The expansiveswimming pool out back of the Palms hotel and casino in Las Vegas is as curvedand shallow as the young women who are layered around its edges on a warmSaturday in October. One by one they swivel their heads and sit up from theirchaise longues as two Armani suits stride conspicuously across their concreteplot of post-apple Eden. Even in their most relaxed moments Joe and GavinMaloof, otherwise known as the owners of the Sacramento Kings, tend to move asif they're five minutes late for a plane. They also tend to be oblivious totheir surroundings, whether they're at a Sacramento city council meeting tonegotiate funds for a new arena or by a pool of nearly naked women--againstwhom they stand out like incarnations of Jake and Ellwood.
"Let's getsome quality over here," Gavin says, rubbing his hands together.
"We'll get ussome bunnies," adds Joe, older by 11 months.
The brothers aresearching not on their own behalf but--as befits longtime leaders in theservice industry--for the benefit of an SI photographer hoping to pose two ofAmerica's most eligible billionaire bachelors among the local talent. "Ifthe customer isn't happy, we aren't happy," insists Joe, who is interruptedby the pointing index finger of an old family friend from their hometown ofAlbuquerque. The friend directs everyone's attention to the neon-green,polka-dot bikini bottom squished provocatively against the balcony railingdirectly overhead. A hum of subdued approval escapes Joe's parted lips as heturns to stare at Gavin before looking away.
A woman sportinga black bikini and ankle tattoos, with breasts two times too large for herbody, runs over as best she can in her stiletto heels. "Where's a Maloof?Where's a Maloof?" she wants to know. Without being asked twice (or evenonce), she leans into Gavin. "Don't cross your leg," she scolds as thecamera snaps away. "You look like a fruit loop."
Another younglady dressed barely in white eagerly forms the Oreo filling between theblack-clad Maloofs. The woman in the polka-dot bikini, who may be Brazilian, isinvited down from her perch. More women appear until nine are gathered aroundthe brothers. The one in black removes Gavin's suit jacket and drapes it overhis shoulder. "He's pushin' in my boobs!" she shrieks while grindingher chest into Gavin's shoulder blade, before leaning aside to flash her topfor the camera. All the while the Maloofs wear the same slightly stiff, highschool prom smiles.
It's an enviablelife these brothers lead. How many men would love to be rich, single and ownersof not only a profitable NBA franchise but also the hottest casino in Vegas?Joe, 51, and Gavin, 50, are the president and vice chairman, respectively, ofthe Maloof Companies, a billion-dollar family business that grew from a generalstore in northern New Mexico into a beer distributorship and then expanded intohotels, banking and entertainment. The family matriarch, Colleen, is thechairwoman of the board, while the other principals are Joe and Gavin'ssiblings: Adrienne Maloof-Nassif, 45, the company's secretary and treasurer;George, 42, an executive vice president who runs the Palms; and Phil, 39, theother executive vice president, a former New Mexico state senator who overseesthe company's latest ventures, Maloof Music and Maloof Productions.
"A reporterasked Gavin on the plane one day," says Joe, "'If you were going to dieand come back as anybody, who would you come back as?' He said--"
"Me!"interrupts Gavin, and both guffaw as if they hadn't told the story a hundredtimes before.
It's no wonderGavin wouldn't trade his life for anybody else's. Not 13 hours earlier he wasseen celebrating the opening of the country's first Playboy Club in nearly 20years--situated on the top floor of the Palms' newest 52-story structure,appropriately named the Fantasy Tower--with Julie McCullough, a luminescentformer Playboy centerfold. He and McCullough had danced in the casino'snightclub Moon under a retractable roof that opened to reveal the Las VegasStrip; now Miss February 1986 is coming over to give Gavin a hug and thank-youkiss on the cheek.
This weekend thebrothers will once again be the life of the party as the NBA All-Star Game,with its attendant high rollers and bacchanal, comes to Las Vegas. The Maloofswere crucial to bringing the event to Sin City (Joe and Gavin pitchedcommissioner David Stern, then George had to get every major casino in town tosuspend all betting on the NBA during the weekend), and the players will stayat the Palms--which features the $25,000-per-night Hardwood Suite, completewith a half-court and three extralong Murphy beds, which pull out from thebaseline.
"They don'tpass themselves off as supersophisticated, though they've got a prettysophisticated business understanding of most things," says Stern, who hasknown Joe and Gavin for half their lives, dating back to the Maloof family'sownership of the Houston Rockets. "The beauty of it was that the Maloofswere on the ground and they allowed us to communicate with all the right peoplein the best-natured way. They were invaluable to us being able to have the gamein Las Vegas. It couldn't have happened without them."
Like theirfather, Joe and Gavin are not merely ambitious. They work hard at remainingyoung and try to generate as much fun or profit from each moment as theypossibly can. Why? "The Maloofs don't live a long time normally," saysGavin, "especially the males."
George Maloof Sr.was 21 when he left the University of Colorado in 1944 and returned home toAlbuquerque to run the family business after his father, Joe, a Lebaneseimmigrant, suffered a heart attack. (Joe died in 1956 at age 54.) The Maloofswere the local Coors beer distributors, and young George worked hard to gainthe franchise statewide. Over the years he would add to the family's holdings atrucking firm, hotels, a majority interest in Albuquerque's First National Bankand, in 1979, at a cost of $9 million, the Rockets.
When George Sr.and Colleen's children were as young as 10, they were put to work in the beerdistributorship, cleaning the warehouses and organizing the recyclables. Likehis sons today, George was also in a hurry. "He used to take me and Gavinaround with him," says Joe. "He'd say, 'Someday these two guys aregoing to be running my business.' He kept telling that to people, and I didn'tknow why. And he'd say, 'Remember, when I die you've got to stick together withyour mother. You and your brothers and your sister, you've got to sticktogether with your mom.'"
That time wouldarrive unexpectedly. On Nov. 30, 1980, George Sr. suffered a massive heartattack and died at age 57. "It's Friday night, about 10:30, and my mom gaveme a phone call: 'Your dad's sick, come on over to the hospital rightnow,'" Joe recalls. "I was so happy that I didn't go out partying thatnight, so I got to spend a few hours with him before he died. He was in thehospital with my mom and--were you there?"
"Yeah,"says Gavin, "I was there."
"He died infront of us," Joe continues. "Jeez. And you know what he said before hedied? He said, 'How many points did Moses have?' Moses Malone. That's a truestory, right?"
"Yeah, andI'll tell you one that's even better," says Gavin, as he launches intoanother tale from their father's last night. "We opened up the ClassicHotel in Albuquerque, that's probably what killed him. An $18 million hotel,that was a big risk for us back then. It had just opened, and he was in thecoffee shop; he was eating and he got sick. My mother takes him outside--he'djust had a massive heart attack--but before he gets in the car he's reaching inhis pocket to take care of the bellman. And my mom says, 'George, come on, youcan worry about him later.'"
"He wasvomiting," says Joe, "and he's trying to take care of--"
"Thebellman," says Gavin. The two often finish each other's thoughts, like amarried couple.
"Walter washis name."
"He wastrying to find some money to tip the guy."
"He was thegreatest," Joe says of his father.
The sons remembertheir father as brave, for continuing to live hard despite his premonition ofan early death, and omniscient, for rushing to prepare them for a futurewithout him. Indeed, upon his father's death, Gavin, just 24, was named theRockets' president, becoming the youngest owner and operator in pro sportshistory. The team flourished, making the playoffs in all three years of Maloofownership and reaching the NBA Finals in 1981, but the family sold it--a moveColleen immediately regretted--in '82 for $11 million, reportedly to appeaseGeorge Sr.'s two sisters. (Not satisfied, they subsequently filed a lawsuitover his estate.) Colleen spent the next decade staving off creditors in orderto provide her children with the same opportunities that George had inheritedfrom his father.
During those hardtimes the Maloofs established two covenants that remain in place today: Nomajor decisions would be made unless the family unanimously agreed, and thechildren would invest their energies in businesses that inspired them. GeorgeJr. launched a small, highly successful hotel and casino, aimed at locals, onthe northern outskirts of Las Vegas; he would cash out in 2000 in order tobuild the 703-room Palms, which the family opened a year later (and which doesnot take bets on NBA games). The resort, which was the headquarters for MTV'sReal World: Las Vegas, has made George a fixture in gossip columns: In 2003 hewas linked to a post-Justin, pre-K-Fed Britney Spears. Phil spent seven yearsin the state senate before a failed run for Congress in 2000. He then turnedhis attention to the family's music and TV-film production arms; for openingnight of the Playboy Club his date was Gabrielle Tuite, a blonde Barker'sBeauty from The Price Is Right. Adrienne, the only sibling to be married, livesin Beverly Hills with her husband, Paul, a plastic surgeon who was featuredlast season on the E! show Dr. 90210, and their three children. She plays asignificant role in mapping out the company's marketing and promotionalstrategies and does philanthropic work.
Wanting to returnto sports, the family purchased the Birmingham Fire of the World League ofAmerican Football in 1990 but sold it two years later. In '97 Joe and Gavintried to get the Maloofs back into the big leagues, negotiating to buy theTampa Bay Lightning. The move was vetoed by George--thankfully, it turnedout--because of the NHL's bleak financial prospects. Instead, on Jan. 15, 1999,the Maloofs agreed to spend $247 million on the moribund Kings, who hadn'tfinished above .500 since moving to California from Kansas City in 1985, andArco Arena. The team welcomed its new owners by going 27--23 in thelockout-shortened '98--99 season, and it has not had a losing season since.
Imagine the firstimpression Joe and Gavin made on the Sacramento community. With their thickshoulders (both played college football, Joe at New Mexico and Gavin atDivision III Trinity in San Antonio), hoarse, loud voices and a shared accentthat cannot be traced back to any known people or society, they come acrosslike a couple of auto mechanics wiping their blackened hands on dirty rags asthey try to explain in plain English what they're doing to your car. (Theysound eerily like their father, says Colleen.) The brothers take pride in theireveryman comportment, maintaining an eclectic group of friends and hangers-on.Joe and Gavin's personal guest list for the Playboy Club's opening weekendincluded childhood buddies from Albuquerque named Chucky, Phil and Billy; Mikefrom California, who helped Joe quit smoking; a New Yorker named Carlton, whobefriended the Maloofs--while also becoming their stockbroker--aftercold-calling Joe several years ago to try to interest him in an investment; andthe driver they use when they visit New York, a nervous, heavily tattooed guynamed Joey. "He's the only limo driver I've ever been around who could dropyou off at the busiest street in Manhattan, never knowing how long you're goingto be up at the meeting, and when you come down, he's always in front,"says Joe. "You don't have to walk a block with this guy."
The Maloofs arecomfortable in any environment. Last summer they visited their mercurial starforward, Ron Artest, at his annual basketball tournament in Queens. "I wasshowing them the neighborhood, and they had to go to the bathroom," recallsArtest. "So they went [down] one of those ghetto hallways--all pissysmelling, you know--[and knocked on a door], and when they were done they toldthe people, 'Thank you for letting us use your bathroom.'" Joe and Gavinserved as honorary coaches for the tournament's all-star game, during which acouple of bottles of a potent homemade cocktail known as a nutcracker weretossed to them from the stands. "I thought it was pineapple juice," Joesays. "Everybody was laughing, and I think that's when we won the crowdover, when we were drinking the nutcrackers."
Kings fans whoapproach the Maloofs have been known to receive a team jersey in the mail aweek or two later, and $100 tips are not infrequent for waitresses and bellmen.In 2002 Joe struck up a conversation with the bathroom attendant in a LosAngeles restaurant. "The next thing I know," says Gavin, "thebathroom attendant is on the plane with us going to a game." Given theiroutgoing natures, Colleen admittedly worries about charlatans taking advantageof her sons. "But it hasn't hurt them so far," she says.
As soon as theirpurchase of the Kings was approved, the Maloofs set out to apply the lessons oftheir father. Within a month they had a $9 million plan to build a practicefacility that would liberate the players from various local gyms. They paintedand refurbished Arco Arena, installed brighter lights to make the concessionareas more inviting and built 20 additional bars to shorten the beer lines. Butthe biggest changes they made were in customer service.
"We had justbought the team, and we're touring the arena with a bunch of bankers oneday," Joe says. "Well, it's kind of confusing: Section 101's over here,and 201's over there--"
"It's a roundbuilding," notes Gavin.
"So Gavinasked a security guard, 'Where's Section 101, Seat 32?' And the security guardgoes, 'Well, go this way and then turn left.... ' A few minutes later Gavingoes, 'Goddammit!'"
"Because wehad walked around the building three times and we couldn't find it! Nobody washelping us!"
"So we wentback to the security guard, and Gavin said, 'Listen. We just bought the team,and you're not going to treat customers like that. We don't care that youtreated us that way--what we're afraid of is, you'll treat our customers likethat. Take the customer to the seat. Say, "Thank you for coming, weappreciate your business." Show him, don't just point over there.'"
"So [theguard] learned quick," says Gavin.
"The bankerswere like, 'What did we do getting involved with these guys? These guys areexplosive,'" says Joe. "But [Gavin] had to make the point aboutcustomer service."
"When you gointo a business establishment, there are just certain signs that things aren'tright," adds Gavin. "I went in the bathroom when we first got there. Ithad one-ply toilet paper. I said, 'No, c'mon, can we get two-ply?' I mean, thiswas like sandpaper. That spoke volumes about the entire operation. I didn'tneed to see about the team, I didn't need to see about the product, I didn'tneed to see about the arena. The toilet paper said it all."
Much as MarkCuban would later do with the Dallas Mavericks, the Maloofs transformed theKings into one of the NBA's model franchises, with eight straight playoffappearances and a league-leading 340 straight sellouts. "I don't think theymiss anything--they're very industrious, bright, they know exactly what they'redoing, and they always have a game plan," says longtime Phoenix Sunschairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo. "There's been a wave of new youngentrepreneurs in their 40s coming into our game, which has been very positiveto the league. New young blood brings a different look."
Which is why theMaloofs are confounded by the opposition to their request for public funds fora new, $470 million building that would replace Arco, at 19 the third-oldestarena in the league. The campaign against a proposed quarter-percent hike inthe Sacramento County sales tax, which would've helped raise $600 million over15 years, turned into a referendum on the Maloofs' lifestyle. In October anational TV ad for the Hardees and Carl's Jr. chains rolled out in which allfour Maloofs, with Dean Martin's Ain't That a Kick in the Head as backgroundmusic, are seen entering the Palms with a horde of beautiful women, then diningon burgers, fries and a 24-year-old Bordeaux--the $6,000 Combo Meal. Two weekslater a group of local civic leaders staged a protest in downtown Sacramento byeating the same Six Dollar Burger at a press event to mock the playboybrothers' requests for public assistance. Katherine Maestas, a politicalconsultant in the state capital, referred to the ad as "a slap in the faceto our community."
Having lost theNov. 7 vote on the financing plan, the Maloofs have asked Stern to intervene intheir continuing negotiations with city officials. They are also beginning toconsider a move to another city. This will surely lead to speculation that theteam will wind up in Las Vegas, though the brothers have denied that they areentertaining that thought. "The way we look at it, we can't afford to makea bad deal in Sacramento with this arena," Joe says. "The newness ofthe arena is going to wear off in about three years. What happens in Year 26?Did we make a deal good enough that in 26 years it's going to be a financiallyviable franchise still? If you give your parking revenue away, if you give yournaming rights away, you're going to be at a big disadvantage competitively withthe other teams."
There's no doubtthe Maloofs want to keep winning. That's part of the reason they acquiredArtest from the Indiana Pacers for popular forward Peja Stojakovic in January2006, when the team was 18--24. While Artest's history of kaleidoscopicallyunpredictable behavior scared away most of their peers, the Maloofs wereintrigued because they'd already reaped the benefits of a similar trade:Shortly before they bought the franchise, it had been transformed by a deal forChris Webber, another MVP-caliber talent whose reputation was in ruins. A weekafter Artest's arrival the Kings began a 14--4 run that helped keep alive theirplayoff streak.
Artest hopesplaying for the Maloofs will help bring newfound stability to his career."I never knew my owners before like I know them," says Artest, who likepoint guard Mike Bibby and other Sacramento players routinely calls the Maloofbrothers to chat. "Without them I wouldn't have this chance I have now.They've taken a lot of weight off my shoulders--not just basketball-wise but inevery aspect of my daily life. I've got a little more room here to correct mymistakes, and breathe a little bit too."
But the Kingsstill have to deliver. Their win total has dropped in each of the last fouryears, from a high of 61 in 2001--02 to 44 last season, so last summer theMaloofs made their boldest move: replacing Rick Adelman, whom they inheritedwhen they bought the team and who is one of only two coaches to reach theplayoffs in the last eight years, with Eric Musselman, an aggressive leader whois more in line with the owners' straightforward approach. "Whoever wasgoing to be the coach, [president of basketball operations Geoff] Petrie said,'You guys have got to get along with him,'" says Joe, in reference to thedisputes he and Gavin had in the past with Adelman, primarily concerning theteam's lack of defensive focus. It was the Maloofs, not Petrie, a two-time NBAExecutive of the Year, who picked Musselman. "Their instincts over theyears have proved to be pretty good, and I think you need to trust that,"says Petrie, who gave them a short list to work from. "I was just the tourguide, and I told them what I thought. But it had to be somebody they couldrelate to and somebody they wanted to coach their team. In the end they took afamily vote, and I wasn't part of the vote."
After a long runas the most aesthetically pleasing team in basketball, Sacramento is seeking tolaunch a new era reflective of the Maloofs themselves--less urbane and nuanced,more assertive and blunt. "For once we've got the word defense in ourvocabulary," says Gavin. "In the past you'd scream, 'Defense! Defense!'but Kings teams have never played defense. But now the whole focus is on thedefensive side of the ball."
As discouraged asthey are by the team's 22--27 record, the brothers aren't ready to give up onMusselman. Even his October arrest and recent no-contest plea for DUI (he wasfined and has to perform 48 hours of community service and enter afirst-offender program; the NBA also suspended him without pay for two games)hasn't soured the Maloofs on their coach. "It's a new system, and thepositive about Eric is nobody's going to outwork the guy," says Joe."We're behind him, we want him to succeed. We picked him, and we expect himto be with us for a long time."
A few hoursbefore the grand opening, Joe and Gavin led their visiting friends around theplush red and black decor of the Playboy Club as if giving a tour of theirfamily home. "You've got to see the men's room," said Gavin, holdingopen the door to show walls covered with nude pinups and centerfolds. Over thenext two nights the club would be filled with celebrities--actors Jamie Foxxand Kate Hudson, porn star Jenna Jameson, dozens of Playmates and Hugh Hefnerhimself, who traveled everywhere with the three blondes from his reality showThe Girls Next Door and their entourage of camera operators, soundmen andlighting crews.
Joe and Gavinoften wonder what their father would say about the life they've made over thelast 27 years. As proud as he would be of their business successes, he would bejust as frustrated by their failures to wed. The closest the brothers have cometo a marriage recently is their merger of the Palms to Hefner's Playboy Club."That's the disappointing part of our lives," admits Joe. "I mean,that's the part that's missing from my life."
In the starkestcontrast of all with their father, neither Joe nor Gavin has any children ofhis own to teach and pass on the family's wisdom. "It's sad, and it bothersme a lot," says Colleen. "I kept nagging so much about marrying andbeing married that they'd see me and run. My sons were running away from me, soI said I'm just not going to say anything anymore."
As she steps offthe elevator onto the raised balcony that looks out across the crowded floor ofthe Playboy Club and its Grand Canyonesque vista of bare shoulders andcleavage, Colleen Maloof cannot help but realize that her sons' lifestyle isgrowing ever more extravagant. But she knows better than anybody that there isno fighting with success. A few minutes later she is standing shoulder toshoulder with her boys around a card table, watching Paris Hilton lose atblackjack.
Live from Las Vegas
Coverage of the All-Star Game from Ian Thomsen andMarty Burns, with Arash Markazi on the party scene.
ONLY AT SI.COM
George Sr. (near right, in 1980) began as a beer distributor; in August 2005his sons helped persuade Stern to bring the All-Stars to Vegas.