The NBA has spent years making in-roads in basketball-loving China, installing offices there, bringing players stateside and playing exhibitions there to increase the league’s presence in a country that can’t get enough of it.
One of the few steps left to be taken was to add a Chinese owner to a team. As the NBA’s chairman of the board, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor felt a particular sense of duty to make that happen.
Taylor finalized an agreement with two new minority owners on Wednesday, including the first Chinese minority partner in league history.
Lizhang Jiang has purchased a 5 percent stake in the Wolves, and Taylor said he plans to be very active in the team’s business side and forging partnerships for the league and the franchise in China.
”I believe I’m doing this not only for the Timberwolves, but I’m doing it for the NBA,” Taylor told The Associated Press on Wednesday evening. ”Somebody’s got to do it sometime and who would be better than the chairman of the board to experiment with something like this. I’m always interested in doing that.”
Lizhang is a 35-year-old who founded founder Shanghai Double-Edged Sports Company, a sports marketing firm. He was introduced to Taylor through a mutual acquaintance and, after both sides found a desire to work together, Taylor spoke to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and solicited the league’s help in doing background research on Lizhang.
His addition to Minnesota’s ownership group may not do for the Timberwolves what Yao Ming’s arrival in Houston did for the Rockets, but Taylor believes Lizhang can make an impact both locally and abroad.
”He’s very interested in trying that to do what he can do,” Taylor said. ”We have NBA China over there. There might be some type of coordination with them.”
Lizhang also recently purchased 98 percent of Granada CF, a Spanish soccer team. He also becomes a minority owner of three-time WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, whose star Maya Moore plays in China in the winter.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had negotiated to add a Chinese group to their ownership team in 2009, but that deal fell through.
”As a passionate sports fan, I’m excited to become a part of the Timberwolves and Lynx organization and honored to be the first Chinese citizen to have ownership in the NBA,” he said in a statement issued by the Timberwolves. ”My goal is to bring China and this great league closer, and build the Timberwolves and Lynx fan base in our country.”
Taylor also sold 9.5 percent of the Timberwolves to Manhattan real estate mogul Meyer Orbach, chairman of the Orbach Group in New York City. The group owns retail and residential buildings in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and California that are valued at over $2 billion.
Last year the Orbach Group was investigated by the New York Attorney General’s office for allegedly filing numerous ”frivolous” lawsuits against low-income residents in rent-controlled units in an effort to get them out of the housing so they could charge higher rents.
Taylor said Orbach mentioned the investigation in the early stages of their talks. The NBA enlisted a law firm to look into the matter and Taylor said the allegations involved a former employee of Orbach’s and not Orbach himself.
”They went through everything and found out that everything he said was true and there was no ongoing investigation,” Taylor said. ”But he was asked to provide some materials to show that they hadn’t done anything wrong while that employee worked for him.”
Both Lizhang and Orbach will have input into the Timberwolves’ business side of the operation, but not the basketball operations, Taylor said.
”I’m excited to join such a dynamic organization, in an amazing city, at an especially promising time for these great franchises,” Orbach said. ”I look forward to spending more time in Minnesota and to a successful partnership that I know will result in an NBA Championship and future WNBA Championships.”
Taylor said Lizhang and Orbach were not immediately planning to enter into an agreement to eventually succeed Taylor as the majority owner of the franchise. But he was leaving that option open in the more distant future.
”I’m not going to speculate what their opportunities might be or their net worth might be 10 years from now,” Taylor said. ”Maybe by being here and being involved, maybe they change what their goals are. I surely wouldn’t answer that. Right now, they didn’t ask for that.”