I’ve always approached interviews with team owners with some degree of trepidation. The men who own teams, always millionaires, sometimes billionaires, seem to be from another world, economically and otherwise. I don’t compare bank accounts with athletes, either, but at least I can talk to them about basketball. But owners? They invariably made their money by excelling in a subject area that I failed in college.
In the case of Golden State, you get Intimidatingly Successful Owners x 2. You get Joe Lacob, one of the titans of Silicon Valley, and Peter Guber, one of the titans of Hollywood. Needless to say, I hold titanship in neither world, though I do feel closer, for wont of a better word, to Guber’s universe. While I’ve never even been to Silicon Valley, I have traipsed around Hollywood many times and even had a few projects rejected by that peculiar industry, none of which ever reached, incidentally, the Guber level.
[[Eighth in a series of stories about the interviews that went into the writing of GOLDEN DAYS. Buy the book HERE.]]
Both men deserve credit for being readily available—many owners of pro sports teams conduct themselves like they’re CIA agents running a covert operation—and this is particularly true of Lacob, the Warriors principal owner (Governor 1 in official parlance), the man who paid $100 million, about $70 more than Guber, to pull most of the Warriors strings. He is a Basketball Guy in every sense of the word, a former Golden State season-ticket-holder who screamed his lungs out, usually in frustration, even before he bought the team. That’s exactly what he did at his son’s games, too. One of the better stories I collected during my research for GOLDEN DAYS came from his son Kirk, now Golden State’s assistant general manager.
“He lived to come to my games, and I mean he was at every one,” Kirk told me. “He sat at midcourt yelling at me. ‘Look up! Pass the ball! Hit the shot!’ At one point my mom got so mad she made him go watch from the hallway. During timeouts I could look out there and see him talking to himself.
“By the time I started playing in high school I had developed this ability to stop hearing him. I mean that honestly. I could hear everything else going on in the gym, including the stands. But not my father’s voice.”
I wanted to meet Lacob at the site of his much-reported-on pickup hoops game at Stanford, but instead he scheduled our interview at the Oracle before a Warriors game. I have some suspicion that it was due to a previous Lacob interview he did at his pickup game, with the New York Times Magazine in the spring of 2016. Postgame endorphins apparently raging, Lacob made a few impolitic remarks and, to an extent, they’ve haunted him since. But in a private room at the arena, Lacob was generous with his time and candid with his opinions, and the interview was extremely productive.
But Guber—bless his heart—arranged for me to meet at his home in Brentwood, and that proved to be an experience I will never forget. Where you interview a subject is sometimes of crucial importance, and that was the case here. I tell my college journalism students that the interview setting can be of crucial importance for so many reasons: The subject feels more comfortable; the pace of the interview is less rushed; the particulars of his environment inspire questions; the fact that the subject is in his own lair inspires thoughts he might not otherwise have. Those are a few of them anyway.
So this post is about the man who for almost a half-century has been an A-list player in a town where lists are important. Guber motored to our meeting in his own golf cart, where he had just come from Bel-Air Country Club. “I can ride this path directly to Wolfgang Puck’s breakfast room,” Guber said, hopping out of the cart wearing a Warriors cap. Of course he can; figuratively speaking, Guber has a pathway directly to almost everywhere in Tinsel Town.
There’s not room to go into everything we talk about—it’s in GOLDEN DAYS—but here is a sample of the conversation.
“Serendipity plays such a huge part in your life,” Guber is saying. “People who are successful don’t want to admit that, but it’s true. You meet somebody and everything turns right or left. I have great respect for fate and circumstance.”
We are sitting in the coolest office I’ve ever been in, down the hill from his Mediterranean Revival home that sits on 10 manicured acres overlooking Los Angeles. Guber bought it from power broker Grant Tinker and his wife, Mary Tyler Moore, both of whom are now deceased. I describe the particulars of the office in detail in GOLDEN DAYS, but suffice to say that, as we talked, I was staring at the original costume from the original Batman, the one worn by Michael Keaton, still—in my opinion—the best Batman. Guber produced that movie, and a few dozen others including Rain Man, The Color Purple and Midnight Express. You know, little indie things.
“I may not be the smartest guy around,” Guber continues, “but I am a motherfucker hard worker. My feet, my tongue, my heart and my wallet go in the same direction. I say what I do and do what I say. That’s one attribute my father had.”
Samuel Guber was a junk dealer in Massachusetts. So we can safely conclude that Peter Guber—former chairman and CEO of Sony, former chairman of Columbia Pictures, former chairman of Polygram, co-founder of Casablanca Record & Filmworks —is a self-made man. For that matter, so is Lacob, who also came from humble circumstances. I’m not qualified to psychoanalyze them, but I have the feeling that their common pasts unite them, that they relish the fact that they weren’t born on third base yet still made it all the way to home plate.
Guber somehow manages—and this is a hard thing to explain—not to be insufferable, despite his wealth and his power in a town that loves both. He has the nervous energy of a Type A personality to be sure, but at the same time he listened carefully to my questions, didn’t interrupt our conversation to take a phone call from, say, Nicholson (whom he cast as The Joker in Batman) or start peppering our conversation with boldface names of boldface friends. (Among the signed photos in his office are two from Nelson Mandela and Hillary Clinton.) In fact, one of the subjects we spent the longest amount of time on was teaching. I know the amount of time teaching even one class can consume, but Guber, until recently, was a full-time professor (he’s still an adjunct) at both the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, his courses invariably filled to the brim every session. There is little doubt, of course, that many (most?) students take them to make a Guber connection in a town where connection is all, but who can blame them? Guber is no doubt one of the few professors in the country whose luxurious home looks down from a majestic angle upon the campus where he teaches, but, from all evidence, Guber doesn’t mail in his academic responsibilities.
“If you said to me of all the endeavors you’re involved in what would you be least likely to give up, I would say, without a doubt, my teaching,” says Guber. (There followed a 10-minute conversation about grade inflation in today’s institutions of higher learning, but that’s another story.) I have no idea if Guber is serious about that—he owns the Dodgers with Magic Johnson and the Warriors with Joe Lacob (at left below with Jerry West in the middle and Guber on the right) so it’s a safe bet that most people would choose to keep one of those—but he seemed sincere. What he gets from teaching is what most of us who do it get from it—you siphon some of the energy from being around young people.
Something Guber said during our interview stuck with me. “I’m blessed. My mom, Ruth, died at 98, and my dad died at 96. I had an aunt who died at 105. So I plan to be doing what I’m doing for a long time. I know people who are 47 and they’re dead. I’m 74 [75 now] and very much alive. Aliveness is what counts. Aliveness is what keeps you going.”
I found this same strain in Jerry West, one year from 80, who serves as the main thread of GOLDEN DAYS. He and Guber are very different people—Guber a glass-is-half-full type of guy, West more a glass-is-empty-and-goddamit-it-might-never-get-filled type of guy—but they share this aliveness. You can’t just declare you’re alive. You have to perform the due diligence, stay on top of things, keep informed. When Guber and I talked about West, it was clear that Guber did not care for his pessimism, but what he did respect was West’s openness to new ideas. “Jerry is not a traditionalist about ideas,” says Guber. “And he doesn’t care where the idea comes from. And that’s true about Joe, too.”
That brings us back to Lacob, with whom he forms a fascinating partnership. It was seeded by the formidable task of getting the Warriors to the top, which they have done, but now the daunting challenge is to keep them there. For guys like Guber and Lacob, impatient men who have known much success, that is sometimes more difficult. Can they continue to balance Lacob’s bottom-line Silicon Valley genius with Guber’s Hollywood creativity? Of course this will depend more on Steph Curry’s shooting, Kevin Durant’s all-around play, Draymond Green’s defense and Steve Kerr’s coaching. But these guys play a big part, too, and for men who have a lot of aliveness, falling from that top perch, if it happens, will not be easy to swallow.