At the onset to his new career, Steve Jbara admits he had no idea how to start a small business or run a basketball team. Photo by Michael Buck
In early 2012, Steve Jbara was sitting in his seat at The Palace of Auburn Hills as a season ticketholder for the Detroit Pistons when an usher approached him.
“Steve, you’re wanted in the president’s suite,” the usher said.
Jbara thought the request was a prank by his friend, Wes Weir, who worked at the Palace.
A few days earlier, Weir and Jbara had a conversation about the interesting minor league system of the National Basketball Association, which had just been detailed in a recent issue of USA Today.
When he walked into the suite, Jbara was greeted by a smiling Joe Dumars, then the Pistons’ general manager. He said he had heard Jbara was interested in the team’s possible minor league team. Weir was in the corner of the room, looking on intently and nervous.
Shortly thereafter, Jbara and Weir found themselves pitching Grand Rapids as the potential franchise’s location, against other Michigan cities such as Lansing, Midland and Battle Creek, and Toledo, Ohio. Following the presentation, Dumars told the pair they were the ones the team would go with.
Shortly thereafter, Jbara was on his way to New York City to meet with NBA officials. At the end of the trip, he had a three-minute meeting — 12:32-12:35 p.m. — scheduled with then-NBA Commissioner David Stern.
It was February 2012, he was 24 years old, and he was going in front of the most powerful man in basketball.
“I’m just sweating through my clothes about what was I going to say,” he said. “I was so raw. I had no idea how to start a small business or how to run a basketball team.”
The meeting didn’t go well. Stern told Jbara he seemed like a nice kid, but the D-League was focusing on expansion in the Northeast. Jbara went back to Detroit with the bad news, and they told him to go back and offer more money for the franchise — money he didn’t have.
He did, but the answer was the same. This time, however, the league gave Jbara another option: Buy an existing franchise. The obvious choice was the franchise in Fort Wayne, the Pistons’ current affiliate, along with several other teams. But the money Fort Wayne wanted was too much and it didn’t seem to make sense.
The whole franchise idea seemed like a pipedream at that point, as the Midwest wasn’t a primary target for a team and, once it was, the Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks were ahead of the Pistons. Still, the Pistons wanted a team, as Dumars was unhappy with the multi-team affiliation in Fort Wayne.
While this courting of an NBA D-League team was going on, Jbara was still working for Ford Motor Co. in Detroit, running a branch of the dealer tools operation.
“I was sneaking into conference rooms, on the phone with NBA officials,” Jbara said.
Eventually, the owner of a team in Springfield, Mass., called Jbara. As a huge advocate for the league, the contact had been of great help to Jbara in learning about how to run a team, and now he wanted Jbara’s help in moving his team.
The team was a Brooklyn Nets affiliate but located in the heart of Boston Celtics country. In addition, another team was moving into the Springfield team’s arena, making scheduling a nightmare, and the Nets wanted their affiliate on Long Island.
The owner of the Springfield team still wanted a piece of the franchise, but the Pistons group was able to buy him out.
Living on the east side of the state and hailing from Kalamazoo, Jbara didn’t know many people in Grand Rapids. Business incubator GR Current was able to connect him with possible investors.
“They introduced me to a few people but none of the bigwigs in town,” Jbara said. “Now we have 35 investors that are walking about the city who are NBA owners.”
Those investors helped knock out a purchase price of approximately $4.7 million. Jbara said he owns just a sliver of the team.
A few days after the Springfield deal was closed in March, a new New York Knicks affiliate was announced with a price tag of $6 million.
In April, it was announced that Grand Rapids had landed a D-League franchise. Jbara, an unknown in the business, was the front of the new team’s ownership group. His youth and inexperience likely put some on edge — in early interviews with media, he was reluctant to give his age. He said some potential investors said no because of his youth.
Once the team had a name — Grand Rapids Drive — Jbara’s biggest challenge was getting the message out that the Grand Rapids Drive was not another of the fly-by-night teams that have called the city home.
“It’s educating the community about the team — letting them know it’s NBA,” Jbara said.
The league has as much interest as the ownership in making the team profitable, wanting to continue to expand the development league so every NBA team has an affiliate, Jbara said. To do that, the franchises need to be appealing to prospective buyers.
With former NBA player and executive Otis Smith introduced as the new coach two weeks ago, the Grand Rapids Drive will have a roster by early November. Jbara said fans will see lots of familiar faces, from college stars to Pistons heading back and forth between the two teams. A new NBA rule change will mean the addition of some exciting young players: Soon, high-schoolers must either spend two years in college or one playing in the D-League before they can enter the NBA draft.
The Pistons have control of the basketball operations, but Jbara said they’ve been great at allowing him some input.
“They said I can sit in the war room for the draft, as long as I’m quiet and don’t bug anyone,” he joked.
A question he often fields is: Why not Van Andel Arena? The easy answer is the team would be behind the Grand Rapids Griffins and the concert schedule for game times — likely meaning lots of Monday games. Also, the size of the arena is an issue; it would be one of the largest in the league.
Instead, the Pistons have helped the team outfit The DeltaPlex Arena with a new court, new scoreboard and new lights, and have helped make it an intimate place to watch a basketball game. Jbara said fans will be pleasantly surprised by the venue.
The suites have all sold out, Jbara said, meaning the ticket sales team can begin focusing on family ticket plans for regular season games.
A little more than two months away from starting a huge new chapter of his life, Jbara said he never saw it coming. The season starts in the middle of November — about seven months after he left his job at Ford.
“I had such a normal life,” he said. “I was working a 9-to-5; I knew what I had to do for the day. Now I’m running around here all night, trying to figure out how to get the shower height to 7-foot-3.”
He was a marketing and computer science major at Trine University in Angola, Ind., playing baseball throughout his college years. Basketball was his favorite sport, but he didn’t excel at it and was, at best, the eighth player off the bench in high school.
He said he never saw himself leading a basketball team, and instead thought he’d be working his way up the ladder at Ford. With this drastic change, he’s no longer trying to guess where his future lies.
“We’ll get this thing up and running real nice,” he said. “Who knows, maybe a job in the NBA or with the Pistons.
“Or, maybe something else crazy happens, and I end up farming — who knows?”