Wyc Wants a Winner in Beantown
December 28, 2004
There was a minute to go in the game, and Wyc Grousbeck was slumped in his courtside seat, a glum expression fixed on his youthful face. It hadn't been the Boston Celtics' night.
"I'm inconsolable after we lose," the team's owner and CEO admitted afterward. "It's not logical how I react, but the losses are devastating."
It doesn't help, of course, that Grousbeck, who bought the storied franchise two years ago with a group of local investors, will sometimes go home and watch the game again on TiVo. When he purchased the Celtics for $360 million at the time, the highest price ever paid for an NBA fran chise Grousbeck knew he'd hate to lose, but he didn't know he'd hate it this much.
For fans of a team that has been teetering between disappointment and disaster since its last NBA title 18 years ago, Grousbeck should be a popular guy. He's determined to win, has tremendously deep pockets, and, despite his prep-school pedigree, knows something about adversity. But you didn't hear that from him. One of the NBA's youngest chief executives at 43, Grousbeck is also exceedingly discreet and soft-spoken, the antithesis of imperious owners like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks. Even in his hometown he grew up just 20 minutes from the FleetCenter Grousbeck is virtually unknown outside of select Boston business circles.
"Wyc's an understated guy, maybe even introverted," said James Cash, a retired Harvard Business School professor who sits on the boards of Microsoft, General Electric, and, now, the Boston Celtics. "But I've been around people all my life, and you can't pay someone to work as hard as this guy works."
That's good, because, as any Celtics fan knows, there's plenty of work to do. A franchise that was once the envy of the league, playing before sellout crowds and winning a record 16 NBA titles, is something of an afterthought now, toiling in the shadow of the triumphant Red Sox and Patriots. Last year, the team's average attendance at the FleetCenter was 16,200 in an arena that seats more than 18,600; those numbers are holding steady this season, Grousbeck said.
"The great thing about owning a sports team in this town is everybody wants you to succeed," he said. "But you can't talk about doing it; you just have to do it."
A fan first
Raised in Weston, the oldest of four children, Wycliffe Grousbeck grew up a devoted Boston sports fan, going with his father, H. Irving Grousbeck, to a couple of games a year at Fenway Park and the Boston Garden. Such was his affection for the local sports scene that when Grousbeck was 12, a chance meeting with talk show host Eddie Andelman left him speechless.
In high school at Noble and Greenough, Grousbeck played soccer, basketball, and baseball, but at Princeton he developed a passion for rowing. Sitting in a conference room near the FleetCenter recently, he talked excitedly about his college crew days, and about rowing himself to the brink of blackout. There was no national championship for crew in 1983, but Princeton's lightweight varsity team was undefeated during Grousbeck's senior year "We would've beaten anybody who showed up," he said with uncharacteristic bravado.
These days Grousbeck mostly works out on a stationary bicycle at the Celtics' practice facility in Waltham but in good weather will still test the limits of oxygen debt rowing on the Charles River.
Grousbeck also indulged an interest in music at Princeton, playing in a band called the Daytonas. Although he'd taken four years of piano as a kid, he enjoyed beating on the drums more. The Daytonas played covers of the Police and the Clash, but the band's signature tune was the Who's "I Can't Explain," which allowed Grousbeck to channel his musical hero, Keith Moon. Twenty years later, his taste in music hasn't changed much: He likes hard rock and harder rock. Driving to and from work in his Lincoln Aviator vanity plate CELTIX chances are Pearl Jam is in the CD player.
Grousbeck still plays the drums at home, he amplifies his Roland V kit to make maximum noise and once performed on stage with Walter McCarty, the Celtics forward who moonlights as an R&B singer. Grousbeck's brother, a singer-songwriter who performs as Peter Walker, said his sibling is steady if unspectacular on the skins.
"He's good," Walker said. "Wyc's pretty much a straight-up rock dude."
The idea of buying a sports franchise, rather than just rooting for one, was something Grousbeck and his father had long talked about. A committed fan like his son, Irving Grousbeck grew up in Northampton, and after college cofounded Continental Cablevision Inc. with his partner Amos Hostetter. The pair eventually sold the company for $11.5 billion.
"I kind of fell into the honey pot, and haven't tried too hard to escape," said the elder Grousbeck, who lives in California and teaches at the Stanford Business School.
Over the years, father and son inquired about the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland A's, and, on two occasions, the Red Sox, but balked or were rebuffed each time. By the late 1980s, Wyc Grousbeck was living in San Francisco with his wife, Corinne, and practicing law. One of his clients was Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm that helped Amazon, America Online, and Compaq get off the ground.
"It was like wheeling the stone in for Michelangelo," he said of working with Kleiner, Perkins.
Excited by the risk and reward of venture capitalism, Grousbeck got an MBA at Stanford and embarked on a new career. Around the same time, he and Corinne, whom he'd met while attending law school at the University of Michigan, started a family. Their daughter was born in 1990, and a son came along two years later.
Now 12, Campbell Grousbeck has been blind since birth. His dad doesn't often talk about the boy's condition because it can prompt pity, which he considers a meaningless emotion. But soon after his son was born, Grousbeck joined the fight against blindness, founding a company to explore the technologies needed to make retinal transplants a reality. He also funds blindness research at major universities, and in one of his first phone calls after taking control of the Celtics, Grousbeck asked the NBA to include schools for the blind in its student literacy program called Read to Achieve.
"It's been an inspiration for me to watch Wyc with his son," said Danny Ainge, Celtics executive director of basketball operations. "He had a great life in California, but came back here so his son could be close to the Perkins School for the Blind."
Indeed, unhappy with the educational options available to their son in California, the family moved back to Massachusetts in 1995, and Grousbeck went to work for the Lexington-based venture firm Highland Capital Partners, where he specialized in start-up medical technology investments.
Over time, through his and Corinne's involvement in several local charities, notably Children's Hospital, the Lovelane Special Needs Riding Program, and Horizons for Homeless Children, Grousbeck met many of the people who would become his business partners in the Celtics.
Stephen Pagliuca, a managing director at the global investment firm Bain Capital, knew Grousbeck because their kids attended the Meadowbrook School in Weston. But it was still a surprise two years ago when, sitting in his comfortable corner office on the 35th floor of the Prudential Center, Pagliuca got a call from Grousbeck.
"I picked up the phone, and he said, 'Steve, I think there's an opportunity to buy the Celtics. Would you be interested?' "
No, actually, Pagliuca wouldn't, at least not initially. A leveraged-buyout artist who had negotiated billion-dollar deals at Bain, Pagliuca knew just enough about the Celtics' enigmatic owner Paul Gaston to be uneasy about the numbers. But he was also a fervid basketball fan who had played at Duke as a freshman, and a generous supporter of children's charities, including the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, of which he's chairman. After a single meeting at Grousbeck's house in Weston, Pagliuca was on board.
"Wyc's one of the brightest guys I've ever met. He could be the CEO of a giant company," Pagliuca said. "We both viewed the Celtics as a community asset, a labor of love, really, not as an investment for investors."
In September 2002, after months of secret negotiations, the deal was announced: Grousbeck, along with his father, and Pagliuca, had bought the Boston Celtics.
"Riding in the car to the press conference, I don't think Wyc or I anticipated the magnitude of the reaction," said Pagliuca. "It was like a rock show."
The ownership group has since grown larger, with the addition of The Abbey Group's Bob Epstein as a managing partner, and Paul Edgerley of Bain Capital, Glenn Hutchins of Silver Lake Partners, and James Pallotta of Tudor Investments as members of the executive committee. None will say how much they're in for, but Grousbeck and his father own the largest share. For that reason, he's the public face of the team, the go-to guy for fans and the media when the Celtics hire a coach or general manager, draft a promising high school player, or struggle to win games.
Bob Cousy, the Hall-of-Fame playmaker who was part of six Celtics championships, said Grousbeck's group is already distinguishing itself from absentee owners of the past.
"I don't want bottom-line stuff or fakers," Cousy said. "I look for people who are committed, and that's what I see here."
Off the court, there've been changes big and small: The Shamrock Foundation, the charitable arm of the Celtics, is more active than ever, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as tickets, to community organizations. Spending on basketball operations has nearly doubled; the team travels in a larger, more comfortable jet; the dressing room at the FleetCenter has been upgraded with fancy cabinetry and etched glass; and the whole team has iPods.
Yes, iPods. Grousbeck got one from his wife last year for Christmas, and enjoyed it so much he gave a 40GB iPod to all 15 players and seven coaches.
"When Gary Payton got off the plane, we handed him one that was engraved: 'Gary Payton, Boston Celtics, No. 20,' " Grousbeck said. "We wanted to show him this place isn't so bad."
On the court, change has been less perceptible. The Celtics have played well on occasion this season, but even the owner feels they may be three to five years from being competitive against the NBA's best teams. And for longtime season ticket holders like Joe Ossoff, that's deeply frustrating.
"People keep saying this is a young team. I'm sick of hearing about a young team. I've heard that around here for 10 years," said Ossoff, who lives in Beverly and has been going to games with his wife since 1973. "I see [Grousbeck] cheering at all the games, and, sure, enthusiasm counts for something, but I don't know if he adds much beyond that. I'm not sure what the hell the plan is."
The plan, says Grousbeck, is to do what it takes to raise a 17th banner to the rafters. And for someone who keeps his BlackBerry on the bedside table so he can check e-mails at 3 a.m., that day can't come soon enough. After a recent four-point loss to the very beatable Golden State Warriors, Grousbeck said he was despondent. But by the time the plane touched down in Boston, he was just more determined than ever.
"I guess I'll just own the Celtics until I black out," he said.
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