‘I never want to buy value’

It takes half the day to get Tom Gores on the phone – his staff keeps calling to apologize – but when he finally calls he is patient, responsive and often enthused, sounding as much a cheerleader as an owner.

The new boss of the Pistons talks about Michigan. He talks about values. He talks about basketball. He talks about values. In a wide-ranging interview, Gores keeps returning to that word – “value” – and you realize you don’t become one of the richest people in America by ignoring it.

At times, Gores, founder, chairman and CEO of Los Angeles-based Platinum Equity, seems methodical – he has a way of doing things, the way works, and he’s going to stick with it – but every now and then he surprises you with a nod to a high school memory or a thoughtful statement about children and family.

It is worth remembering that Gores is only 46 – still young for an NBA coach, let alone a multi-billionaire owner.

Here are excerpts from our conversation Friday night:

You grew up in this state watching the Pistons. Was it surreal to be introduced as their owner?

It was. It really has been amazing. Detroit was the real closer in this deal for me. I always felt like I could make a difference here….This has made me feel like I can.

When did you first realize you were wealthy enough to own a sports team if you wanted?

Oh, geez, I don’t know. A few years ago. It’s not really the business we’re in. But this is such a unique situation where it really could use someone like me to help it transition and transform…. I always want to create value; I never want to buy value.

If it hadn’t been the Pistons, would you ever have considered buying another sports team?

Well, for sure it would have been a team here (in Michigan). You can’t replace where you grew up. As much as I love Los Angeles – and I live in Los Angeles – you can’t replace the Lions, Pistons, Tigers, you can’t replace those memories, right?

So if the Lions had been for sale, might you have bought them?

If the Lions had come up and the right opportunity was there, then, sure, I would have been interested in that…. Barry Sanders was one of my favorite players ever.

You spoke at your news conference about “challenging” Joe Dumars, your team president. What did you mean by “challenge”?

I think it’s gonna be good for Joe. I think Joe has needed some ownership. Just as we challenge our CEOs in our own companies, (we’ll challenge Joe) to think about every different way he can do something….

I think Joe is ready for it. I don’t think he’s afraid of it. And as much as we’re an owner that’s gonna allow basketball operations to do their thing, I’m gonna be very, very present, and we’re gonna ask questions. We’re not gonna rest on our laurels.

As a kid who grew up modestly, when did you first feel “rich”?

Oh, geez. It might sound hokey, but I always felt like I could do anything. I never wanted to be limited by what somebody else thought I should do. I did grow up in a home with a lot of love.

So when you talk about rich, like when I talk to my kids, there’s a couple ways of being rich; you could be rich with money, or be rich with love….

In terms of wealth, it was probably around 2000 or something, 10 years ago, when I went, “Geez, I am creating some wealth here.”

It seems you can’t read your name without seeing the words “worth $2.4 billion” after it. Do you pay attention to such numbers? Is that how you keep score?

Not at all. When I read that, I’m like, “Blah, blah, blah – then tell me what I’ve done? Tell me what I did for somebody?” Blah, blah, blah, billionaire, blah, blah, blah. Tell me what I’ve done for a community? For a customer? For a company? What I’ve done for somebody who works for me? That’s the real stuff.

Now, I’m also not in the business of losing money, so the idea is to be creating wealth, not just for myself, but for everybody else involved with me. Obviously, I’m not in the business to go backwards.

But my wife, Holly, is like me. The other day we were reading something and it’s like, blah, blah, blah, billionaires. Who cares?

Do you ever hang out socially with professional athletes?

Normally, I don’t. I’ve got three kids. By the time I end my business and do the kind of things I do with them, I’m not out there that much socially.

Some first-time sports owners enthusiastically buy teams, then become disillusioned with the “entitlement” attitude of some pro players. Have you considered that?

Well, that’s a culture. We have to run our place and our house with fundamental values…. You force everybody to live by them. I think most players will follow that. I think when you allow the house to get out of control, it gets out of control.

What trait will you not put up with in players?

Not working hard.

Why is that so important?

I’m gonna personally lose sleep over this (investment)…. I expect other people to have the same passion.

Will you be an invisible owner, or the kind who stops by practice and goes in the locker room?

I think I’m gonna have to let that evolve…. I’m not naturally an invisible person…. Once I decide to engage, I’ll be present…. If I’m here, if I’m around, I’ll want to say hello….

I’m not gonna be drawing up the game plan, telling the coach what to do. But I’m gonna be present in a way that they know I’m there.

Do you think it’s possible for an owner to be friends with his players?

I think you can be friendly. I think you can be friends. But you both have to draw lines. If you’re good friends with one player and he’s getting away with something the whole team can’t get away with, that’s not correct. We run a family. If someone is taking advantage of the relationship, that’s not good.

What sports were you into growing up?

I played year-round – basketball, football, baseball and even soccer.

What positions?

In basketball, point guard all the way through high school. In baseball, I played shortstop and second base. In football, I was a defensive back and a pretty good field-goal kicker.

Really? What was the longest field goal you ever hit?

There’s a film clip Holly found for me of a 39-yard field goal I kicked (while playing for Genesee High School near Flint) that cleared by probably 20 yards. Somehow they were filming this football game. It was against an archrival, in the rain, a mud bowl. I kicked a 39-yarder to win it.

Wait. So you’re saying you kicked a 59-yard field goal in high school?

(Laughs.) That’s what my buddies said.

You know that in a few years it’ll be a 69-yard field goal, right?

(Laughs.) Yeah. We ended up beating this team, , that our school hadn’t beaten in like 20 years.

Was that your biggest sports moment?

It was one of them.

As new Pistons owner, will you be living here more?

Yes. I’m gonna be here more…. I already have a home in Grosse Ile. I’ll probably get a place local, near the stadium…. I love coming back to Michigan. I love when my kids come back to Michigan. It’s a very grounded place for me.

But it’s not realistic, with the life and business you have elsewhere, to expect to see you at even half the Pistons games, is it?

I’m gonna try to get to as many as I can. Knowing that I can’t make it to every game, I also have a couple of very senior folks that I trust and really think exactly the same way as I do, Bob Wentworth and Phil Norment. They’ll also be very present.

There’s always going to be ownership presence around. We feel like that’s important….

This is not just about being seen at the stadium…. The games are only about 40 nights a year. There’s another 325 days that you have to have your presence. We have surrounded this place with our presence. We’re not being shy about it. It’s a big responsibility we’ve taken on. We have to deliver.

Is it better in your business to be low profile than high profile? And, if so, won’t that change now in owning an NBA franchise?

Taking the Pistons on, it was one of the things I really had to contemplate. I had to say, “Geez, this is gonna create a little higher profile because that’s part of owning a sports team.” And I had to ask myself if I was comfortable with it – and I am.

You don’t go after the profile, but you also don’t want to be afraid. I don’t want to look back and say, “Geez, I should have taken that Pistons thing on.”

Were the reports accurate that you were interested first, then Mike Ilitch, then back to you?

Yeah. We were interested, and then we couldn’t quite work things out, and then I think Mike took a peek, they couldn’t quite work things out, and we’d gotten more time to study what was there and the assets. I also developed a nice relationship with the Davidsons….

We were in, then Mike was in, then Mike decided not to and we were back in.

Your thoughts on Mr. Ilitch?

I spoke to Mike (Friday). I called him. I have a lot of respect for Mike. He’s been a tremendous asset and a leader of the community for a very long time. And, look, he’s got two major teams here that he keeps providing leadership to.

Had you met him before?

I hadn’t. But I thought it was appropriate (to call him) once we closed…. Him being a sports owner for a long time, I could learn a lot from Mike. And I’m never afraid to learn.

And how was the phone call?

It was good. It was great. He was warm. He was open. I said to Mike, “Look, we’re partners in this thing,” and he totally agrees.

Do you have a favorite player in the league – not counting any Pistons?

Yeah. The Laker from MSU. Shannon Brown. This guy on the court – forget just a basketball player, he’s just a tremendous athlete. Probably one of the best athletes I’ve actually seen on the court.

Is there a particular style of play you favor for your team?

I like the fundamentals. If you look at what you can control, you can’t control making a shot, but you can control defense. I don’t mind being a defensive-minded team. Detroit is a place to play fundamentals.

Do you have a typical work schedule, a typical day? Do you work every morning from 6 a.m. or something like that?

Probably a little later than that. I’m a big believer in quality time with my kids, but I think quality comes through quantity. I’m not one of those guys who says, “Between 3 and 5 we’ll have quality time.”

In the early part of the day, I like organizing myself and the end of the day I like regrouping. I am a people person. I’m also a very instinctive person.

I have a philosophy. “Plan on it but don’t count on it.” That’s how we’re gonna run this place. If the world changes, were gonna adjust. We can’t control everything, but we can be prepared.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. His new play, “Ernie,” runs through July at City Theatre in downtown Detroit. It was inspired by the story of legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell. For information, go to www.ernietheplay.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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