HOUSTON — Tilman Fertitta has been a fan of the Rockets since before they moved to Houston, and after a failed attempt to buy the team long ago he was prepared to do whatever it took not to miss another chance.
To make his dream come true, the businessman had to shell out an NBA-record $2.2 billion. And on Tuesday when he was introduced as the team’s new owner, he admitted that it was worth every dime. The owner of the Landry’s restaurant chain and Golden Nugget casino and hotels, he also has built several landmarks in the area including the Downtown Aquarium, the Kemah Boardwalk and the Pleasure Pier in Galveston.
The Rockets are tops to Fertitta.
"I don’t want to take away anything from the great things that I’ve been able to build for the Houston area … but honestly nothing compares," he said. "Nothing compares whatsoever. This is the ultimate … you’re in a club of 30. Anybody can go build a boardwalk, anybody can go build an aquarium, anybody can build tall buildings, but not everybody gets to own an NBA franchise."
Fertitta and a partner were in the running to buy the team when Leslie Alexander bought it in 1993. He’s remained friends with Alexander since then, even hosting him for Thanksgiving on one occasion. Their close relationship didn’t mean much when it was time to negotiate.
"When it came time to sell the team I didn’t get any favours," Fertitta said. "It went back to business again."
Alexander, who announced the team was for sale in July, took over as owner on July 30, 1993, and the Rockets went on to win back-to-back titles in 1994-95 behind the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. In 24 seasons under Alexander, the Rockets have won 56.9 per cent of their games, fifth-best in the league.
Rockets chief executive officer Tad Brown said that they had about a dozen legitimate contenders to buy the team and that half of those could have closed the deal, but in the end it really wasn’t a contest.
"This is his team and this is his town and he wanted it more," Brown said.
Fertitta was born in Galveston, Texas, and has lived in Houston his entire adult life. The 60-year-old is the chairman of the board of regents of the University of Houston System and star of the reality show "Billion Dollar Buyer" on CNBC.
He is already looking ahead to doing more. He said he would be open to talks about the potential of bringing an NHL team to Houston share the Toyota Center with the Rockets.
"We’ll do whatever we can do, but whatever we do has to make sense," he said. "Will we be aggressive. That’s my nature."
He was asked what kind of owner he would be — extremely hands on and front-and-centre like Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban or more of a behind-the-scenes presence like Alexander was.
"I didn’t think the player’s cafeteria was very nice and we’re going to fix it," he said. "So that’s the style of owner I’m going to be."
Then he added: "I’m into details, I’m not into micromanaging."
Fertitta spoke in front of a backdrop featuring the Rockets logo and that of his Landry’s restaurant chain, suggesting the Toyota Center’s concessions might get a change, too.
"I don’t think they’ll let me put a casino in here," he said before cracking up. "(But) will you start seeing some of our brands and some of our food here? Yes … we want to cross promotion anything we can to offset that 2 billion."
Fertitta said he is thrilled to own a team with superstars James Harden and Chris Paul, and can’t wait until the Rockets open the season at Golden State on Tuesday in California. But he knows the real joy will be when they play their first home game on Oct. 21 against the Mavericks.
"On opening night when I get to walk on that floor and look at it totally different, even though I’ve walked on that floor hundreds of times," he said. "This is my building and my team and it’s kind of fun."