When the NBA nixed his plan to bring a D League team to Kalamazoo, Steve Jbara turned his attention to Grand Rapids and that move turned out to be a “blessing.” Photo by Johnny Quirin
He was never the tallest, most elusive or the strongest, but he was always ambitious.
“Basketball was my favorite sport, I wasn't super talented at it, but it was always my favorite sport,” said Steve Jbara, the owner/president of the Grand Rapids Drive. “I was better at baseball, though. I was awful at football, it turned out that I didn’t like being tackled or tackling people.”
Jbara, who graduated from Trine University with a B.A. in marketing and computer science, grew up in a sports-oriented household. His brothers played sports and his dad was an avid sports fan. Whether it was football in the fall, basketball in the winter or baseball in the summer, Jbara said sports were always on TV.
Unfortunately for Jbara, his passion for basketball didn’t earn him a spot on a college basketball team or a professional team, but it unexpectedly landed him in the business sports arena.
Jbara’s business success was born out of a naive idea. Trey Conner, a childhood friend, said when Jbara told him of his idea to bring a National Basketball Association Development League franchise — now known as the G League — to West Michigan, he was excited but also skeptical.
“My reaction was surreal,” Conner said. “I enjoyed the idea, but I wasn’t sure it was going to happen.”
Nevertheless, when Jbara pitched the idea to his brother, Jeff Jbara, and his uncle, they welcomed the idea.
“I am not the smartest guy, and I don't know the most about numbers and things like that, but those two guys are wicked smart,” Jbara said, laughing. “I wanted to review the idea with them, just to make sure I wasn’t going to do jail time if this thing went under.”
Unbeknownst to Jbara, his friend, Wes Weir, who worked at The Palace of Auburn Hills where the Detroit Pistons formerly played, orchestrated a meeting in 2012 between Jbara, Dennis Mannion, then-president and CEO of Palace Sports and Entertainment, and Joe Dumars, then-general manager of the Pistons.
During the meeting, the then-24-year-old laid out his vision of bringing a D League team to West Michigan, specifically in Kalamazoo, where he was from.
The Detroit Pistons management team was intrigued by the idea and invited Jbara to New York to meet with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern. Jbara tried to sell his idea of bringing a team to West Michigan in the three-minute time allotted to him.
“He said absolutely not,” Jbara said.
Jbara returned to Detroit to inform the Pistons contingent about the disappointing news. Mannion and Dumars urged Jbara to offer more money, which at the time, was $4.5 million per team.
However, when Jbara approached Stern and Adam Silver (the incoming NBA commissioner at the time) again, they echoed the same message and further explained they didn’t want another team in the Midwest because there was a D League team in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that was comprised of young players from the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Pistons’ ownership team also rebuked the idea of creating an affiliate team that would be associated with that bracket. The Pistons wanted their D League team to be independent of Fort Wayne. After months of disappointment, there was suddenly an unexpected opportunity.
“There was a team in Springfield, Massachusetts, that was for sale,” Jbara said. “The league said, ‘We are not going to give you an expansion team, but you’ve been so annoying that you have the opportunity to purchase this team.’”
The Springfield team was an affiliate of the Brooklyn Nets. In the midst of trying to raise funds to purchase the team, Jbara encountered another dilemma. His hopes of bringing a D League team to Kalamazoo were dashed. He initially wanted to bring a team to play at the Wings Event Center, home of the Kalamazoo Wings hockey team, but a scoreboard too big for basketball recently was installed in the arena.
“The NBA guy said, ‘Steve, I want you to take a shot from half court.’ So I said sure. Without even trying to shoot, the ball went ‘clank’ off the scoreboard, and then he said, ‘Go try again, but a little bit farther away.’ ‘Bang,’ off the scoreboard.”
Jbara said when they measured from the court to the bottom of the scoreboard, it was about 22 feet; the NBA requirement is 37 feet.
“Then I realized, oh shoot, we have to move to a different city,” Jbara said. “We decided, which has been a blessing, to come to Grand Rapids, which is bigger, a better market and more people. DeltaPlex gave us the OK.”
Jbara had an arena for the Drive but didn’t have the money to officially buy the team. Jbara and Weir were sitting in Founders Brewing Co. one day when, by coincidence, they found themselves seated next to Jeff Royce, who at the time was the director of GR Current.
Royce overheard their conversation about their need for an office space to operate from. Royce provided them a space but, more importantly, introduced them to their first investor. Jbara needed to raise about $5 million within three months to purchase the team.
By word of mouth, some investors were interested in the idea and invested some money, while others passed up on the idea.
“We probably got told no 200 to 300 times,” Jbara said. “We sat in tons of meetings; we were meeting seven to eight times a day with people here and there. We were taking $10,000 as minimum investment to get to $5 million; it took a lot of people. We ended up with over 50 C Level Investors — really cool guys — and once we hit 60 percent of funds raised, it started just waterfalling.”
With the help of plenty of investors, Jbara raised the money to purchase the team. Now, the Drive, the G League affiliate of the Pistons, are well into their fourth season.
Although many people in Grand Rapids associate Jbara with the Drive, he is quietly devoting his time to another passion. At least twice per week, Jbara drives across the state to work at an advertising agency in Detroit.
Jbara has been the director of new business at Jekyll & Hyde Advertising for the past two years. He is tasked with growing the agency’s clientele and ensuring their entrepreneurs’ and startup businesses’ brands gain revenue.
Despite all of his business accomplishments, Jbara said a year ago he accomplished what he described as his biggest feat: earning his pilot license.
“That was the hardest thing I ever accomplished in my life was getting my helicopter license,” he said.
Jbara also has developed an obsession for antique automobiles, which can be credited to his stint working at Ford Motor Co.
“I think it is fascinating to watch the change in automobiles and how technology has come along compared to how it was built back then,” he said.
Seems fitting for the person who owns a sports team honoring Detroit’s auto history.