Joe Tsai was in good mood Monday night. He was high-fiving players and fans alike courtside before the game. Then at halftime, a television crew shot a scene for a new comedy series centered on an Asian-American basketball executive loosely based on him. And throughout the game, he could take pride that he had righted a ship that appeared all but sunk at the bottom on the Gowanus Canal early in the summer. The new “Big Three” was on the court, healthy and presumably happy.
It’s hard to say if Joe Tsai is more involved in the Nets basketball operations than he was before last season ... or before last off-season. But there is no doubt he is very involved now. It’s an old adage in the NBA that a new owner swears he’ll leave basketball to the professionals. Then he goes through his first losing streak!
From one perspective, there’s a very good reason for Tsai’s level of involvement. He is spending a lot more time in New York than in Hong Kong or maybe even LaJolla, Calif. Fewer time zone calculations are needed.
Over the past year, he has spent, through his investment vehicle, $345.5 million on three, count ‘em three, upper floor condominiums, one a penthouse, at 220 Central Park South, fast becoming one of the city’s most fashionable addresses. They’re all good investments, of course, but it’s more proof of his presence in the city where he spent a lot of his youth.
Tsai is also more of the city as well as in it. Over the next month, he and wife Clara Wu Tsai — “his full partner,” as one Nets insider described her, will be celebrated by the New York Philharmonic and the Municipal Arts Society for their philanthropy, efforts at social justice and contributions to art.
This Saturday, the couple will be honored at the reopening of David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center. The Philharmonic will play in the Wu Tsai Theater, the main space of the hall which was named for the Tsais “in honor of a catalytic $50 million dollar gift by Clara Wu Tsai and Joe Tsai, philanthropist and Lincoln Center Board Member, during the deepest moment of the pandemic.” On November 9, they will feted again by the venerable Municipal Arts Society, this time being awarded the Jacqueline Kennedy Onasis Medal for “supporting initiatives in education, research, criminal justice reform, economic mobility, the arts, and humanitarian relief during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Tsais of course also founded the Brooklyn Social Justice Fund, their $50 million response to the murder of George Floyd and in the early days of COVID-19 supplied $7 million of critical equipment included ventilators to city hospitals. They are active politically, in one instance having Barclays Center agree to pay out $18,000 a month in lobbying fees over 18 months to lobby the mayor to get municipal vaccine mandates lifted so Kyrie Irving could play basketball again in New York.
And basketball of course is what Nets fans care about, particularly his personal involvement in the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving sagas this summer. Although one Nets insider called Joe Tsai and Sean Marks “like peas in a pod,” and others said they were “in lockstep,” it was Tsai who took the call from Durant back on June 30 when he asked for a trade. It was Tsai who with one word, “Truth” in a July 29 retweet of a Boardroom post signaled that the Nets and Irving had reached a separate peace. It was Tsai who met Durant in London on August 7 and listened to his demands, reportedly including an ultimatum that Marks and Steve Nash be dumped. It was Tsai who that same day offered his support to his front office ... while not referencing the original report. And it was Tsai who arranged the sitdown in Los Angeles on August 22 when the Nets brain trust and Durant agreed to “move forward with their partnership.” He was KD’s interlocutor throughout the seven weeks of uncertainty.
On Thursday, Marks told a New Zealand TV news site that Tsai “was amazing throughout this whole summer.” And there is no doubt that Tsai has played a role in the past. Brian Lewis wrote at the time of the James Harden trade to Philly that Tsai called fellow governor Josh Harris of the 76ers to facilitate things.
The specifics of what Tsai did and when this summer remain somewhat of a mystery, but according to Nets insiders, Tsai was consistent and calm throughout the summer. One insider familiar with the relationship between Tsai and Marks described Tsai’s mood throughout as “no drama.” He did not panic ... despite a number of Nets fans calling for him to sell the team or, alternatively, fire everyone above the sixth floor at 168 39th Street in Sunset Park, where the Nets occupy the seventh (business offices) and eighth (basketball operations) floors.
Insiders we spoke with say Tsai’s steadiness, “never getting too up or too down” as one put it, is trait that helped the franchise get through what was certainly a crisis (and one that was partially of his own making.) The purported ultimatum was part of the process, not the end of it.
He is also no patsy. He does not like to be underestimated. In fact, he is said to “thrive when people doubt him,” said another insider. Still another insider said they had confidence in him simply because “he’s the best owner in the NBA.”
Tsai is also detail-oriented as one would expect from someone who built one of the world’s great companies in Alibaba. “He wants to know everything,” added one of the insiders we spoke with. (Tsai declined to be interviewed for this story.)
It would appear that Tsai also won a battle to regain control of things around his team. Following the misery inflicted on fans last season, he was going to re-assert ownership privilege, not back down, not trade KD for pennies, not give Kyrie the full max. Neither he nor Marks budged.
Why say “appear?” We don’t know if the Nets will succeed this year, how the new “Big Three” will react if things start out slowly, go badly. Someone shoots a sideways look of annoyance at Steve Nash and it becomes huge news. All that work could be for naught. Nor do we know what concessions the Nets might have made to Durant in L.A. We were told of two by a league source: that the Nets would sign Markieff Morris ... and that the Nets would agree to revisit an extension for Irving before free agency next summer. Indeed, Marc Stein reported that Tsai made a “personal recruiting pitch” to Morris, One down, one to go?
Not that the Nets are giving up on player empowerment which had helped get KD and Kyrie to Brooklyn in the first place. Marks made it exceedingly clear in remarks on Media Day that the Nets are still a “partnership” involving superstars and their representatives as well as ownership and management. Player empowerment lives.
It is no revelation that two of those “partners” — Tsai and Marks — talk all the time, more than daily is the word. Materials and lists are shared. Tsai gets scouting reports, other documentation which we are told by insiders that he consumes avidly. After all, it is his money, as some might note accurately. There is ample evidence that his commitment is growing. Not only is he now scheduled to pay $99.3 million in luxury taxes this year, but he also boosted Barclays Center finances with a $38 million infusion of cash this season.
Tsai has had a string of bad luck since taking over the Nets in October 2019, starting with the China fiasco that began three weeks after he became Nets governor. There’s been COVID and its consequences, both financial and psychic. The Chinese Communist Party cracked down on Alibaba as part of a change in the treatment of big companies. That cut his net worth in half, although estimates of what remains are somewhere between $5.6 billion and $8 billion. Even with the Liberty, the luck was lousy. They draft a generational talent in Sabrina Ionescu then she goes down with a severely injured ankle three games into her rookie season. He and Clara try to make Liberty players more comfortable by chartering jets and winds up getting fined a half million dollars because the move violated WNBA competition rules! Finally, there was the Nets regular season followed by the Nets post-season followed by the Nets off-season. You know the story. (Tsai did have one stroke of good luck: James Harden decided to pass up his offer of a quarter-billion dollar contract extension.)
There have been missteps as well along the way, too. The confused response to Irving’s unwillingness to get vaccinated, first a total ban, then a surprise turnabout comes to mind. Not to mention going through three CEOs since taking over three years ago.
It’s important to note that so much of what we think we know about all this is speculation. Media Day itself was humbling. After all the rumors, all the orchestrated leak campaigns, we were struck by how little we actually know. Much of the reality was below the surface, nuanced and not as neat as some of what was reported. That may be true of this analysis as well but we don’t think so. This is Joe Tsai’s team.