Miami Heat owner Micky Arison found himself in a very satisfactory place last July: Walking behind Shaquille O'Neal, whom he had just acquired in a trade and invited on a vacation, through the streets of Saint-Tropez, France. As O'Neal greeted surprised bystanders — this was an unannounced appearance — the avenue filled in a matter of minutes, as if royalty were passing through.
Arison and Heat President Pat Riley, whom Arison also invited on this get-to-know-you excursion, watched the scene unfold with amazement and amusement. They, along with Arison's wife Madeleine, were swallowed in the crowd, unrecognized and ignored, left to enjoy their ice cream cones as O'Neal mingled with the masses. (Arison did have to call in eight French security guards to manage the public enthusiasm for his 7-foot-1 guest, but the moment was otherwise delightful.)
For the owner of the Heat, which hosts Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight against Detroit Pistons, there could be little better than what unfolded in the resort town in the south of France as O'Neal's unveiling in Miami was put on hold for a few days: a full-throttle, family-oriented, behind-the-scenes celebration of a blockbuster business deal. In this case, the acquisition was a $20 million per year basketball player. In other circumstances, it would be an $800 million passenger ship.
Whether in the cruise line industry, where he has made a personal fortune of more than $6 billion through Carnival Corp., or in the NBA, an organization that has thrust him into the public eye more than he would like, Arison — who inherited both businesses from his father, the late Ted Arison — would prefer that his work be exceptional and that he remain anonymous.
"He leads a very simple, sane life," Riley said. "He's about as down to earth as you're going to get for a billionaire. . . . He doesn't need, nor does he pursue, the spotlight."
But when you own an NBA team that routinely makes some of the biggest personnel transactions in the sport, and a company that is the most powerful in its industry and controls 78 ships, it's difficult to hide. Just before the Summer Games in Athens last August, the NBA turned to Arison for help getting its Olympians out of dormitories in the Olympic Village and onto the luxury Queen Mary 2, which was parked in the port of Piraeus. It was a simple transaction: Arison, the world's 67th wealthiest person according to Forbes magazine, said yes. He owned the ship.
"He takes no credit for any of this," said ESPN analyst Jack Ramsay, the Hall of Fame former coach who did color commentary for the Heat for several years. "He's the near perfect owner."
'Failure Was Never an Option'
Associates say Arison is furiously competitive but intensely private. Most notably, they say, he is a generally normal guy whose personal worth just happens to exceed the gross domestic product of more than 60 nations. Arison relishes personal time on the water, hanging out with his English-born wife and children, Nick, 23, and Kelly, 22, and, of course, cheering wildly — at least on the inside — at Heat games.
"When I'm walking down an aisle and people's heads turn I feel very uncomfortable," he said. "I occasionally jump up and down like a fan but I am conscious of the possibility that a camera could be on me."
Despite his prominence locally, Arison, 55, manages to keep such a low profile that a well-known Miami sports television personality asked him at the beginning of the season whether he attended Heat games. In fact, Arison goes to nearly every home game, sitting in a folding chair behind the scorer's table alongside his wife and the television and radio announcers. Arison is driven around town in a Cadillac, but he always sits beside the driver in the front, so they can talk basketball.
Earlier this year, Arison tried to give anonymously his entire 2004 bonus from Carnival — a sum of $2.4 million — to tsunami relief efforts by not claiming it, so it would look like a company gift. Federal reporting rules, however, required that Carnival's annual proxy statement account for the personal donation. Though it was noted only in one sentence of fine print inside a dense document, word got out fast.
"He was hoping," Carnival Vice President of Public Relations Tim Gallagher said, "that no one would notice it."
Arison greets a visitor to his Carnival office, whose floor-to-ceiling windows provide a view of the runways at Miami International Airport, wearing a button-down shirt without a tie. The top button is open, the sleeves are rolled up, and he reclines behind a large brown desk fashioned out of . . . oak? Walnut? Maple?
Actually, it's Formica.
"It's a piece of junk," Arison said. "Somehow we keep this glued together."
The desk has sentimental value: It was the very piece of furniture his father left him when, in August 1979, he declared Micky Arison fit to take over his cruise line company as president. At the time, the company owned just three ships and employed perhaps 50 people. Arison, a 30-year-old University of Miami dropout with long hair and an intimate knowledge of the local nightclub scene, had fallen in love with the cruise industry while calling bingos and welcoming guests on one of the ships for six months, but he didn't have any idea how to run a company.
"I was basically in a coma for six months," he said.
Arison, though, adjusted quickly. He worked sometimes around the clock, and even while on vacation. "Failure was never an option for Micky," said Robert Dickinson, a member of the Carnival board who has worked with Arison for more than 30 years. "We made so much money by the 1980s that the competition didn't believe us."
Soft-spoken and prone to long silences during meetings, Arison was considered extremely decisive and relentless once he made up his mind. "He's not terribly process-oriented, he's very instinctive," said Howard Frank, vice chairman of the board for Carnival. "We don't ponder things to death. We move very quickly around here."
'I Gotta Win'
In the early '90s, Arison's father gave him another jolt, handing him partial ownership of the Heat before returning to his native Israel. (Ted Arison, who died in 1999, knew nothing about basketball when he helped bring the Heat to Miami in 1986 and thus had little involvement in day-to-day operations.) At the time, the Heat was considered one of the league's small-market, small-ambition franchises. Realizing he needed full control to turn the Heat around, Arison bought out partners Lewis Schaffel and Billy Cunningham -- who had essentially handled operations to that point -- for $60 million in early 1995.
Then he had to figure out how to run a basketball team.
"I had nothing except for Kevin Loughery as a coach and no basketball organization," he said. "I had no clue. . . . I had nobody to talk to."
One thing, though, was clear.
"If I'm going to get involved, I have to win a championship," Arison said. "I gotta win. I've never been involved in anything that didn't win. I've gotta find a way."
In desperation, Arison contacted Ramsay, then in the midst of an eight-year stint as a Heat announcer. Ramsay recalled being summoned to Arison's office around the all-star break of the 1994-95 season. Arison was just taking the reins of a team that would finish 32-50.
"Okay," Arison said, according to Ramsay, "tell me about the NBA."
After some discussion, Arison told Ramsay he was going to fire Loughery and give assistant Alvin Gentry a chance through the end of the season. Ramsay asked Arison what he wanted in a coach should Gentry not pan out.
"I'm thinking," Arison said, according to Ramsay, "of Pat Riley."
At the time, Riley was in the midst of a successful coaching stint with the New York Knicks. Ramsay recalled being taken aback.
"If you can pull that off," he said, "you would certainly have taken a major step toward credibility."
By the end of that summer, Arison lured Riley as president and coach (he also paid the Knicks $1 million and surrendered a first-round draft choice because of tampering charges). In ensuing years, the Heat would get public money for a new arena in downtown Miami and acquire stars Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. In 1996-97, the Heat finished 61-21 and Riley was named coach of the year. Organization officials say Arison operated the Heat as he does Carnival: He hired good people, gave them plenty of rope and left them alone.
"He's never said no to anything that makes sense," Riley said. "He's got a very, very busy day job, so I don't burden him with a lot of this stuff."
Arison did have something to say when he heard O'Neal was available. He told Riley to fly to O'Neal's home in Orlando to meet with him, to make certain he still had a passion for winning. Arison feared O'Neal merely wanted to escape the Los Angeles Lakers, from whom he had demanded a trade.
During their meeting, Riley was smitten. But when O'Neal said he wanted to meet Arison, Arison had a bit of a problem: He was vacationing in the Mediterranean. That's when he invited Riley and O'Neal and his family to France, delaying O'Neal's official news conference in Miami by several days.
"He is an owner who fans know very much wants to improve his team, and he will do whatever is necessary," NBA Commissioner David Stern said on a visit to Miami during the Eastern Conference semifinals. But "in no way has that diminished his intense fandom. And I do mean intense."
Arison sits courtside because he cannot stand to be far away from the action. He has learned the names of the league's referees and offers them plenty of advice -- albeit respectfully -- when they make poor calls. He said he never criticizes opposing players because he hopes, if they are really good, that Riley will one day acquire them.
Arison said the bumpy, thrilling, occasionally traumatic ride he has taken through sports isn't anything like what he's seen in the cruise industry. When the NBA season ends -- always, he notes, with disappointment, as Miami has yet to win an NBA title -- he bolts out of town, running to Europe for escape. Every fall, of course, he comes back.
"In sports, you get the damn results every day," he said. "Failure is so clear and so difficult. In any given year, out of 30 NBA teams, there is only one winner. In business, we can all be winners. Our competition can win; we can all be successful. That's not the way it is in sports. It's a completely different kind of mentality."