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NBA's first Chinese owner excited in joining Wolves

Minnesota's Taylor continues team makeover adding new partners, helping league with globalization of game

POSTED: Jul 14, 2016 12:03 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver (right) helps Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor (left) welcome his new team in bringing aboard minority owners Meyer Orbach (next to Taylor) and Lizhang (John) Jiang.

— Lizhang Jiang was in middle school when the NBA began to feed live telecasts of its games into his homeland and the timing couldn't have been better. Michael Jordan still was winning championships with the Chicago Bulls, so even if the proverbial billion people in China -- actually, more like 1.3 billion -- didn't give a hoot, one passionate and impressionable young man did.

"I was impressed by his spirit and also his basketball skills," Lizhang said Wednesday. "I would often skip classes to watch the games."

Lizhang didn't skip too much else, though, in founding and running a powerful sports-marketing first, Shangai Double-Edge Sports Company, that he eventually sold. Now he has plowed some of his profits into a reported five percent stake in the Minnesota Timberwolves and the WNBA Lynx, becoming the first Chinese minority owner in league history.

Lizhang, who goes by the name "John" to make things easier on his American partners and friends, bought into the Wolves last month but was meeting with majority owner Glen Taylor and other NBA honchos and insiders this week in Las Vegas. So was Meyer Orbach, the New York real-estate investor who also has purchased a chunk of the Wolves (an estimated 10 percent).

They're both part of a new era dawning on Minnesota, from the young talent on the court (including Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Kris Dunn) to a pair of bosses in Tom Thibodeau and Scott Layden who are bringing fresh credibility to the sideline and the front office.

For all the new, though, there was an old face in the back of the posh meeting room in one of The Strip's newer showpiece casinos: M.L. Carr. The former Boston and Detroit role player, a two-time NBA champion who later coached and ran the Celtics, was beaming like a proud papa on maternity day.

In his current role as a venture capitalist, at the behest of former NBA commissioner David Stern, Carr had helped broker the deal that positions the Wolves not just for Taylor's succession plan but for newfound levels of popularity and profitability through Lizhang and the vast Chinese market.

"This is a great thing for the NBA, having the first Chinese national as an owner," Carr said.

He's 65 now but he could pass for 10 years younger, all the more impressive since Carr played the last of his 678 NBA games in 1985. He was Boston's GM from 1994 to 1997, taking over as coach during that time. Later he served as the Celtics' director of corporate development, which led to his position as special partner with New Technology Ventures in Newton, Mass.

"It opens up all types of opportunities," Carr said. "You've got NBA China already going on. 'John' is such a smart guy, he's an innovative guy. He already is talking about the economic impact he'd like to see this have on Minnesota. We'd like to have Shanghai adopt Minneapolis as its sister city. 'John' has a great vision. When I saw that, I thought, 'This is the right guy.' "

Opening a new door to China

Lizhang seems like a character from a novel. At 35, he is slight and quite boyish looking. He wore a dark pin-striped suit with red threading, had a tousled haircut, was accompanied by his wife and spoke through an interpreter. He seems far too young to have amassed the fortune he apparently has, but he survived the NBA's vetting process as well as the scrutiny of the Chinese government before this deal with Taylor was approved.

At one point, commissioner Adam Silver stopped by to greet Taylor, Lizhang and Orbach. Lizhang, whether due to the language barrier or his personality, shyly bowed as he met folks Wednesday.

"We are thrilled to welcome 'John' Jiang to the NBA family as the league's first Chinese-born owner," Silver said. "He is a highly successful entrepreneur with an accomplished career in international marketing and a passion for sports. Mr. Jiang's business acumen, knowledge of the global sports landscape and strong personal relationships will be tremendous assets to the Timberwolves and Lynx, and he will be an important part of our ongoing efforts to grow the game in China."

Carr, as the "guy who knew a guy" who knew Lizhang, helped bring Taylor and the Chinese sports-marketing entrepreneur together. He had worked previously behind the scenes to get the Time Warner Cable Arena greenlighted in downtown Charlotte, successfully lobbying the politicians, business community and faith leaders there. He threw in with former Bobcats owner Robert Johnson for a while until Michael Jordan bought the team.

Stern wanted to assist Taylor, the longtime Board of Governors chairman who had worked up exit strategies twice before -- prior to the late Flip Saunders' return to Minnesota in 2013 and last season with Steve Kaplan, a minority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies -- only to hang in as principal owner. So the former commish called Carr.

"This is big for the NBA," Carr said. "It's the ultimate piece of the globalization process that's been started for the NBA. We had Yao Ming, you had all these other great players from around the world. From an ownership standpoint, you had the young man [Mikhail Prokhorov] who owns the Nets. But I think this is even bigger, because there is an opportunity to parlay this into something major."

The sale of Lizhang's company and an initiative by the Chinese government in 2014 to further develop the country's sports industry put him in the right place at the right time.

"I was wondering if I could do something with the NBA," he said. Through his contacts and Carr, he was put in touch with Taylor.

"I was immediately attracted to him and impressed by his personal charisma and business acumen. I knew there was so much for me to learn from him, both as an individual and as a businessman. I can learn how to run [a team] from him. The moment I met Glen Taylor, I made up my mind to work with him."

Taylor's transition plan ... some day

Orbach's enlistment came about more simply. The native of Brooklyn had grown up in a real estate family and avidly followed both the Knicks and the Nets. A go-between from the NBA got him in touch with Taylor and, as with Lizhang, something clicked.

"I just liked him," Taylor said. "He's aggressive in business and very successful and all that, but I just liked his manner."

Said Orbach: "I'm a big believer in the NBA. I think the league is run by super smart talented people. I think there's still so much growth worldwide [available]. Hopefully I can make an investment and enjoy it at the same time."

The Wolves, particularly now compared to the past decade or so, offer a little more sizzle, Orbach agreed, than even some $70 million apartment building deal in Manhattan.

Taylor, 75, seems renewed by the fresh blood on the roster, in the coaches' office and in the corporate suite. He was on his way out three years ago when Saunders -- who coached the Wolves to their only playoff appearances during a 10-year run from 1995-2005 -- convinced him to stick around. Saunders even negotiated for a slice of ownership and, according to the blueprint they put in place, likely would have rounded up a group of investors to increase their holdings as Taylor phased out.

Saunders' sudden bout with and death from Hodgkin's lymphoma in October scuttled those plans. Taylor talked with Kaplan about selling him a 30 percent stake in the franchise, but the Los Angeles-based investor was unable to sell off his Grizzlies share in an ownership dispute with Robert Pera.

Taylor, a self-made billionaire from Mankato, Minn., who started his empire with a local printing shop, said he initially tried to find local investors.

"Before I met with these guys, I really did my survey around Minnesota to see if there were some Minnesotans who were interested," Taylor said. "I didn't find anyone with the enthusiasm and the mean to do it."

Reports that Wolves star Kevin Garnett, who was brought back to Minnesota by Saunders in February 2015, might invest in the franchise never were official, Taylor said. For that matter, Garnett, 40, still hasn't told the Wolves if he plans to play in 2016-17, for which he's under contract for $8 million.

"I don't know where we stand on that," Taylor said. "I'm always open to something like that because he would kind of represent a Minnesota owner."

In the meantime, Taylor is recommitted. His ownership share is back to 70 percent, about what it was when he bought the team in 1995 for $88.5 million. Through the years, he had bought out limited partners until he owned about 87 percent. The team's most recent valuation, according to Forbes.com, was $720 million.

Orbach is excited to invest in something besides bricks and mortar. Lizhang feels he is on the brink of a business relationship that can bloom across borders and language barriers. Yao Ming, the former Houston Rockets center who was a pioneer for their country as a player, could tuck Lizhang under one arm. But the young minority owner is eager to follow in the big man's big footsteps.

"Globalization of the NBA already has been very successful especially in Asia," he said Wednesday. "Coming to the new era, in order to merge deeper into the global market, [the league] needs to be bolder and more innovative.

"With my participation in the NBA, I cannot say that I will become someone like Yao Ming, who plays a critical role in bringing attention. But I certainly will do my best."

No wonder Carr was beaming in the back of the room.

"I feel really proud," he said. "I've been proud of other things, global business things, championships. But this is really high up on my list."

High enough to break out his signature white towel (Google it)?

"I'd wave it with both hands," Carr said. "I'd have towel elbow."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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