Nets’ Joe Tsai ‘had no idea’ what he was getting himself into

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When Joe Tsai took over the Nets, even he didn’t fully realize what he was getting – or buying – into. He knew the games could get big, like Tuesday’s huge tilt with Milwaukee. But it’s how big everything else has gotten that has left him shocked.

“I didn’t (expect it). I guess four years ago, I didn’t. I had no idea,” Tsai said in an interview with CNBC. “But the NBA is very interesting. I think it’s a quite interesting sort of economic proposition. In addition to all this glitzy fanfare, when you look at the players, they are huge mega superstars.

“But the business side of things, is this also quite attractive, in that team values are rising every year. But before I came into this, I had no idea that this was going to work the way it did.”

Tsai, who bought 49 percent of the Nets from Mikhail Prokhorov in 2017 and assumed full control two years ago, was speaking from Barclays Center, where his team will host the Bucks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Alibaba co-founder – who didn’t back down on his defense of China in a lengthy interview – had flown in from Hong Kong and attended the Nets’ Game 2 rout of Milwaukee. And after losing Kyrie Irving to a sprained ankle, he offered a supportive tweet saying “wouldn’t bet against @KyrieIrving #MambaMentality.”

Even with Irving out and James Harden doubtful for Game 5, Tsai said he’s learned valuable lessons from his purchase of the Nets. In many ways, the team isn’t really his, but Brooklyn’s.

“One thing that I realize, when you own a sports team is it’s larger than a sports team: It’s a social institution,” Tsai said. “You’re doing it for the fans, you’re doing it for the broader population. I’m really glad we’re situated in Brooklyn because we have the best fans in the world. And having this building Barclays Center here fortuitously we have this square or plaza in front of us with some empty space.

“So this became a location for people to gather and focus on whatever social cause that they want to focus on. This building has been the site for us to hand out food in cooperation with food banks. It’s been the site of vaccinations. It’s been the site of voting. And obviously with the last year after the George Floyd incident people protested for social justice against racism. That’s very, very important, and seeing all this happen organically in front of Barclays Center, that was great. I felt very, very good about it.”

Tsai touched on a number of topics, including the economies of both the U.S. and Hong Kong, his Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma and his defense of Chinese policy (“different cultures have different values and mores.” He even discussed Harden joining the board of Saks, and player empowerment in general.

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Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai
NBAE via Getty Images

“I don’t think you should see players as these one dimensional people,” Tsai said. “They happen to excel and basketball, but they also care about what they want to do outside of basketball, or maybe post-career in the NBA. And it’s pretty natural that they realize how much influence and power they have, and the fans that they attract, they can leverage that to market whatever they want. And I think it’s great.

“By the way, I didn’t advise James Harden on getting onto the board of Saks; he did it himself. And I think it’s a great thing. I mean, look at the fashion walk coming into the tunnel, right? We all these guys with, all the NBA fashion now has become a thing, something that my kids, my two sons and my daughter, they follow all the time. They care about what these guys wear before the game.”

While both Tsai and Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry will attend Game 5, the former insists neither his courtside spot nor his owner’s suite will be the best seat in the house.

“Yeah, you know what, I think the best seat in the house is where Steve Nash sits. Because he’s got the whole gameplan going. He’s got formations and where he wants players, right. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Tsai said. “But I’d just love to be in that seat and also have this brain, think through him.”

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