- The Milwaukee Bucks will attempt to win their first NBA championship since 1971 and first under new owners, including private equity tycoon Marc Lasry.
Hours before he was to board a private flight to attend the National Basketball Association's top event, Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry bet on luck for the team to land its first championship in decades.
Lasry's team will play the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 NBA Finals in the first game Tuesday, and the Bucks will need continued good fortune to win their first title since 1971. Lasry and company did their part – spending to build a new arena and enhancing the roster around franchise star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was locked up with a max contract.
The ownership group, including Wes Edens and hedge fund manager Jamie Dinan, double the Bucks' value. In 2014, Lasry chipped in to purchase the franchise for $550 million. The team is now worth $1.62 billion, according to Forbes.
"Our focus has been pretty simple – build a great organization," Lasry told CNBC in an interview Tuesday morning just before boarding his private flight to Game 1. "If you do that, things will work out. But you need a great organization, and you need to build it."
But to conquer the NBA, Lasry said the Bucks need a little luck, including in the health department. Antetokounmpo is still recovering from hyperextending his left knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks. The injury could impact his status to begin the NBA Finals.
Asked if Antetokounmpo would play in Game 1 on Tuesday, Lasry was uncertain and said the player and medical staff would have the final say.
"I hope to see him," Lasry added. "I think he will play in the series."
Scaling the peak
Lasry also reflected on his early stages as a sports owner. He took a chance on a smaller market NBA club, secured a new arena, rebranded the team and completed the Deer District, a massive real estate project that surrounds the team's complex.
"You never fully appreciate it until you go through it," said Lasry about the journey of running a sports team. "It's hard to scale that peak. And also, to get there [the NBA Finals], you have to be lucky. You need an exceptional amount of hard work, but you also need some luck."
Lasry recalled the Bucks' old practice site, which had terrible roof leaks forcing staff to place buckets on the courts during rainy days. "It was an old gym that had two courts on it," he said.
The only season missing a postseason appearance under Lasry's ownership group came in the 2015-16 season. Since then, and under Antetokounmpo's reign, the Bucks have made the playoffs the last five seasons, including two conference finals appearances. In December, the Bucks signed Antetokounmpo to a five-year extension worth more than $228 million.
"Nobody knew how good he was going to be," Lasry said, adding he only watched the replay of Antetokounmpo's injury once. He said the team was relieved when doctors informed him he didn't require surgery.
"We got really lucky that Giannis had no structural damage," said Lasry before describing the difficulties of winning in the NBA. He laughed when thinking back to Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets, where Kevin Durant almost ended the Bucks' luck.
"You find at the end, it's always some small thing," he added. "I think back to the Sixers and Raptors -- that Kawhi [Leonard] shot bouncing, and then it goes in -- it's the same thing. I think you need the hard work, but I think you need some luck on your side."
This business is different
Lasry is the chairman and CEO of the private equity firm Avenue Capital Management. His business background is on Wall Street, but coming in as a sports owner required him to dismiss what he learned in the financial sector.
"You treat it differently," Lasry said of running a sports team. "You have to forget everything you did as a business owner because really what you're doing here is everything you can to put your team in a position to win. You're spending money – whereas in business, here, you're trying to make money.
"At the end of the day, if you want to win, you've got to spend money," Lasry continued. "For us, we'll be in the luxury tax, and we recognize that, but the goal is to try and win a championship. The only way you're going to get there is by spending money on the players that you think will help."
Lasry credited "mental toughness" as a reason the franchise endured the last two NBA seasons, which was impacted by the pandemic and social unrest.
"It was hard for everybody," he said. "For us as an organization, we lost quite a bit of money, but the view for us was we'll make it up over time. But the focus was it's hard for everybody, so let's do what we can and try help as many people as we can going forward."
As his flight time approached, Lasry admitted he was a bit nervous as Game 1 nears, but added he doesn't "worry about things I can't control. I'm not the one who is shooting the ball. I tell the players the same thing. But I think they're tired of hearing it."
If the Bucks do succeed, it could further put Lasry's front office staff in the spotlight, too.
The Bucks elevated Jon Horst to general manager in 2017, and he hired respected executive Milt Newton as assistant GM. The NBA needs improvement on the diversity front, especially on the basketball operations side, and Lasry said Newton deserves another opportunity. Newton has had a brief GM stint with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"Milt is great," Lasry said. "He's a smart gentleman, and he's done a fabulous job for us. I hope he has the opportunity to be a GM again."
The Bucks need to win four more games, and Lasry will become the last NBA owner standing. He'd be the first to win a title among the other newcomers, including Los Angeles Clippers owner and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Philadelphia 76ers' Josh Harris, and Nets owner Joe Tsai. All of those men purchased teams in the last decade. And also, Lasry would hoist the NBA's Larry O'Brien trophy before long-time Suns owner, Robert Sarver, as the club looks to claim their first title, too.
"It's hard," Lasry reiterated when discussing building a championship team. "You have to take the chances – hope what you're building, people are going to want to be a part of."
And have tons of luck along the way.