When Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr was sidelined with back pain during last spring’s NBA playoffs, he got a call from Peter Guber, one of the team’s owners.
But Guber wasn’t calling to pressure his coach to get back on the bench and he didn’t want to talk tactics. He just wanted to talk.
“He’s been very caring and supportive,” Kerr said, standing outside the visitors’ locker room at Staples Center before his team’s late-November win over the Lakers. “He has always checked in on me. So I know how much he cares.”
That short conversation goes a long way toward explaining a management approach that has served Guber well in music, television, motion pictures and, now, sports. Because while the rest of the world sees musicians, actors, athletes and coaches as disposable assets, Guber sees them simply as people.
And each one holds a key to success or failure.
“Whether it’s on the hardwood, on the baseball field, it’s always about the people,” Guber said. “And you’ve got to come from a point of view of being open and listen[ing] to the needs of your players, team, coaches.
“You know, it’s like a movie. There’s so many million moving parts in a movie: the script, the director, the person that cleans up from the animals. Everybody’s involved. Which detail tips it over? Who knows?”
What Guber does know is his approach works. His films have earned more than 50 Academy Award nominations, he won a Grammy for the soundtrack to the 1984 Olympics, his Warriors have claimed two of the last three NBA titles and the Dodgers, who he also co-owns, reached the World Series last season for the first time in nearly three decades.
Now he’s taking that Midas touch to Major League Soccer as executive chairman of the Los Angeles Football Club, which will begin play in March.
Guber is just one member of a 29-person ownership group but his experience and success have given him additional influence — as does the fact the team’s offices are in the same Wilshire Boulevard building as Mandalay Entertainment, the TV and film-production company he founded.
“His fingerprints are on every major decision in our club’s history,” said Tom Penn, LAFC’s president.
Penn’s presence is an example of Guber’s unorthodox style. A former criminal defense attorney in his father’s Illinois law firm, Penn worked as a TV analyst, player agent and NBA executive but had no experience in soccer before joining Guber to help establish LAFC three years ago.
John Thorrington, a former world-class player, had never worked in a front office before becoming the team’s executive vice president of soccer operations. And Rich Orosco, the executive vice president of brand and community and one of the team’s first hires, spent much of his career marketing TV shows.
Guber and partner Joe Lacob, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, followed a similar model with the once-woeful Warriors, hiring a general manager who had never worked for a team and two coaches who had never coached.
In seven seasons under that leadership, the Warriors have gone from chumps to champs and the value of Guber’s and Lacob’s investment has more than quadrupled, to an estimated $2 billion.
“He definitely is someone who is forward thinking. He’s constantly challenging the norms,” said Bob Myers, a former UCLA walk-on and player agent who is now the Warriors’ general manager and a two-time NBA executive of the year. “He’s someone who has chosen to bet on people more so than a resume. It’s served him well.”
Despite being well past retirement age at 75, Guber hasn’t stopped chasing new challenges.
“I’m just lucky that I’m still swinging the bat,” he says. “Most guys my age are in assisted-living homes.”
Dressed in a blue argyle Warriors sweater, Guber is sitting in the media dining room at Staples Center. His left arm rests in a sling, the result of recent shoulder surgery, and his Warriors are about to take the floor. But Guber is neither in pain nor in a hurry.
If success is his most obvious asset, passion is a close second and Guber, who speaks with the conviction of a Southern preacher, likes to lean in and lock eyes with his interlocutor, emphasizing points by raising his voice or gesturing with his right hand.
“No, I’m not conventional,” he confesses.
But he is charmed, and for that he credits both hard work and luck.
He had never done an independent film when he produced, “The Deep,” which went on to become the second highest-grossing film of the year. His next movie, “Midnight Express,” with novice director Alan Parker, earned seven Academy Award nominations. And as executive producer of “The Color Purple” he signed off on casting a talk-show host in a key role.
Oprah Winfrey would be nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress.
“I’ve always had the idea that the resume of somebody is important; it tells you what they do,” Guber says. “[But] it doesn’t mean that somebody else doesn’t have talent or unique skills.
“Success and failure are very close together so you have to be willing to take some risks.”
More often than not, those risks have paid off.
Like when he insisted LAFC’s new 22,000-seat home — at $350 million, the most expensive soccer-specific stadium in the U.S. — should go in Exposition Park and not some trendy suburban neighborhood. The team will soon announce it has sold out its season seats before it has even played a game.
But there’s also a lot of old-fashioned showman to his approach. In his mind Guber isn’t selling a product, he’s selling an experience, whether it’s on a TV screen, a movie screen or a soccer pitch.
“The secret to success is no secret,” he says with infectious enthusiasm. “You’ve got to get your audience’s attention by giving them a product, a service, a benefit that they like, they own, that they can actually vocalize. That’s the only way you can get a lot of people who want to see it.”
So what would success look like with LAFC, which has no history and entered the month with just two first-team players under contract?
“Selling out the stadium,” he says. “Getting a robust, local audience who feel they own the team and want to wear the LAFC hat.
“Will we get there? Hope so. Are we assured of it? Absolutely not. Every day is an act of discovery.”
If he succeeds, Guber wouldn’t be the first Hollywood producer to find a box-office hit in MLS. Joe Roth, who has directed six films and produced more than 40 — including “Major League”, “Angels in the Outfield”, “While You Were Sleeping” and “Million Dollar Arm” — brought the Seattle Sounders into the league in 2009 and saw them reach the playoffs every season, leading MLS in attendance eight times.
That’s been the exception not the rule in MLS, though, with just one of the eight expansion franchises that followed Seattle into MLS finishing with a winning record or making the playoffs in its first season.
Not that it matters to Guber, who is following the Warriors’ example, not the Sounders’, something he made clear when he sent Thorrington to Oakland to observe how his NBA team operates.
“I couldn’t think of a better current observation in sports that would be more applicable and a better [lesson] for me than the Warriors,” Thorrington said.
Soccer is a new interest for Guber, who played hockey and lacrosse growing up, then owned several minor league baseball teams before joining the investment groups that bought the Warriors and Dodgers.
But he has quickly developed a passion for the game.
“There’s a great deal of global reach on soccer. It’s got a great deal of world elegance,” says Guber, who linked the club’s initials with his own to create a vanity license plate that reads LAFCPG.
“It’s a two-hour game. It’s visually global. And kids are playing at very young ages.”
Those who work for Guber say he’s quick — and relentless — in offering ideas and advice, but insist he doesn’t meddle.
“He dissects what he believes to be the best course forward and he sort of politely suggests it. Or poses it as an option,” Penn says. “It’s never a mandate. It’s never a directive. And he’s fine whether you take it or not.”
Adds Thorrington: “He knows what he doesn’t know.”
What he does know, however, is people.
“Peter oftentimes will apply something he did with a movie star that is directly applicable to our [situation],” says Thorrington, who admits to making late-night calls to Guber seeking help. “Very few people can actually connect the dots. How you sign a player, how you attract a player, how you recruit. It’s been very helpful.”
And for Guber invigorating. Because as much as the Hollywood mogul likes seeing his projects succeed, he enjoys putting them together even more.
“We’re all in this thing together,” he says, eyes growing wider as he leans in even closer. “It’s not like somehow we’re something special. But really the trick in this is you’ve got to have some joy in doing it. And the joy’s got to be injected into the experience.”
Then he pulls back and sighs, a smile creasing his face.
“It’s a challenging business.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11