The National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), which represents the Black Press of America, has embarked on a national series featuring NBA owners on the issue of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Because of the Phoenix Suns and owner Robert Sarver’s significant outreach to the African American community, which occurred long before the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the NNPA began the series with Sarver.
Sarver first discovered his interest in basketball as a teenager.
His father, Jack Sarver, a native of Flint, Mich., enjoyed a friendship with then-University of Arizona Athletic Director David H. Strack, who recruited a local high school coach named Fred Snowden.
Strack hired Snowden as the head coach of the university’s men’s basketball team, making him the first African American major college basketball head coach.
“Coach Snowden was an esteemed high school coach in the Detroit area, and my dad was from Flint. So, they had a bond,” Robert Sarver told NNPA Newswire.
“I had never really gone to games other than a few Suns games early in my life, but the coach said, ‘you have to get season tickets,’ and that’s when I really started watching basketball,” Sarver added.
Coach Snowden and the Sarver family not only enjoyed a working relationship but formed a close bond that connected beyond basketball.
The elder Sarver named Coach Snowden to the Board of Directors of Sarver’s American Savings and Loan.
Soon, the Sarvers and Snowdens enjoyed familial association.
Over time, Robert Sarver witnessed how different his life was from Snowden.
It began to dawn on Sarver that the 1972 hiring of Coach Snowden would represent a personal realization.
That would help him understand better the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion – even as the nation reckoned with the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement and the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Sarver witnessed the blatant discrimination faced by Coach Snowden and his family, particularly during road trips.
“The early years were not easy at all,” Snowden’s daughter, Stacey Snowden, recalled in a recently published interview.
“There was not a lot of acceptance and racial tolerance and so forth at that time,” Stacey Snowden remembered. “We lived under the constant threat of life with death threats and bomb threats all the time. That was difficult, but we persevered and got through it. My father knew that these are the types of things you have to endure as a pioneer. He got through it and created something really, really special in the Arizona basketball legacy.”
Sarver also recalled the racism Coach Snowden experienced.
He said the experience helped shape his views not just on basketball but something far more significant: fighting for justice and defying inequities.
“It was the first time seeing it firsthand. It was a real eye-opener,” Sarver declared.
For 17 years as owner of the Suns — and for decades beforehand — Sarver has pressed for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
His businesses have run without controversy, operating without complaints or rumors of discrimination.
Sarver serves as the Executive Chairman of Western Alliance Bancorporation, the largest financial institution headquartered in Arizona.
The bank remains one of the most active business lenders in Arizona.
He’s also the co-founder of Southwest Value Partners, a more than 30-year-old real estate investment fund.
Sarver served as a director of SkyWest Airlines and the Phoenix-based Meritage Corporation.
According to his biography, under Sarver’s leadership, the Suns and Phoenix Suns Charities have given over $25 million in donations to local non-profits and provided thousands of hours of community service work by players, coaches and employees.
Ten years ago, following a conversation surrounding dropout rates with Arne Duncan (Secretary of Education for the Obama administration), Sarver also spearheaded the “SunsCentral” initiative. Through this initiative, the Suns organization “adopted” Central High School in Phoenix, which is an inner-city high school with a student body comprised of nearly 85% people of color. Over the last ten years, the SunsCentral initiative has provided over 200,000 hours of tutoring, and has dramatically improved the graduation rates of the neighborhood school.
A 1982 graduate of the University of Arizona, Sarver earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and, one year later, he became a certified public accountant.
When NBA players and owners agreed to become more inclusive and promised better diversity measures following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Sarver and the Suns led the way.
They transformed the team’s former home, the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, into a voting site. The move occurred in response to repeated conversations within the Suns organization about racial inequality.
Led by African American head coach Monty Williams, the Suns provided the team’s personnel an open forum to discuss racism.
Sarver also agreed to provide days off to employees, encouraging them to serve as poll workers during the 2020 elections.
The organization also partnered with the BYU Sports Business Club in Arizona and the Ballard Center for Social Impact to host a case competition to develop a diversity and inclusion plan for the Suns.
When asked to evaluate how some view the Suns’ organization as an example of an NBA team fully embracing DE&I, Sarver said the answer is simple.
“I think it’s in our DNA. I know it’s in my DNA from my upbringing with my parents and family and the thought process of trying to do the right thing,” Sarver responded.
“We’ve been very progressive even in the early days of my ownership – making sure of it in our hirings and work in the community,” Sarver continued.
“The culture of our organization, especially our players and employees, is committed to inclusion and social justice, even taking positions that may be adverse to our business and maybe a little controversial.”
The Suns owner continued:
“My dad had a saying that ‘you vote with your heart, not your wallet,’ and that stuck with me. I’m very proud of what the organization has done in the community over the past 18 years, and I think we’ve made a difference.”
Sarver also fully supported the NBA’s hiring of Oris Stuart as the league’s chief people and inclusion officer earlier this year.
Stuart leads the league’s combined Human Resources and Diversity and Inclusion groups and oversees diversity and inclusion strategies for the NBA.
The hire should prove a tremendous boost to the league’s overall goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion, Sarver said.
“I think [DE&I] is at the heart of who we should be as a society,” Sarver asserted.
“I’ve had the chance to see firsthand discrimination and the evils of it. I think it’s incumbent upon everyone to do the right thing, and often that means taking a position that may be a little uncomfortable for some. To me, it’s a way of life. That’s what I try to do. It’s the roadmap that I’ve followed.”