Some entrepreneurs look to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos when they want to be inspired. Robert Sarver suggests Phoenix Suns' point guard and 2005 NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.
Sarver, who is majority owner of the Suns and CEO of Western Alliance Bancorporation, gave the keynote address at the University of Arizona's commencement on Saturday, urging aspiring ballplayers and businesspeople alike to focus on teamwork.
He credited Nash's unselfishness for his team's first place regular season finish, urging the graduating seniors to focus on helping their co-workers.
"This is also a lesson on the kind of impact one person can have on a whole organization," said Sarver. "You will never be the MVP of your company or for that matter your family unless you are committed to making those around you better."
In an informal speech that began with a self-deprecating comparison to U.S. Senator and "stud" John McCain, the university's other commencement speaker, Sarver recounted his own unlikely path to success -- from the bottom-half of his college class to the sometimes flamboyant owner who once took the place of his team's mascot and dunked a basketball during halftime.
"My mom who is here today is probably more surprised than me that I made it from there to here," Sarver said. "That's what's cool about the system you are about to enter. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to succeed."
After becoming the youngest person ever to found a bank -- the National Bank of Arizona at age 23 -- Sarver began buying up office space in downtown San Diego, founding Southwest Value Partners.
He told graduates that his own successes, including the last year's purchase of the Suns, would not have been possible without taking significant risks.
"If you don't try, you won't know," he said. "You can't be afraid to fail."
Of course, with the Western Conference semifinals tied at two games apiece, the payoff on Sarver's latest gamble remains at least somewhat uncertain.
Last updated: May 17, 2005
Senior contributing writer MAX CHAFKIN has profiled companies such as Yelp, Zappos, Twitter,
Threadless, and Tesla for the magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. @chafkin