 and graduated with a degree in finance and business administration. In 2007, the university bestowed upon Edens its Distinguished Business Professional award for, yes, a very distinguished business career.

From his start at Lehman Brothers in 1987, Edens has built an impressive resume. He is a co-founder of Fortress Investment Group and founder of New Fortress Energy, a private equity investor that has made a fortune through his various acquisitions.

One of those is the Bucks, purchased in 2014 by Edens and partner Marc Lasry for $550 million. The franchise now has an estimated value of $1.4 billion, nearly three times what the owners paid less than six years ago.

"I've been very fortunate to be in the right places at the right time, and I've hopefully made the most of it," Edens told the Portland Tribune. "The U.S. is an amazing place in terms of affording people opportunities. I've done everything I can to take advantage of it."

Edens wasn't born into wealth. The youngest of four children raised on an 80-acre farm in Helena, Montana, Edens' father was a psychologist and his mother a schoolteacher. Edens' passion as a youth was ski racing.

"It was a big part of my growing up," he said. "I had some good success and got to see a lot of the world."

After attending Montana State as a freshman, Edens transferred to Oregon State in 1980.

"I decided I wanted to go someplace else," he said. "Oregon State was not that far away, and it had a great math/computer science/engineering program. It was a really good fit."

Edens happened upon Oregon State during the glory days of Ralph Miller's "Orange Express" teams.

"That's where I caught the basketball bug," Edens said. "My first year, the Beavers were No. 1 in the nation before losing the final (regular-season) game against Arizona State, and then they had the terrible (NCAA Tournament) loss to Kansas State.

"I went to every game that I could. It was such a big part of the student experience in those years. Ralph Miller was a very good coach, but he was also a great educator and did things the right way. The program was a real model for the student-athlete."

Edens lived his first year in Weatherford Hall, well before the aging dormitory was revamped and turned into a highly desirable living facility in 2004.

"I was there during the 'before' part," he said with a laugh. "Then I lived off campus the rest of my time there."

Edens became an NBA fan while at Oregon State, too.

"Not only was Oregon State good, but the Mychal Thompson Blazers were great, too, though they couldn't seem to get past the Lakers in the playoffs," he said. "I went to Blazers games when I could — in the cheapest possible seats. Portland has an amazing basketball community, and still is.

"Once I came to New York after college (in 1985), I became a Knicks fan. And as the years went by, it was a big part of our family's experience, going to games with my kids. The NBA is an incredible brand and a wonderful way to spend time with family. That all started for me with the Gill Coliseum experience."

Edens said he maintains close ties to Oregon State.

"I follow their teams all the time," he said. "I know (assistant basketball coach) Steve Thompson Sr. well. (Ex-OSU great) Lester Conner and I stay in touch. I'm a big fan of Oregon State football, basketball and baseball teams. Wish I were closer to Oregon so I could see more games."

Edens first scouted out the possibility of ownership of an NFL team — "I won't mention what team," he said.

"I liked football, but it was not as much of a passion as basketball," Edens said.

In February 2014, Edens received a call from the company representing the Bucks' owner, Sen. Herb Kohl, who was looking to sell the club.

"I didn't know much about the business side of an NBA franchise," Edens said. "I went in for a three-day weekend and spent time in their offices and got up to speed with the league. It's such an incredible brand and pro sports entity. Media rights are what determine the value of sports teams, and we bought in right before the television contracts were signed (for $24 billion over nine years)."

Edens brought in Marc Lasry, a businessman and hedge fund manager, as partner in the Bucks' ownership group.

"We've been friends for decades," Edens said. "He'd had minority involvement with (now Brooklyn) Nets at one time. Our kids went to the same schools. The first guy I reached out to was Marc."

When Edens purchased the Bucks, they had just completed a 15-67 season.

"Last among the NBA's 30 teams, and also worst in every business metric you can imagine," he said. "But we were in a market that is rabid supporter of sports, much like Portland. We had the Brewers and the (Green Bay) Packers and Marquette and the (Wisconsin) Badgers. We knew if we put the right product on the floor that we'd get support."

Edens' timing was good. The Bucks had a 6-11 rookie with great potential, a 19-year-old named Giannis Antetokounmpo. Six years later, "the Greek Freak" is averaging a triple-double, scoring 30 points per game and is the odds-on favorite to win the league's Most Valuable Player Award this season.

"His success has not come by accident," Edens said. "The first day I was in the office after we bought the club, there was one person working out in the facility — Giannis. The rest of the players were scattered throughout the world. He was shooting for hours that day.

"He is exactly what he seems to be — a phenomenal, gifted player, but also a great person and unbelievable worker. It's been a lot of fun to watch that happen."

The Bucks improved immediately, winning 41 games and making the playoffs in 2014-15. They took a step back to 33-49 in 2015-16, then won 42 and 44 games and made the playoffs in each of the next two seasons. Last season, the Bucks won an NBA-best 60 regular-season games and lost to Toronto in the Eastern Conference finals, winning the franchise's first playoff series since 2001.

Edens' background in running companies has been "a tremendous help" in his ownership of the Bucks.

"The best advice we got was from (Commissioner) Adam Silver," Edens said. "He said, 'Use all the same principles and skills and experience you developed in business in running the Bucks.' That was good advice."

In 2017, the Bucks hired Jon Horst as general manager. The next year, they brought on Mike Budenholzer as coach. Last season, Horst — at 36 the youngest GM in the league — and Budenholzer were named NBA Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year.

"The most important thing for a sports franchise is to hire the right people, give them accountability and let them make decisions," Edens said. "Look across the organization, from basketball to business to sports science. Those are the building blocks of a great organization. We've been fortunate to have the right people in place."

In 2018, Edens joined with Egyptian billionare Nassef Sawiris to purchase 55 percent of legendary British soccer club Aston Villa. After poor finishes for many years, the club had been relegated to a lower division. But after the change of ownership, it had a strong season and was promoted back to Premier League in 2019 after a three-year absence.

"It's the same movie all over again," Edens said. "When we bought (Aston Villa), it was a fairly disfunctional franchise that needed wholesale change. We brought in good people, and so far it has worked out great.

"A lot of lessons learned in business are very applicable to the sports world. The only big difference is you cheer for them every day and live and die with the games' outcome."

The Bucks (32-6) are the odds-on favorites to win the NBA title this season.

"Yeah, but they don't give out championships in January," Edens warned. "We'd be happy to take one right now if they'd give it. We have all metrics all across the board. Knock on wood, we have to stay healthy. There are a handful of teams that are candidates to win the title. We're clearly one of those, but we haven't won it yet.

"Raising that Larry O'Brien trophy has been the goal from the first minute of the first day (of Edens' ownership). We hope we have a real chance to be the last guys standing in June."

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@kerryeggers


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