Nov 27, 2018 10:21 AM ET
* Tonight on NBA TV: Lakers vs. Nuggets (9 ET)
DENVER -- What’s a man who runs an NBA franchise, an NHL franchise and a sports arena supposed to look like, sound like, be like, anyhow?
The answer would normally conjure images that include but are not limited to graying temples, a stoic expression and a volleyball gut because those fit the stereotype of many old-school members of the Fat Cat Club.
Then there’s the guy who walks into the Pepsi Center on game night and immediately greets someone he knows with a bro-hug and a wazzup.
There’s a reason the boss raises the cool factor in any room he enters and looks younger than his Denver Nuggets executives because, well, he is. The hair, smile and slim-cut suit give the appearance and personality of someone who doesn’t intimidate his employees. As he walked down the hall past the locker room, and once out of sight, an arena worker, obviously new on the job, asked another:
“Who was that guy?”
“He owns the place.”
Well, not really. But might as well.
In the not-too-distant future, Nuggets team president Josh Kroenke could become the most powerful owner in sports. The 38-year-old is formally the Vice Chairman of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment UK, but his title is hardly a hollow one. He serves on the Board of Governors in the NHL and NBA, is a member of the NBA's Planning Committee, an Alternate Governor for the Colorado Rapids (MLS) and sits on the board of Arsenal Football Club of the English Premier League.
He controls this end of the family business, and business is booming by the way, especially on the basketball court. At 13-7 and in third place in the Western Conference, the Nuggets are making an early bid to crash NBA elite territory, helped by the people Kroenke wisely put in place.
His father, Stan Kroenke, bought the Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Pepsi Center, the Los Angeles Rams and also Arsenal, the fabled European soccer team. He is building the new bazillion-dollar NFL stadium in LA that’ll be home to the Rams and host the 2028 Olympics. Pops is the sixth-wealthiest owner of an American sports team. Strict NFL rules on cross-ownership of pro teams (since relaxed) forced the father to cede the Denver properties to his wife, Ann. She’s a daughter of Bud Walton, who along with his brother, Sam, created Wal-Mart. Yes, you’ll need an MIT professor to do the math here.
What do you give the son who comes from a staggering fortune and was handed the keys to this portion of the empire in 2010 at age 30? You give him something so much more valuable: A sense of normalcy.
“He’s so unassuming that you’d have no idea how blessed he is,” said Nuggets’ president of basketball operations Tim Connelly. “He prides himself on being one of the guys.”
That’s true, although those optics only go so deep. It would be a mistake, for example, to assume Kroenke lacks corporate skin. He’s had to get his hands grimy and replace front-office types. He let George Karl go fresh after he won the Coach of the Year award. He coped with Carmelo Anthony’s trade demands in 2011 when the Nuggets had little leverage with the star or the trade market. And, he spruced up a team gone stale, all before turning 40.
Still, it comes as reassuring to the people who know him, work with him and work for him that Josh’s last name isn’t Hilton. This isn’t a spoiled rich kid gone wild. He has flown Southwest! He asks to be called “Josh.” He’ll bring his two English bulldogs to the office and let them frolic. When he and former Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri (now with the Raptors) were hungry once while stuck in an airport, guess who went and fetched the food? When Kroenke first started working in the family business in 2007, he shagged free throws for players at practice, even the bench-warmers.
As a side bonus, Kroenke can whip every other NBA owner in a game of one-on-one with the exception of the guy who signs checks for the Charlotte Hornets.
It is basketball, which he played in AAU and for four years on the Division I level, that Kroenke credits for helping shape his outlook on life. It exposed him to other people and cultures and made him keenly receptive while running the Nuggets.
Things might’ve turned out differently if, say, Kroenke went total country club and did equestrian or lacrosse. Pickup hoops kept him humble because when you lace them up, it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your folks do or how much you got. Instead, it’s: Do you have what it takes to stay on the court?
“In a roundabout way, being around sports helped me a lot, and I’m glad life took me in that direction,” Josh Kroenke said. “Playing basketball helps you understand at a young age how truly fortunate you are, and what you have is not something to be flaunted; it’s something you can count as a blessing. I don’t rest on any laurels. It’s how can I be better today and how can I make the people around me better.”
As you might imagine, or maybe you can’t, being born into Monopoly money had its privileges for Josh and sister Whitney in Columbia, Mo. But every day wasn’t Christmas, in that Stan and Ann tried to make their household as typical as possible to keep their kids down to earth; Josh went to public school. And he said there was one rule his parents insisted was non-negotiable:
“No matter what position you are in life, my dad told me, 'Treat people the way you want to be treated.’ I could do a lot of things when I was a kid but the one thing that would get me in trouble is if I mistreated someone," Josh Kroenke said. "My parents didn’t shelter us by any means, but were careful about making sure we had certain core values.”
Once he gravitated toward basketball, he ventured into areas far from his world. In order to reach the best competition, his trips took him to Kansas City and St. Louis. The cultural gap between Kroenke and his teammates was almost as vast as the cash gap, yet the desire to fit in and gain respect made him a better player and a balanced person through that experience.
Eventually, word would often leak about who and how wealthy his parents were, especially after his father became part of the ownership group of the Rams -- who were then in St. Louis.
“Every now and then you’d hear some things from the stands,” Kroenke said. “It makes you pretty tough. While I wasn’t from a tough neighborhood with a tough upbringing, it’s a different kind of toughness that was forged through things like that.”
Kroenke grew to 6-foot-4 and fine-tuned a jumper that became splashy. He was a high school star and top-40 national recruit by several publications. He settled on Missouri and was coached by Quin Snyder -- who is now coach of the Utah Jazz.
That makes for a Twilight Zone-type existence nowadays. Dozens of players and coaches who competed with or against Kroenke in college have crossed paths with him in the NBA. In the second round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament, Mizzou was eliminated in overtime by Marquette. Then a junior, Kroenke came off the bench with fire, drilling four of six shots from deep.
A decade later during a meeting with the NBA union, he ran into the player who made life hell for Mizzou that day, joking to a laughing Dwayne Wade: “I want you to know there’s no one else in here who can say they dropped 14 points on you.”
That was one of Kroenke’s better games in college as knee injuries cut into his talent and playing time and discouraged him from playing overseas. Even then, though, Kroenke bonded with future NBA players Kareem Rush and Keyon Dooling and role players at Mizzou, showing an ability to cross-connect that would later serve him well.
“Josh was obviously well liked, but more than being liked he was respected,” Snyder said. “The way he competed in addition to the way he carried himself. You could tell he was about the team, and the guys on the team respected that. You could see the leadership skills he had as a player and person. It’s not surprising to see the manifestation of that in his current role.”
It didn’t hurt that Kroenke could invite the whole team over to his house with room to spare. Dooling grew up poor in Fort Lauderdale and as he recalled, it was quite a scene and an estate. A bunch of players using the pool and a renovated barn-turned-gym, while a descendant of the Wal-Mart family happily flipped burgers on the grill for her son and the boys.
“It was the first home of that magnitude that I’d ever been in,” Dooling said. “I mean, they had everything. And yet you would not believe how ordinary things are around that family. That’s why Josh has this unbelievable humility.”
After college, he wanted to strike out on his own in New York and after a brief stint at NBA headquarters he worked as a real estate underwriter at Lehman Brothers. He went to a Nets-Nuggets game one day with co-workers, who knew Kroenke was wrestling with career choices and his future. They asked: Why not work for the Nuggets?
“Yeah, but it’s my family,” Kroenke said.
The friends laughed, told him he was nuts and urged him to try.
“In hindsight it was some of the best advice I ever got,” he said. “There was a lot of hesitation on my part based on perception and being handed something when I tried to earn on my own way. Eventually it fell into the no-brainer category. My parents were supportive.”
Kroenke was exposed to the business of sports early and became a quick study as a young adult, asking a ton of questions. The father sized up the son after three years and declared him ready in 2010, and there was no other choice. Stan Kroenke was forced to surrender the Denver properties by the NFL, anyway.
Josh was thrown to the fire when, not long after he assumed control of the Nuggets, Anthony asked to be traded to the Knicks or Nets. With the rest of the league watching and sensing doom for the Nuggets, Kroenke and Ujiri walked a tightrope from training camp almost up to the trade deadline. They got more than anyone expected for Anthony, amassing several starters plus Draft picks from the Knicks that kept the Nuggets in contention the next two seasons.
Kroenke’s next challenge was sweeping up the debris following a 57-win season in 2012-13 as the Nuggets were shocked in the first round by the Warriors and subsequently ripped apart. Karl was fired and Ujiri left for Toronto. It was a queasy period that tested Kroenke and raised concerns whether he was stretched thin or unprepared to bounce from setbacks. Three losing seasons and a sparse arena followed; the Nuggets ranked in the bottom three in home attendance from 2015-17 and failed to reach the playoffs. There was turnover in the front office and the coaching staff before stability arrived just lately, with Connelly leading personnel and Mike Malone as coach.
Kroenke emerged from the hailstorm with a sharper product and a healthier outlook on his own ability to lead. The Nuggets are now balanced with youth (they have the fourth-youngest roster) and vets, with former draftees Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray aligned with Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee. Kroenke and Connelly also created positive buzz weeks ago by hiring Sue Bird as a basketball operations associate, making her a rare woman in the front office.
“I took heat for changes we made in 2013 but we’re five years out from those decisions,” Kroenke said. “We’re really proud of what we’ve done the last three years. We learned from our mistakes of four to five years ago, made the most of our opportunities whether it’s draft picks or trades. We developed the culture that I dreamed we could have. It’s starting to formulate. I mean, we’ve got a long ways to go this season. You draft people at 19 and you expect them to be 24 tomorrow. But if you watch us play and the ball’s flying. We play unselfishly.”
Can the Nuggets classify themselves as title contenders now or in the near future in a league where A-list free agent defections are deciding who wins championships?
“There’s different ways to skin the cat,” he said. “If you’re going to take on these super teams, you’re going to need organic growth. Continuity is unappreciated in sports. We’ve had that here. I’ve put trust in the people here and everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
From a big-picture view, it’s somewhat astonishing how Kroenke has handled the load. He’s active with Arsenal and spending time in London and involved in all aspects of negotiations with the LA stadium project in addition to the day-to-day with the Nuggets and Avalanche.
“When I played for the Nets and he lived in New York,” said Richard Jefferson, the recently-retired NBA veteran and a close friend, “he would come by and play video games until 3 in the morning, then crash on the couch. That would happen once a week. He wasn’t trying to be one of the guys, he was one of the guys.
“And now there are so many different things he’s working on. He’s not in training; he has already obtained so much knowledge about the business of sports through his father for, what, about a decade now? He knows the ropes already. Just to see how hard he’s working and still maintain the same persona is great.”
In the near future, a handful of NBA teams could pass from fathers to children, following Jerry Buss to Jeanie Buss. The Heat, Bulls, Warriors, Magic and Pacers already have successors in place and currently collecting the know-how. Kroenke is ahead of most of them and juggling more than any of them.
“In a world where he had endless opportunities to do whatever and go wherever, he chose hoops,” said Dooling. “He chose this life. His sports journey helped shape him, and he disarms people expecting to see someone a whole lot different from someone in his position.”
He could one day, realistically, run professional teams in football, basketball, hockey and soccer and lord over a Los Angeles stadium-retail-residential palace that will be more valuable than any like it. And he’ll probably be asked to show some ID when he reaches the door. Such is life for someone like Josh Kroenke, when you’re born on third base and behave like you’ve drawn a walk.
“I look back at the story of what my grandfather and his brother accomplished with Wal-Mart with awe,” he said. “They grew up in a small town and identified areas that create value. That’s all I’m trying to do, create value to my family and to Denver.”
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