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The Valley’s 12th Man: Mat Ishbia and a Brighter Future for the Phoenix Suns & Mercury

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
Boardroom spoke with the blue-collar billionaire about his roundball roots and why he’s coming in hot as the NBA’s youngest majority owner.

Last week, a rookie point guard proved the most impactful player at the NBA’s ever-fascinating trade deadline.

Standing 5-foot-9 and spending most of his college career buried on the bench, an undrafted underdog from Michigan State turned the entire Association upside down despite showcasing mostly zeroes on his Basketball Reference resume

Mat Ishbia, the newly-named governor of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury, set the tone immediately for a franchise shaded by a fickle past.

Just hours after arriving at his introductory press conference, the United Wholesale Mortgage CEO went to work, acquiring two-time Finals MVP and 13-time All-Star Kevin Durant.

Not a bad first day on the job.

New Phoenix Suns governor Mat Ishbia watches the action during the game against the Brooklyn Nets at Footprint Center on Jan. 19, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

The trade deadline fireworks may have happened overnight. Trust, the success did not.

“My whole life I’ve been prepared for this,” Ishbia told Boardroom in an exclusive conversation. “Basketball for the first 23 years of my life, then the last 20 of my life have been in business.”

Returning to the hardwood, Ishbia is not just the league’s newest owner — he’s also the youngest. This spring, the 43-year-old rookie is dead-set on taking the Suns to the Finals for the fourth time in their 55-year history. More importantly, he’s looking to lead them to their first NBA Title before turning his full attention to the Mercury, who own three WNBA crowns to date and, just like the Suns, fell just short in the 2021 Finals.

Notably, championship games are familiar places for the seasoned Spartan.

The difference this time? Ishbia is leading a couple of stacked teams from a decidedly different seat.

So, just who is this Michigan-made mortgage mogul and how did he land basketball’s biggest prize on the market? Boardroom breaks down the history of Ishbia and why fans in Phoenix have plenty to be excited about.

Head First

Mat Ishbia was a star point guard growing up in suburban Detroit, scoring 23 points a night his senior season at Seaholm High School.

Rather than relish in his accolades or lean into a linear ascent at a local Division II program, Ishbia instead tried out for Tom Izzo’s nationally-ranked program at Michigan State, making the team as a walk-on.

From 1999 to 2003, an eager Ishbia woke up for 5 a.m. runs and attended odd-hour practices without any promise of ever sniffing the court in the game.

“My approach was simple: I’m gonna go out and do whatever I can to help this team succeed and hit our goals,” Ishbia says.

When Ishbia arrived in East Lansing, Izzo had only recently assumed head coaching duties after decades spent working under the legendary Jud Heathcote. The program was back on the rise, but they weren’t there yet. Not since the days of Magic Johnson had the Spartans cut down the nets as NCAA champions, let alone stepped foot inside the Final Four.

However, practice makes perfect until proven otherwise, and that’s exactly the role Mat Ishbia took when working as the team’s 12th man.

“My job was to be the best third-string point guard in the country,” Ishbia said. “I was supposed to work the starters, lead the scout team, and bring positivity. I had to get good grades in class. I had to do everything I could to help the team succeed.”

And when he says everything, he means everything.

“Whatever it took,” he said. “Whatever Coach Izzo or an assistant needed from me, that was my mentality, because it was an honor to be on that team and I had to do my part.”

That meant going to war in practice with the nation’s premier point guard.

Mat Ishbia, left, and Mateen Cleaves of the Michigan State Spartans during a practice session on the eve of Round of 64 at the 2000 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (Doug Pensinger / Staff via Getty Images)

Every day in practice, Ishbia had to bump heads with Mateen Cleaves: Flint’s famed McDonald’s All-American court general and every bit the surrogate son to Coach Izzo.

This meant checking Cleaves full-court in scrimmages and leading the scout team to simulate college basketball’s best of the best. Some days in practice, Ishbia had to imitate UConn’s Khalid El-Amin. On other days, it meant running North Carolina’s offense as Ed Cota.

For that role, he’d gain no personal glory. But thanks in no small part to his efforts, Cleaves would go on to win Big Ten Player of the Year twice, receive NCAA All-American honors three times, and go 14th overall in the 2000 NBA Draft fresh off Sparty’s first national championship in over 20 years.

All told, across Ishbia’s four years as a player at Michigan State, the team went to three straight Final Fours. The idea of team success is something Ishbia continues to thrive on. It springs from his own competitive nature and a life’s worth of lessons learned from Coach Izzo.

However, basketball is only the tip of the Ishbia iceberg. Academically, he was as astute as they come.

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As a student, Ishbia majored in Business Management while essentially interning under Izzo with regard to all things leadership.

Typically, walk-ons are chosen not just to push players in practice, but boost the team’s overall GPA. Ishbia did all that and more on the way to being named Academic All-Big Ten three years in a row, capping it all off in his final season by winning the President’s Award for Best GPA among all senior male athletes.

It’s a day-by-day approach to excellence via enthusiasm that took Ishbia to unexpected heights in college. Even a cursory glance confirms it’s still paying dividends today.

Indexed by Bloomberg at a net worth over $6 billion — although reports suggest it’s been as high as $9.4 billion — Ishbia is a force in the mortgage business. He’s more Rudy than Rupert Murdoch based on his origin story, but his acumen in the boardroom is elite without any need for a qualifier.

Like other operators of gigantic enterprises, Ishiba thrives through maximizing opportunity. While most college kids would ride the bench of a national championship team towards a lifetime of bar stories and free sweatsuits, Ishiba instead became the Master Splinter of motivation, taking Tom’s talking points and applying it to an entirely different walk of life.

That Izzo enthusiasm has led him to success at United Wholesale Mortgage, a family-founded business now worth over $7 billion.

And much like Michigan State basketball, it was only on the cusp of dominance before Mat Ishbia arrived.

Pontiac Pivot

Leaving a place where you’re loved is no easy transition for any young adult, especially when that place is a college town.

At Michigan State, Ishbia was a fan favorite on teams that boasted Cleaves, Jason Richardson, Morris Peterson, and Zach Randolph. His scrappy play energized the Breslin Center every time he took the court, eventually landing him a role as a graduate assistant upon receiving his degree. For a season, Ishbia manned the bench next to his mentor, rerouting his childhood hopes of playing professionally to becoming a potential successor to his storied college coach.

After only a year, he was asked to take on a role at Cleveland State, putting him on track to become the youngest full-fledged assistant coach in the whole country.

Instead, he chose an $18,000-a-year job selling mortgages.

Photo via United Wholesale Mortgage

“Growing up, I wanted to play basketball in the NBA,” Ishbia said. “I realized I wasn’t good enough by about college, so I went to work.”

Hired on as the 12th employee of a company his entrepreneurial father started when Mat was only six, his hoop dreams deflated in a pivot few in his position would have bothered to consider.

Rather than take charges from Z-Bo at practice or embark on recruiting trips across the country, a 23-year-old Mat Ishiba now found himself grabbing faxes and talking to underwriters.

Oddly enough, he loved it.

Just like playing days, he made an immediate impact. The accolades for all involved at UWM went up, and by 2013, Ishbia was named President and CEO. By 2015, UWM became the No. 1 wholesale mortgage lender in the country. In 2021, they went public via SPAC in a deal valued at $16 billion — the largest such debut ever as of that time.

“My first order of business when I take over any business is I’ve got to learn and I’ve got to listen,” he said. “I’ve got to find out what it is and then make an impact.”

Even if you’re uninitiated to the mortgage industry, you can grasp $16 billion as a pretty impactful number.

By listening first and leading thereafter, he’s risen to the top and taken his team with him. Though he wears a tie to work rather than a jersey, the basketball in his blood boils into his energy and enthusiasm.

At a 2021 company rally, he spoke to his team of over 9,000 employees not only with a full heart, but with a loaded lineup coming off the bench. This time around, it was the former walk-on and one-time coach calling up Mateen Cleaves, Magic Johnson, and Isiah Thomas to speak.

From being the last man on a 12-man rotation in the early aughts to leading an empire into the future, Ishbia has starred in his role and reveled in every opportunity.

In 2023, he’s pivoting back to basketball by buying the Phoenix Suns and Mercury.

Valley Venture

At every turn, Mat Ishbia has probably appeared to gatekeepers as someone not meant to be there. Nevertheless, he’s hustled every opportunity into an angle and every angle into an edge, becoming a national champion in college and a billionaire as a businessman.

On Feb. 7, 2023, Ishbia’s two worlds collided as he assumed controlling ownership of the Phoenix Suns and Mercury. Upon arrival, Ishbia made a monumental splash, landing Kevin Durant in a blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets.

“If there’s an opportunity to get the best player in the world on your team?” he said. “Man, how do you not do that?”

All would agree that it was a great first day on the job. That naturally left fans and observers wondering what could be in store next.

So far, his approach is telling.

“Jump right in,” Ishbia says. “We have a great team, can we make it better? Can we improve? I’m not the kind of guy who sits there and says, ‘Let’s plan so in six years we have a chance to win a championship.'”

With the addition of Durant to an already-loaded Suns lineup led by Devin Booker, Chris Paul, DeAndre Ayton and coached by Monty Williams, the Phoenix Suns have championship aspirations on their immediate horizons.

By going to work with James Jones and Ryan Resch, Ishbia started his Suns reign both in the weeds and in the limelight.

“People talk about a lot of trades, what if scenarios, and getting a star,” Ishbia says. “But to not only talk about it, but work hard on it, execute, get it going, and make it happen? It’s pretty cool.”

‘Cool’ is an understatement when considering the heat surrounding the Suns, and only a week into the job, the fire for success burns hot in Ishbia.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

While his suburban Michigan home may be miles away from the Footprint Center, the opportunity to invest in Arizona proved can’t miss.

“Phoenix is an unbelievable market,” Ishbia says. “Great community, they love their basketball — the Suns and the Mercury — and it’s beautiful weather. It’s got everything you’d ever dream of to own a sports franchise.”

It’s the perfect place for an NBA explosion. For years, the Suns have only scratched the surface as it relates to going all the way, finding themselves to be held up by a bad bounce of the ball and an off-kilter company culture under the previous ownership group that turned off talent.

As the new governor in Phoenix, Ishbia sees himself not just changing the office experience for his new team of employees, but rather operating as an employee himself in service of the city’s 1.6 million residents.

“First and foremost, I’m not really the owner,” Ishbia said. “It’s the community’s asset. I work for the community to make their favorite thing, the Suns and the Mercury, even better.”

So far, he’s on a roll. Landing KD on Day 1 for the Suns speaks to his hustle. However, his excitement around the city’s WNBA franchise he’s behind is also sky-high. Up and down the roster, he cites Brittney Griner as unbelievable and considers Diana Taurasi the GOAT.

As the Suns look to make a significant playoff push and the Mercury chase their fourth WNBA championship, Ishbia’s sights are set on improving basketball and workplace culture internally and dominating the fan experience nightly.

With that in mind, making money off his recent acquisition is of no rush, as he considers winning games and making a positive community impact will take care of all bottom-line concerns in the long view.

Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Due to his success in the boardroom, Ishbia is financially fluent and well-connected to those that speak the same language, an asset that only serves to bolster his new mission.

Over the course of his come-up, he’s become friendly with other entrepreneurs who occupy a similar seat in regard to building an empire in the corporate world and running a franchise in sports.

“I’ve spent time with the Krafts and a lot of different owners. You see how they handle things with game day, then you see how Marc Lasry handles X and so and so handles Y,” he said. “You figure out what everyone did, take the best of it, put my own spin on it, and hopefully it turns out great. And if it doesn’t turn out great? I’ll tweak it until I get it right.”

While other owners in the NBA may have wealth and experience over Ishbia, an underdog approach has served him well in sports and business.

By being able to finally combine both worlds, he’s able to come into NBA ownership at a young age with a level of equity money can’t buy.

“I’m a player — not at the level of these guys or girls — but I can talk their talk and I understand the game,” he said. “I have a lot of things I’m at deficit at, but being a player definitely gives me a leg up, even during the trade deadline.”

Simply put? He’s attacking his first week on the job at Phoenix with the same passion he poured into practices under Tom Izzo. There’s a level of curiosity and respect for his seniors and peers that make him a keen student of the space. Still, there are intangibles in play that can’t be taught. As Ishbia phrased it:

“I know enough to be dangerous. I’ve got to play on my strengths and use those to my benefit.”

Coming in hot, the Phoenix Suns and Mercury are riding high on Ishbia’s arrival. At company HQ, the internal excitement springing from the promise of rerouting the organization’s corporate culture — and the wide-ranging impact that can have on the basketball product — is not to be underestimated.

Externally, the fireworks burst brightly by way of acquiring Kevin Durant only hours after giving his introductory press conference.

“I was energized,” a beaming Mat Ishbia said of that first day on the job.

“I still am.”

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.