The mortgage company’s employee No. 12 has made a name for himself. In previous lifetimes, he’s worn No. 11 (in high school) and No. 15 (in college), but there’s nothing like being the 12th hire in a 12-person company — just two decades ago — and turning it into billions, mansions, office complexes, antennas, NIL … and Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal.

Round and round, the fledgling owner of the Phoenix Suns goes, and where he’ll stop, nobody knows: maybe in this year’s NBA Finals. But his story pre-No. 12 and his story post-No. 12 are the kind that make people either love him (see Tom Izzo) or roll their eyes at him (see Nikola Jokic and Dan Gilbert).

Either way, Mat Ishbia — “Only one ‘t’ in Mat, and a lot of zeros,” as described by broadcaster Rich Eisen — is the most novel NBA governor imaginable. He’s 43, wears an NCAA championship ring, drinks 160 ounces of water a day, stores a basketball in the trunk of his car and is where he is now (owner of this season’s newest super team), in part, because he was once, and only once, Michael Jordan for a day.

“Blame your success on other people.” — Jeff Ishbia

He was not born with a silver spoon, even though his father, Jeff, was a local attorney and idea man. Mat Ishbia may have handed over a record $4 billion for the Suns’ last trade deadline, but there was a time when he was simply a runt tugging on referees’ sleeves.

His aspiration as a prepubescent boy was to be Isiah Thomas, the diabolical star of his hometown NBA team the Detroit Pistons, and, damn it, dreams die hard. Jeff coached him growing up with an edict of work your ass off, share the ball, be tougher than a Michigan winter, make no excuses, shoot 90% from the line, 45% from 3, carry yourself with humility and, for God’s sake, learn how to draw a charge. Words to live by.

On his own, Mat learned how to tick off opponents and fans, as well as charm referees. In the end, that would be just as instrumental in terms of getting him on the map. As a 13-year-old in AAU ball, he joined the Michigan Mustangs, a program that also housed a 12-year-old freak athlete named Jason Richardson. But the prized player in the area, from Detroit’s inner city, was the hybrid football-basketball stud Antonio Gates, who was a 13-year-old AAU free agent.

Leave it to Jeff to step in. Gates’ mother was skeptical about travel basketball, wary mostly about her son lodging with strangers on the road. But Jeff introduced himself and started chauffeuring Gates 50 minutes round trip to practice. “Just to make my mom feel safe,” Gates says.

If the ulterior motive was having Gates on Mat’s team, so be it. But the afternoons playing video games at the Ishbia home in suburban Birmingham or the close friendship that wistfully evolved between Mat and Gates, that was the unselfish, organic bonus. “Imagine leaving your city to go to another city to get a guy,” Gates says. “It may not seem like a big deal, but it was a big deal to me. I think it just snowballed from there.”

Before long, Jeff began hauling Mat and Gates on overnight AAU road trips to Illinois and Missouri. Gates’ mother signed off, of course. They would share a hotel room, three peas in a pod, and when Mat or Gates were sleeping, Jeff would wake up at 4:30 a.m., pre-laptop days, to do his law work on a yellow legal pad. He didn’t realize Mat had one eye open and knew exactly how his pops was burning the midnight oil … all for him.

Jeff just had a way of putting his two sons — Justin, more of a football kid, was two years older than Mat — and their friends first. He would commonly take Mat and Gates to Pistons games, where Mat’s eyes were riveted on the point guard Thomas and Gates’ on the hulking Rick Mahorn. The NBA was a realistic goal for Gates, if the NFL didn’t scoop him up first, and Mat was still naïve enough to believe there was a route there for him, as well.

Detroit was a complete NBA town back then, and Jeff had actually taken then-10-year-old Mat to Game 2 of the 1990 NBA Finals at the Palace — the Pistons’ only loss of the series — a night that planted an ornery seed in the kid. Mat watched Isiah alternately bark and wink at referees, turn into a gnat on defense, take haymakers to the chest and keep rising up. Isiah played wild-eyed, and if Mat had brought his own yellow legal pad, he would’ve written it down in ALL CAPS.

But it registered, anyway, and when he arrived as a freshman to Seaholm High School in Birmingham it’s no coincidence the new basketball coach, Dave Watkins, saw Mat playing with his pants on fire and described him as “wild-eyed.’’ Not that Mat was an instant star. He would grow to 5-foot-8 and a half — “We’ll go with 5-9,” Mat says — but whatever he was lacking in height, he made up for in piss and vinegar.

That first year at Seaholm, the team was scrimmaging Bloomfield Township’s Andover High when tiny Mat ventured into the paint and was summarily body-slammed. While Mat was writhing in pain, Watkins peered up into the stands at Jeff, who was sitting stoically next to Mat’s mom, Joanne, a teacher in the Pontiac school district. Neither of them budged. “I thought they might want to come out and check on him, and Jeff just shook his head, no, he’ll be fine,’’ Watkins says. “That told me right away that this kid, one, will fight his own battles. He bounced back up and never complained.”

When it came time to pick jersey numbers, Mat blurted, “I’ve got 11” — Isiah’s number, of course — which the other players craved, too, considering Seaholm’s roster was almost all guards. But Watkins gave Mat the freshly-folded 11 and watched him spend the next four years lathering it in vitriol.

Some of it’s on Mat, some of it’s not. Opposing crowds hated how he’d pat referees on the rump or chat them up during lulls in the action, laying the groundwork for when he’d draw a charge, flail backwards in faux agony and wait for the call to go his way. You could call it flopping — or, as Watkins says, “embellishing” — but high school crowds in suburban Detroit began routinely bringing “Ishbia Sucks” signs to games. Or they’d just flat out say it to his face. “And then I’d hit a 3 and tell them, ‘Quiet down,’” Mat says. “I’d play into it. I’m trying to win. Me talking trash, getting under the skin of an opponent, it’s part of the game.”

But lines were eventually crossed, and one night at Troy’s Athens High School, Watkins says chants behind the bench morphed into anti-semitic hate. The coach called Jeff afterward to alert him, but Jeff said, “Don’t worry about it, Mat’s a tough kid. He can handle it.” It struck Watkins that perhaps it was part of a grander scheme to teach Mat how to manage a cruel world, how to pull himself up from the bootstraps or sneakers.

Turns out, the acrimony never deterred the kid. In his junior year of 1997, Seaholm was having its gaudiest season in a quarter century, a 24-4 year that culminated in conference and district titles, with Mat as their pesky Isiah. In a revenge game against Auburn Hills’ Avondale High, Seaholm grabbed a fourth-quarter lead and went into a 4-corners stall, with Mat in charge of the basketball. Avondale’s best player — an elite scorer who treated defense as an afterthought — howled, “I got 11,” figuring he’d lock up this no-talent stump of a point guard. But Watkins says Mat “put on a dribbling display, broke the kid’s ankles a couple times,” proving Isiahs come in all shades and sizes.

In the opening round of the ensuing ’97 state tournament, Mat — who was not the team’s lead scorer — dropped in a game-clinching runner to beat defending champion Southfield-Lathrup, 95-93. But the game of all games that year was the Class A regional title matchup against Detroit’s powerhouse Central High … and his buddy Antonio Gates.

In pregame warmups, they glanced at each other, incapable of suppressing their grins. But Mat is Mat — he’d rather win than eat — and after nodding hello to Gates, he rushed to tell his teammates to make Gates go left. All is fair in love and the state basketball playoffs, and Gates now knows why diminutive Seaholm almost won. “Mat was this little scrappy dude, grabbing, holding, closest thing I’ve seen to Philip Rivers in terms of his desire to win,” says Gates, alluding to his future NFL teammate. “I just remember it being so difficult to beat him.”

Michigan State had been there to see Gates that day, certainly not Mat. The Spartans head coach Izzo had long been chasing Gates (along with Spartans football coach Nick Saban), as well as Richardson, and it was assumed Mat would end up at D-III Kalamazoo College. But, during a summer visit with Izzo, Richardson said, “Coach, I got a kid on my AAU team that you gotta recruit.”

“Who?” Izzo asked.

“Mat Ishbia.”

“What’s a Mat Ishbia?” Izzo remembers saying.

It looked like an uphill climb for the kid entering his senior year, but — having lost the previous season’s top scorer Jon Borovich to Central Michigan — Watkins handed the keys to Mat. To fine-tune his skills, Watkins also brought in a 30-year-old strength and conditioning coach to harass Mat in practice, to prepare him for the bullying of Detroit high school basketball. Mat averaged almost 25 points, but the night that defined him, in one fell swoop, was the rivalry game against Birmingham Groves High School.

With 2.1 seconds remaining, Groves drained a shot to go up by two. During the ensuing time out, Watkins had a wonderful, awful idea — ask wild-eyed Mat do what he does best: draw a charge. Watkins drew up a play where the Seaholm player inbounding the ball would run from one side of the baseline to the other, at which point Mat would step in and draw a charge on the Groves defender chasing the ball. Oh, Mat loved it, practically started drooling. Mat sidled up to the refs — the refs he’d been patting on the backside all day — and told them to keep an eye out for the charge. And just as Watkins drew it up, Mat stepped in, flopped, flailed, wailed and sold it hook, line and sinker. The referee called it, and Mat went to the foul line in a full throaty gym with a chance to tie the game.

“No way he was missing those free throws,” Watkins says. “Mat could have flipped ’em up over his head backwards, they were going in. We won in overtime.”

To this day, Mat says it’s his favorite high school moment ever, perhaps because it encapsulated everything he was becoming as a young man, everything Jeff had preached to him: Be strong, be opportunistic, pay attention to detail, work your ass off, thank your coach, pat the referees.

Who knew where Mat was going to play after high school; maybe he wouldn’t. But one day in the late spring of 1998, he and Gates — the No. 1 recruit in the state — were playing video games in his basement when Gates got a call from Michigan State. They were inviting him to play in open gym pickup games against current Spartans players such as Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson — Cleaves being the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. Gates eyeballed Mat and told them, “If Mat Ishbia can’t play, then I’m not playing.” They said: Bring him.

The Ishbias had been there for Gates, and ’Tone — as Mat called him — was reciprocating. Jeff had always preached to his son, “Help others with no expectation of anything in return.” But something had now come of those round-trip treks to the inner city: a chance to show Michigan State what a mini, devious Isiah looked like. It might be Mat Ishbia’s only chance.

Not that Izzo or top assistant Stan Heath were allowed to be there in person. The pickup games were run by team managers. But Cleaves was Izzo’s coach on the floor, so, to impress Izzo, you had to impress Cleaves. That was the mission.

Seven pickup games in, Mat still hadn’t played. Maybe, he wouldn’t. But, in the eighth game, the manager waved in Mat and four others, almost out of sympathy. Cleaves hadn’t lost a game yet, and when he saw mini-Mat bounce out there, Cleaves said, “Come on, man, why are we playing against these guys? Let’s not waste our time.”

A team manager told him, “They’re playing, so just go beat ’em.” Cleaves rolled his eyes, said “Check up” bouncing the ball to, of all people, Mat. “Let me take him,” Cleaves said. So everyone else cleared out to let the Big Ten Player of the Year go one-on-one against Mat, as if this was going to end well. Cleaves went straight to the hoop until … in a flash, Mat flicked the ball free. He stole it and coasted for a layup. The whole gym started howling.

“F***,” Cleaves said.

The star called for the ball, and, on another furious drive to the hoop, Mat somehow swiped it free. “I got lucky,” he says. Mat corralled the ball, dropped it to a teammate for a gimme layup, and it was 2-0. Now it was on. The game was to 7, and at 6-all, Cleaves bullied his way to the basket. Mat bodied him back, causing a Cleaves miss. “Foul,” Cleaves said, “Ball up.”

Next possession, Cleaves backed Mat down in the paint harder, but missed again. “Foul, ball up,” Cleaves deadpanned. The rest of the gym was squawking now, but Mat took it like a man, and said nothing. Cleaves then bulldozed him again, but missed and called a third straight foul. It was clearly personal now, but Mat just said, “Awright, their ball.” Finally, Cleaves won the game, and Mat walked off anonymously, his one Michael Jordan moment wasted.

“I never played that good in my life,” he says. “I can’t steal the ball from Mateen, he’s too good for me. I was the best I could have ever been right then.”

Mat sat the final two games and was about to leave East Lansing when Cleaves sauntered over. “Man, you can play — good job out there,” Cleaves told him. “You coming to school here?”

“Trying to,” Mat answered.

“Listen, man, I’ll tell the coaches. You’re a player. We’d love to have you on the team.”

So that’s how Mat ended up as a preferred walk-on at Michigan State: simple as that. “Mateen could’ve big-timed me,” he says. “Could’ve been ‘Screw that little kid, he fouled me.’ But he was a man about it. In life, sometimes, a window opens, you gotta jump through it. I was humble. I played the right way. He could’ve went right around me and scored, and I never would have played at Michigan State. I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

He’s seriously convinced that without the Gates friendship, without the Cleaves endorsement, without some fortuitous sleight of hand, he never would have made a billion dollars, never could have bought the Suns. He blames his success on all of them.

“You don’t fail in life, you learn.” — Jeff Ishbia

A funny thing happens when you’re the 15th man (and wearing jersey No. 15): People start cheering for you. Mat was basically the last man on the bench — “I had to be the hardest working player on the Michigan State team to be the worst player,” he says — but don’t think for a second he wasn’t relevant.

After a redshirt year, Mat was point guard on the scout team, meaning every practice was the equivalent of a Big Ten game to him. His job was to emulate opposing point guards such as Ohio State’s Scoonie Penn or Penn State’s Joe Crispin, and he’d study them, mimic them and pull it off. He and Cleaves were matched up all over again, and Cleaves would sometimes tell Mat to chill out, that it was only practice. Mat’s response: Never.

But come game time, Cleaves and Co. appreciated him, because Mat would be at the far end of the bench screaming out, “Make Crispin go left!” He was worth his weight in gold, although Izzo needed time to figure that out. At first, Mat was a novelty or mascot, which is why fans — late in games — would chant, “Put in Mat, put in Mat.” Izzo had to oblige.

“He was part of the 30-30-30 team,” Izzo says. “You play when you’re 30 up, 30 down or there’s 30 seconds left to go in the game.”

Turns out, Michigan State made the 2000 national title game against Florida in Mat’s redshirt freshman year, and with 30 seconds left, the championship was in hand. So Izzo waved him in, expecting Mat to dribble out the clock. Instead, Mat grabbed a loose ball in the final seconds and went hard to the hoop, trying a circus reverse layup over Florida big men Donnell Harvey and Udonis Haslem. It missed.

“Izzo is like ‘Pull it out!’” Richardson says. “And Mat’s like ‘I’m scoring.’ Izzo started laughing.”

It wasn’t so humorous a month later when Izzo thought about cutting Mat to open a roster spot. The coach asked Richardson what he thought, and Richardson said the guys couldn’t survive without a glue guy like Mat. Others echoed that, and Izzo began to see Mat in a different light. By his senior year, Mat not only had a scholarship, but Izzo made him player-coach, plopped him right next to him on the bench. “He was my Bill Russell — just a foot and a half shorter,” Izzo says. “It wasn’t for show because nobody does that. I just said, ‘This kid’s got something I appreciate now.’”

He even started Mat on Senior Night, whereupon Mat drained the first 3-pointer of the game to bring the house down. “Poetic justice,” Izzo says. In his time at East Lansing, Mat had won a national title, three Big Ten titles and made three straight Final Fours. All while Jeff and Izzo’s dad became the best of friends. So Mat wasn’t ready to leave. Izzo made him a graduate assistant coach the following year, and Mat took copious notes on how Izzo ran the program, how people were the No. 1 commodity, how he orchestrated captain’s meetings, how being on time meant being 15 minutes early — otherwise known as “Spartan Time.”

After that season, MSU assistant Mike Garland took the head job at Cleveland State and asked Mat to join his staff. He was tempted. But Jeff had branched out as an entrepreneur, had opened a restaurant, an alarm company and even a middling company in Pontiac called United Wholesale Mortgage. UWM had 11 employees, and Jeff offered Mat to become No. 12. “I think Mat flipped a coin,” Izzo says.

Mat took the mortgage job, the equivalent of a walk-on, with a beginning salary of $18,000 a year. He didn’t know a jumbo mortgage from a reverse mortgage, but wasn’t afraid to fail, was there to learn. His first assignment was overseeing the fax machine. But he studied mortgage guidelines and dabbled in sales, closing, underwriting and capital markets. Three years later, he became a sales manager, supervising a staff of five, and says, “I just fell in love with the mortgage business.”

When he’d started as employee No. 12, UWM was doing just 40 loans a month. He looked at what another Michigan State grad, Dan Gilbert, was doing at Rocket Mortgage, and it lit a fire. Not only that, Gilbert had purchased the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2005, which was right up Mat’s alley. He decided that was his ultimate goal: buying an NBA team. Basketball, he knew better than mortgages. Maybe, he’d accrue enough money by the time he was, say, 60.

So instead of working 9 to 6 and leaving at 4 o’clock on Fridays, Mat got on Spartan Time, or mega-Spartan Time. He’d wake up at 3, throw on a suit and tie, and work 4 a.m. to 7 p.m — drinking only bottled water, no caffeine. Wild-eyed Mat rose from employee No. 12 to No. 1 (chairman and CEO), and recalibrated the mortgage business in the process. His plan to underwrite 100% of UWM’s loans through independent brokers instead of direct-to-consumer — plus a bold ultimatum that their brokers couldn’t work with Rocket — rankled Gilbert and ultimately propelled UWM to the No. 1 mortgage company in the nation. It was tantamount to drawing a charge in basketball; whatever it takes to win within the rules.

Mat even wrote a paperback book about running UWM like Izzo’s basketball program. He built a 1.5 million-square-foot complex with an indoor hoop, locker rooms and open spaces for captain’s meetings. Employees were known as “team members,” not staff. Everyone was on Spartan Time; cellphones were prohibited during meetings. He blamed his success on Izzo — “Hell, I hardly played him,” Izzo laughs — and donated $32 million to the school, partly to build The Tom Izzo Football Building and to rename the arena basketball floor Tom Izzo Court. He financed an NIL program through UWM, and a Spartans for life fund. He hired his close friend Cleaves as UWM’s “leadership coach,” as well as other former Spartans such as Charlie Bell. He decided any player who could survive Izzo’s practices could learn to sell a freakin’ mortgage.

By January of 2021, UWM had gone public, with a valuation of roughly $16 billion, and 40-year-old Mat was invited to ring the bell to open the NYSE. Izzo texted him to joke, “Don’t miss the bell like you did the layup,” and he sure as hell didn’t.

Suddenly, the thought of buying an NBA franchise became top of mind — a convenient way to mess with Gilbert again — and Mat’s first foray with the league was a UWM jersey patch sponsorship with the Pistons. Then, when the persona non grata Robert Sarver put the Suns up for sale last season, Mat treated it like the 2000 national title game: He went straight to the hole.

“You have two ears and one mouth — use them proportionately.” — Jeff Ishbia

Mat’s net worth of $6.4 billion, to go with his acumen as a basketball player, made him the quintessential NBA governor. On Feb. 7, 2023, his majority purchase of the Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury, alongside with brother Justin, was ratified by the vote of 29-0. One team abstained: Gilbert’s Cavaliers.

Mat’s responses have ranged from, “He doesn’t like me, and I don’t like him” to “I’m glad everyone gets to see what kind of man he is.” A source close to Gilbert says, “It’s hard to vote in the affirmative for someone who spends so much time and energy talking badly about you.” In other words, the rivalry’s on.

Mat didn’t waste any time reinforcing his roster. On his first day as youngest owner in the NBA, he acquired Durant at the trade deadline — watching the news go public alongside a proud Jeff — and then wowed Durant with stories about Izzo.

Durant knew all about the rivalry with Gilbert (“He might give us a speech in the locker room before we play Cleveland,” Durant laughed) and has since gone on YouTube to watch Mat’s national title reverse layup. “Seeing clips like that, I was like, ‘Aw right, that’s Mat’s personality to go do some shit like that,’” Durant says.

Right away, Mat invited his No. 11 hero Isiah — who’s also on the UWM board — to watch a game with him courtside. He flew in the entire 2000 MSU championship team, Izzo included, for a game, as well, and suddenly the chatter started. Would he hire Isiah to be GM? Izzo to be coach?

He and Justin read every tweet on Earth about the Suns. They were social media lurkers, wanted to know where the community’s head was at. “The little guy is a big guy to Mat Ishbia,” Izzo says. Mat and Justin met with every Suns/Mercury “team member,” from custodians to ticket takers, asking: Tell us two things we should be doing and two things we shouldn’t. Some wanted better coffee, others wanted to bring dogs to the office, others … just wanted a championship.

That was the plan. Even before the Nuggets knocked the Suns off in the Western Conference semifinals, Mat got busy.

He hired Josh Bartelstein away from the Pistons to be CEO. He renewed his commitment to GM James Jones. He eventually fired Monty Williams as coach and replaced him with Frank Vogel. He brought in Oak View Group as arena vendor. He secured the 2024 WNBA All-Star Game. He arranged free over-the-air telecasts of 2023-24 Suns games, distributing 10,000 complimentary antennas. He committed $100 million to build a new Suns/Mercury HQ and upscale Mercury practice facility. And he told Bartelstein he was blowing through the second tax apron of the CBA to trade for Bradley Beal and his supermax contract. Money was no object, with Ishbia always having final say on personnel moves.

“I’ve been asked this question a lot: Did I ever think Mat Ishbia back at Michigan State would make that kind of cash and buy a pro team? Hell no!” Izzo says. “Some coaches might say, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew it all the time.’ Hell no! Now if you ask can he ever win a world championship? That, I’ll give you the opposite of the hell no. Hell yeah!”

So, as he builds his super team, everybody’s snickering at him, just like the Seaholm days. Mat’s fair game again. During the Nuggets playoff series last spring, Suns forward Josh Okogie chased a ball out of bounds that fell into Mat’s hands. Mat cradled the ball like he owned it — which he kind of did — and immediately the best player in the league, Nikola Jokic, yanked at it so he could start a 5-on-4 fast break. Mat wouldn’t let go, and when his hand grazed Jokic’s waist, Jokic elbowed Mat in the sternum.

What happened next came so naturally — the flop, the arms flailing, the wild-eyed tumble backwards. Mat had done it so many times as a player, it just happened instinctually, as if an imaginary ref would appear to call the foul on Jokic. It became a hot topic, especially after Jokic was fined $25,000, with TNT’s Kenny Smith calling Mat “an ambulance chaser” and Shaquille O’Neal saying, “Move your ass out of the way, man, owner or not.”

But the men who knew Mat, the men who get blamed for Mat’s success, were doubled over laughing. Richardson says he texted Mat to say: “Dude, you’re flopping again? He’s 200 pounds heavier than you.” Gates told people: “Mat wasn’t pretending. That’s who he is.” And Watkins, at home with his wife, says he texted Mat one simple, lovable, throwback question.

“It was a charge, right?”

Mat texted back: 🙂

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Kay Adams

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