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Citizen Staff Writer



PHOENIX – Robert Sarver never participated in a fantasy league growing up, where individuals choose pro players to make up a team and use the pros’ statistics to compete against others to see how they do.

He is, however, living that life now.

What is fantasy for some is reality for Sarver, a Sabino High School and University of Arizona graduate.

Sarver, 43, is completing his first season as the Phoenix Suns majority owner after purchasing the team from longtime owner Jerry Colangelo for a reported $401 million, an NBA record.

“Every kid wishes he was in this business,” Sarver said. “For those of us who can’t play, it’s pretty exciting to own a team.”

Exciting? Try living through perhaps the time of his life. And why not? His Suns enter Sunday’s playoffs having finished the season with the league’s best record (62-20), tying a franchise record and reaching the 60-win mark for only the second time in team history (1993).

“It’s been a great ride,” Sarver said. “They are super fun to watch, fast-paced. And they’re a great bunch of guys who have fun together. It’s been great.”

It did start with some reservations just days after Sarver took ownership in July.

“I thought it was fantasy league the first week after closing the deal,” Sarver joked of July 2004. “I wasn’t sure what I did. We went out to Dallas and got Steve Nash (for $60 million, and then Quentin Richardson for $43 million) and I’m thinking, ‘Am I on “Candid Camera”? Did I really do this?’ It happened so fast.”

It was like a Phoenix Suns fast break, quick and successful, completed just months after Arizona coach Lute Olson, a longtime friend, suggested he speak to former UA star Steve Kerr about the possibility of buying a team. Kerr and Sarver then headed to New York to meet with NBA commissioner David Stern to see what needed to be done.

Stern suggested they meet with Colangelo “and a couple of months later we were putting up a $10 million deposit,” Sarver said. “It happened a lot faster than I thought.”

But that’s Sarver, a get-it-done-type.

He graduated from UA in 3 1/2 years and then founded the National Bank of Tucson in 1984 at age 23. He’s still in banking in San Diego, Las Vegas and Tucson, and a major player in real estate in Arizona and California.

“He’s unbelievably bright and alert,” said Olson, who met Sarver in the early 1980s and has remained a close friend. “He has a feel for people. He’s the real deal, and he’s very down to earth.”

That’s one of his charms and, perhaps, one of his pitfalls when it comes to critics.

At games, he’s as animated as any fan. Earlier this season, it became national news when he donned a headband and shorts and did a stunt normally reserved for the Gorilla, the team mascot, jumping off a trampoline for dunk during a timeout.

“My kids had a little basket and trampoline and they were doing the dunks so I thought maybe I’d try it,” he said.

It was fun, yet he was sore afterward. But the fans enjoyed it.

“He’s acting like (Dallas owner) Mark Cuban – it is his team,” said Lorenzo Boyce, 52 and a Suns season-ticket holder. “He gets into it with the fans and the Gorilla and everything. It’s good. Fans like that. The other owner was bit more subdued, although he was always here. It’s kind of nice. Colangelo was good, too, but he was more in the background, but with this guy, he’s more in the foreground.”

In being compared to Cuban, the ever-involved-and-often-fined owner of the Mavericks, Sarver said, “I’m animated like he is. I’m excited. I show my emotions. I’m passionate about my team like he is. I’m not quite as involved with the basketball side as he is. It’s just great fun. I live being at the games.

“I really think of myself as a fan rather than an owner. Sometimes I forget I own the team.”

The NBA honchos have noticed.

“It would be fair to describe him as colorful and enthusiastic,” Stern said. “He’s getting used to being a team owner.”

But if all seasons are like the one he’s currently in the middle of, it might take some getting used to after 62 wins and the fan enthusiasm that has returned after going 29-53 last season.

And now, just nine months after taking over the team, some people are thinking Phoenix is the team to beat as it attempts to win its first NBA title.

He says, what the Suns have experienced to this point wasn’t even in his wildest dreams. Sarver said that in the team’s first meeting before the season started, he set a goal at 45 wins, making the playoffs and seeing what happens.

“I told them that if we went 29-53 again I’ll be on the Coronado Bay Bridge (in San Diego) with (AmarĂ©) Stoudemire and (Shawn) Marion and we’d all jump,” he joked. “I thought 45 wins would be a successful year.”

The Suns have clearly “exceeded all expectations.” And the season is hardly over.

“When he bought the Suns, I thought this may be the exception because everything he’s done has turned to gold,” Olson said. “When I read what he had to pay for the team, I was like, ‘Oh boy, great move.’ But again, it just shows he has unbelievable feel for things. He has a knack of finding ways to get things done.”

He’s long had that knack. He said he picked up something from his beloved late father, Jack, a former hotel owner/businessman, who showed what work ethic, customer care and determination can do.

“I think the biggest thing I got from my dad was foresight and intuition,” he said. “I’m not sure if I learned it or what, but he was a good person and he gave back to the community.”

He may also have a shining star. Just last week, while in Tucson for a niece’s wedding, Sarver looked up at the night sky and found a lone star. He felt it was a sign from his father, who passed away 25 years ago this month.

“Maybe my dad somehow helped guide me for things working out well, because I’ve been pretty lucky,” he said.

Sarver timeline

1961: Born in Tucson, youngest of three children

1977: Begins work at American Savings and Loan in Tucson at age 16

1979: Graduates from Sabino High School

1982: Graduates from University of Arizona in 3 1/2 years

1983: Becomes a certified public accountant

1984: Founds first bank, National Bank of Tucson, which becomes National Bank of Arizona

1990: Moves to Paradise Valley to expand National Bank of Arizona and co-founds real estate company Southwest Value Partners with Millard Seldin

1991: Meets Penny Sanders, his future wife

1994: Sells National Bank of Arizona to Zions Bancorporation

1995: Buys Grossmont Bank in San Diego and acquires Emerald Plaza, a downtown hotel high-rise

1996: Moves to San Diego area, marries Sanders

1998: Leads Zions’ acquisition of Sumitomo Bank of California

2003: Becomes chairman, president and CEO of Western Alliance Bancorporation

2004: Buys Phoenix Suns for NBA-record $401 million

Personal: wife, Penny; sons, Max, 7; Jake, 5; and Zach, 3; lives in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

Source: The Arizona Republic

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