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Tsai says love of the city and Brooklyn grit helped drive his donations

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Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Since the coronavirus hit New York and the NBA shut down, Joe Tsai has been a model for NBA owners. He agreed to extend (at least through this weekend) the pay and medical benefits for 2,000 arena workers, becoming the second owner (after Mark Cuban) to do so.

But more importantly, in early April, at the height of New York’s COVID-19 crisis, he donated, then arranged for two shipments of protective personal equipment (PPE) and ventilators to New York and New Jersey.

The donation came days after New York Governor Cuomo announced the state had a six-day inventory of ventilators in the state stockpile, In total, the two states received 2,000 ventilators, 1.5 million N95 respirators, 1.45 million surgical masks and 170,000 medical goggles.

It’s all about New York, he told Sarah Kustok in an interview that will air Wednesday night on YES. “The people in New York are resilient, they are tough. It’s that ‘New York tough,’” he told Kustok.

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Since then, the couple, working through their foundation, has donated millions of dollars more in PPE to San Diego, where the Tsais maintain a residence, and Detroit, where one of Tsai’s top executives, Rich Tao, had served as an assistant to the Mayor.

In the interview with Kustok, Tsai said his decision to help New York was grounded in his and his wife’s love of the city. Tsai, a native of Taiwan, spent his formative years in the New York region, going to high school in Lawrenceville, NJ, then heading to New Haven and Yale for his undergraduate and law degrees. He and his wife met in New York where both were working before he joined China start-up Alibaba in 1999.

“My wife Clara and I have always felt that we are very deep-rooted in New York…The people in New York are resilient, they are tough. It’s that ‘New York tough’ especially characterized by the Brooklyn grit that kind of represents the Nets ethos, and I think in a time of need and a time of crisis, New York feels especially important to us.

“But I want to step back and just talk about giving back. I think when you’ve come to a position where you’ve been lucky and maybe a little bit successful in business, you want to make sure you can give back to the community, to the people that have supported you, and this is exactly what we have been doing.

“I think every time I walk into Barclays Center, I see the fans, they are smiling, they are really rabid fans, they support the team, and I want to make sure that I can give back to the fans.”

He noted as well that the logistics of getting the equipment where it was needed and fast was critical.

“When extraordinary circumstances befall us, we just have to react to it in real time. And a lot of the philanthropy that we’re doing wasn’t pre-planned or anything; we just felt at the moment it was the right thing to do.”

Indeed, on April 1, Tsai’s first shipment, totaling 31,000 pounds, arrived in San Francisco from Shanghai on a United 787 that had been converted from passenger to cargo service. As Air Cargo News later reported, it was then turned around, placed on a converted United 777 and flown to Newark. The second shipment three days later was flown from Shanghai to JFK on an Atlas Air 747 cargo jet. Tsai also had to navigate the two countries customs laws and other regulations.

In talking about his up-and-down first year as a member of the NBA’s Board of Governors, Tsai underplayed its roller-coaster aspects and focused on embracing disruption.

“Look, it was an incredible year starting from last summer. We were able to do some good things in free agency and now we’re in the middle of a pandemic worried about whether the season can start or not…

“I come from the technology business, and in the rough and tumble world of technology, you get disrupted or you risk getting disrupted all the time, and you always worry…so I would say coming into ownership of the Nets, it’s no different. We have a phrase in our own business. We say, “Never a dull moment,” and I think that pretty much characterizes my first year here.”

As for whether Tsai will extend the arena workers’ pay and health benefits, a YES spokesman said the issue had not been broached in the interview.

On Wednesday morning, Tsai tweeted about the death of George Floyd who was killed by Minneapolis police.