The other day Howard Schultz decided he wanted to visit Sonics forward Rashard Lewis, just to say hello. A nice gesture but a tricky one, because Lewis lives in a sprawling home on the shore of Mercer Island, and the last thing he would expect on a sparkling day was a surprise visit from the team's principal owner.
Not to worry. Schultz came by boat, sailing in with his wife and daughter and tying up at the dock just as Lewis appeared from around back. And what a sight it was, the coffee baron, a man who could make small nations quiver, standing there in shorts and sunglasses looking for all the world like a lost tourist who stumbled in from Nebraska.
"Just happened to be in the neighborhood," he said with a wave.
Thinking back on this image, Lewis laughs and shakes his head.
"I didn't even know he knew where I lived," Lewis says.
By now they're used to their owner showing up in the strangest of places, all jangling and angular, thrusting out his palm and inviting them home for supper. He's already shattered just about every rule of being a sports mogul — the most vital of which was hissed in his ear by Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago Bulls: "Whatever you do, don't become friends with these players."
A month into the job he threw that one away, leaping into their lives like a pushy uncle who just wouldn't let them say no. Schultz, the master salesman. Schultz, the indefatigable. Schultz, who came from the wrong block in Brooklyn, then rose to build the biggest coffee company in the universe. He was going to do it again.
He was going to make the Sonics everything he always thought a sports team should be. They would be respectful, they would be good and most of all they would be a family. Don't get too close? How could he not help but get close?
Then last winter he got burned.
Up until February, owning a sports team had pretty much been fun. He changed the uniforms, and everyone thanked him for that. He stood in the concourse of KeyArena meeting fans and told them how different his team was going to be. He had courtside seats and the freedom to leap and dance like a marionette in a shaking man's hand. He owned the team, and he could do whatever he wanted.
That was before he traded Gary Payton, the franchise player of the previous 13 years. Suddenly he wasn't the lovable Schultz dancing through the timeouts but the man who sent the last Seattle superstar packing.
Reality pecks away at Schultz's world. He turned 50 this past summer and is going into his third full season with the Sonics. He has discovered that it's a fickle life being a professional sports owner. He has been booed in his town, scorched on sports radio and blamed for the team failing to make the playoffs.
He traded Payton, which he thought was a good thing, and he was greeted by a local column that started, "When it comes to showing a drop of class, Mr. Coffee could use a freshly-brewed cup of discretion."
Things had changed.
"I'm definitely jaded," he says. "I'm jaded by the degree of difficulty and some of the issues that surround the NBA on the macro level, and that bothers me. It's not just the NBA, it's just sports."
But the worst part was Desmond Mason. There probably isn't an owner around who wouldn't have adored Mason. Mason was sensitive, considerate and loved to draw. He also had a fondness for dunking a basketball, which made him one of the few bright nooks in an otherwise dark tunnel that had become Seattle's NBA franchise. Schultz was truly smitten.
"I loved Desmond," he says. "I truly loved Desmond as a son. I told his father that he should be so proud of how he raised his kid, that he represented all that is good. I went to his wedding in Hawaii, and my family got to know Desmond."
Then on the day of the Payton trade, the people who run Schultz's team called him into a room and said they had a deal: Ray Allen and a first-round pick for Payton and Mason. And for the first time, in 2-½ years of owning the team, Schultz felt the floor fall out from underneath him.
"We can't trade Desmond Mason," he said.
But of course they could. You don't hold up a deal of superstars for a role player no matter how much he smiles, how many hospitals he visits or simply because he invited you to his Kauai wedding. The business of basketball can be heartless. And Payton for Allen wasn't going to get done unless Schultz let go of the first player he had ever fallen in love with.
It was a hard lesson, and he still hasn't recovered. He talks animatedly, with hands flying, about how Allen is going be the future of the team. And how the Sonics used the No. 1 pick to take Luke Ridnour. And how wonderful was that? Because essentially they got Allen and Ridnour for Payton, which was beyond their wildest dreams since they were sure there was no way Payton wanted to stay in Seattle anymore.
Then Schultz remembers Mason, and his tone sobers.
"But there was a casualty involved," he says heavily.
Just days before the Payton deal, Schultz sat with Mason at a restaurant and reassured him that he was a vital part of the club's future. Then came the trade and Mason was gone, and Schultz frantically tried to call him. The messages piled up in Mason's phone, but were not returned. Welcome to the NBA, where unchecked idealism runs hard into cold reality. In a single afternoon, Schultz became the villain who traded Payton, and his favorite player stopped taking his calls.
What he wants to create is a basketball biosphere free of wars, jealousy and distrust. Listen to him talk enough about "a model franchise" and a "different kind of team" and it's clear he believes he can make a club that will win but won't be beset with the problems that pull down other teams.
The model, he says, is the San Antonio Spurs. Not because they won the NBA championship last year but because they had David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and you've never heard anything about them demanding trades or getting arrested in their car with a stash of marijuana the size of Bolivia.
"It's a great locker room," Schultz says. "We're going to have a great locker room here, with a great bunch of guys." He pauses. "Maybe I'm naïve and maybe I'm wrong for saying this, but I felt all along that we would perform better on the court if the culture and the values were at a high level."
There is a danger in this. Inside the Sonics' offices, Wally Walker, the team's president and part-owner, finds himself cautioning Schultz. Don't go too far with the model-franchise stuff.
"We want people to do the right thing when they get here," Walker says. "But we don't want to make this such a paragon of virtue that we put ourselves up here, way away from everyone else. Then you set yourself up for problems."
Here's what usually happens when big-business executives get involved in major-league sports. As the chief executive officers of important corporations that bring thousands of jobs and generate millions in donations, they enjoy a favorable reputation in public. Unless they are Kenneth Lay and are doing the perp walk out the doors of Enron, they are surrounded by breathless sycophants and covered by a fawning media awed by the wealth.
Then they get involved in sports, and nobody cares how many jobs they saved or how many opera houses they helped build. The curtain comes down, and the public clamors at the door demanding to know why the team isn't winning and the owners aren't spending. The gloves are off and the CEO — once revered — is the center of everybody's wrath.
"What I learned is that (decisions) aren't going to be worth very much or valued very much by the constituency of the fans unless there is a result," Schultz says. "Unfortunately, one of the things I learned in this game is that results are measured in the short term. I said publicly that to rebuild the team it was going to take a five-year plan. I think five years for most fans, especially sportswriters, is an anathema."
Quite frankly, the reaction to the Payton trade shocked him. At one point, he even gathered his children together around the dining room for a family meeting because the questions had trickled down to the kids' school and other children were asking — just what was their father doing?
"I think what I was surprised by was the visceral, ongoing reaction that took place for weeks on end," he says. "I wasn't prepared for that, to be honest with you."
In Schultz's mind, he was ridding the Sonics of a problem and laying the foundation for his five-year plan. The rest of Seattle saw him cementing the team's fate in the lottery for the next two seasons. The attacks in the papers and on the radio came quickly, and they were harsh.
"There was no doubt Gary Payton was a great player, and there was no doubt he was causing problems with the coach and players," says Dan Levitan, who runs a venture-capital company with Schultz and is one of his closest advisors. "There was no doubt there was a knowledge gap between public perception and team perception about the positive influence and the likelihood of winning that Gary brought to the team.
"Do I think it was hard for Howard to see it and do something about it? I think he saw (a problem with Payton) for a long time. Do I think it was difficult to be on the firing line from people who didn't have as much knowledge about the situation? Who could go through that and not feel a disappointment?"
Schultz is asked if he thought the public understood the way he did that Payton would not re-sign in Seattle — especially since he didn't re-sign with Milwaukee.
"It's clear now, isn't it?" Schultz replies.
But to the fans it wasn't clear. And it still isn't clear to Payton's agent, Aaron Goodwin, who insists that had the Sonics offered Payton a long-term contract with one final large payday as a reward for all he had done in Seattle, he would have retired a Sonic.
"It became a situation where egos got involved," Goodwin says. "Gary's ego, Howard's ego and to some degree, my ego."
Schultz's friends all told him not to buy the team. They said he already was busy with Starbucks, what could he possibly want with an NBA franchise? Especially one that was in serious decline and would take years to rebuild.
"I thought he was nuts," says Howard Behar, a longtime colleague of Schultz's in Starbucks management.
After the Payton trade, many of those same friends said he should give up his courtside seats. They watched him jump and dance and slump into his chair with dejection so many times they worried. They wondered if it was healthy for him to sit in the open where the fans could vent their hostility. They suggested a luxury box, maybe for a while, at least until the outcry over the trade had died down.
Schultz shook his head no.
"I'm a fan. I want to be with those people," he says. "I want to yell at the refs. I don't want to be in some ivory tower. I spent a fair amount of time talking to the players on the team the last couple of years. These are people. They're not just professional athletes. I think it's important to demonstrate to them that there is a person on the other end who views them as more than rebounds, scoring and statistics. And I think the value of that relates to the team and the organization and defines what they are supposed to do. That's an anomaly in professional sports, but that's how I run things."
His style, visible and out front almost to distraction, is a stark contrast to the reclusive approach the city's other sports franchise owners have taken. The Mariners' Hiroshi Yamauchi has never seen his team in person, while the public rarely encounters Paul Allen at Seahawks games.
Even now, Schlultz doesn't want to change.
When it seemed clear the Payton-for-Allen trade was a possibility, Schultz phoned his old friend Magic Johnson — a part-owner of the Lakers — to see what Magic thought of the deal.
"Can you do that?" Schultz is asked.
"I did it," he replies, then giggles with the satisfaction of man who can call a rival part-owner in the same division, and ask for trade advice.
"I called him before the trade, and he felt it was right," Schultz says. "He couldn't believe Ray Allen was going to be available to us. He couldn't believe it. Shocked. I think we all were."
For all that has happened in the last year, there is still an impetuousness to Schultz that the people around him have always found endearing. His favorite moment was the day in 2001 when he surprised coach Nate McMillan with a mockup of the team's new uniform incorporating the Sonics' longtime green-and-gold color scheme.
"I thought they were excellent," McMillan remembers.
Schultz glowed that day because he looked into his coach's eyes and saw in them a belief they got it right. They understood the tradition of the franchise.
It's for reasons like this he doesn't like to linger long on Payton and Mason and the dark days of last winter. There's a new season ahead, Calvin Booth is finally healthy, and the other day he had to go see Booth to see how he was feeling and how his wife's pregnancy is going. And by the way, did you know how important the players' parents are to this team?
Then he talks about the evening before the playoffs with San Antonio two years ago when he took all the players and their parents to a dinner at the Dahlia Lounge.
"It was a wonderful night," he says. "And I think it spoke a lot to both the parents and the players in terms of what we are trying to build with values in this organization."
He inserted himself in the negotiations to keep Rashard Lewis in the summer of 2002, once flying to Houston for a meeting with the player's family, another time hosting Lewis and his parents at his home for a critical dinner. The day Lewis decided to re-sign glitters in his memory as something he got right.
"I'm sure Rashard wouldn't want me saying this, but I said to him and his mother that if I were the parent of an NBA star, it would be about more than just the money," Schultz says. "It would be about the organization and the responsibility the organization is taking in helping your son to be the kind of (good) citizen as well as an athlete. I made a point of saying 'I feel responsible for your son beyond just playing basketball.' I think that resonated."
And so Lewis is here and they move on with a team that will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs but might be a step closer to being the model franchise Schultz longs to have. He is proud of this. Just as he is proud of the day they let Ruben Patterson go after Patterson entered an Alford plea to third-degree attempted rape. In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit guilt but agrees that a jury probably would find him guilty in a trial.
That incident was the first test. Schultz knew people were watching, waiting to see if he'd be true to his word.
He smiles with faint satisfaction.
"And I thought it was more than a coincidence that a week later he signed with the Portland Trail Blazers," Schultz says with a laugh. "The anti-
thesis of the Seattle SuperSonics."
Then he sits back in his chair, says nothing and nods.
"If you had to compromise your priorities to win, my guess is that he would get out before changing his priorities," friend Levitan says later.
That would be the biggest test of all.
Les Carpenter: 206-464-2280 or email@example.com.
Coming Monday, Oct. 27
The Seattle Times previews the Sonics and the NBA.