It says a great deal about Tim Leiweke’s reach that when he left as president and chief executive officer of Anschutz Entertainment Group it made news in Billboard Magazine as well as the sports pages.
So, too, does the fact that within a half-hour of his hiring as president/CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., Phil Jackson’s name was being linked to the Toronto Raptors’ presidency.
Jackson, who has won 11 NBA titles as a coach, plus two as a player, is openly looking for a basketball operations job with the freedom to enact culture change. And while he may not ever work for the Raptors, this much became clear Friday: Bryan Colangelo just lost his status as smartest basketball guy in the room.
Calling himself a person who has had the NBA in his blood for 30 years – “I come from the NBA and know a lot of people in the NBA and learned under the curve of Jerry Buss and Jerry West,” – Leiweke celebrated his unveiling as one of the most powerful men in Canadian sports by making clear the Raptors are his priority.
The Toronto Maple Leafs? “Right now, you cheer them on and stay out of the way,” he said. “It’s more important to jump on the Raptors.”
Read what you want into the fact that while Leiweke noted his tenure with MLSE doesn’t formally begin until after a decision must be made on exercising Colangelo’s contract as general manager for 2013-14, the MLSE board is, in his words, “leaning on me to make a recommendation.” And he’s already spoken to his contacts around the NBA – including commissioner David Stern and his next in line, Adam Silver – as part of some pre-emptive due diligence.
Jackson? They’re friends, Leiweke said, and they spoke as friends, with Jackson telling him “what a great city [Toronto] is.”
It’s too early to speculate about anything else. Leiweke spoke with Colangelo, whose teams haven’t made the playoffs for five years, and said they will have a “long chat next week. … I don’t think it’s any secret that the emerging question and first action is going to be the Raptors.”
You can blame MLSE for a number of things, but being cheap with their suits isn’t one of them. For their myriad miscalculations, former Leafs GM Brian Burke and Colangelo were not hauled off the scrap heap for pennies. Toronto FC’s Dutch treat – former coach Aron Winter – came about after a wad of cash was thrown in the direction of Jurgen Klinsmann’s SoccerSolutions consulting group, and Klinsmann doesn’t yawn unless he gets paid. Leiweke likely didn’t come cheaply, either.
Leiweke has no shortage of critics, although it’s telling most of them prefer to go off the record.
Within the sports management world, he is known as a guy who can spin with the best of them and Philip Anschutz’s decision to part ways with someone believed to be a confidant after shutting down what was supposed to be a $10-billion (U.S.) sale of AEG raised eyebrows. The best-case scenario, according to one of Leiweke’s contemporaries, is it was a matter of the relationship simply reaching the end of its shelf life.
At any rate, Leiweke takes over an organization that has already made one significant course alteration: firing Burke.
His successor, Dave Nonis, will be able to greet his new boss by gently reminding him he is the first Maple Leafs GM to oversee a playoff team in nine years (so we can add a sense of timing to the list of managerial strengths possessed by Nonis).
The same cannot be said for Colangelo, whose team still seems at times to be a hodge-podge of misfit pieces; a dozen players who’d have difficulty starting on any of the top eight teams in the NBA. Colangelo has spent the past few seasons being too cute by half, taking his fan base and ownership for granted knowing he was the smartest hoops guy in a room full of puck-heads.
That’s no longer the case – and the good news for Raptors fans is if he does somehow survive, somebody with basketball in his blood will have made the call.