The Arisons strolled the River Walk prior to the 1996 National Basketball Association All-Star Game in San Antonio, where Micky, the billionaire owner of the Miami Heat, became convinced that his son had the passion needed to govern the team.
Nick Arison, 14 at the time, bolted without explanation, disappearing for an hour after spotting rookie Kevin Garnett in a boat making its way down the water.
“We couldn’t find him,” said Micky Arison, back in San Antonio, where the Spurs and Heat split the opening two games of the NBA Finals. “He was chasing KG’s autograph.”
Nick Arison, the Heat’s chief executive officer who declined to comment for this story, has spent most of his 32 years chasing basketball autographs -- first on posters and scraps of paper and now on hundred-million-dollar contracts, including the one he helped to secure from four-time Most Valuable Player LeBron James.
When the Heat brass, including team President Pat Riley, wooed James, only one member of the contingent got a hug from the most coveted free agent in league history.
The son, dubbed “very smart and very applied” by former NBA Commissioner David Stern, was always more passionate about basketball than boats, the other staple of the Arison family. Micky’s father, Ted, parlayed a single used ship into Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise company. Micky Arison is the company’s chairman.
“He always took a liking, an interest in the team, not really in the cruise company,” said Micky Arison, whose net worth is $7.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index.
So the kid was given a job with the Heat, slinging a mop and collecting sweat-soaked towels.
“Even today, I see the ballboys and I say, ‘Jesus Christ, he was a hell of a ballboy,’” Micky Arison said of Nick, who after his 30th birthday was named the Heat’s CEO, putting him in charge of the club’s day-to-day operations.
Even though Nick Arison started at the bottom, his father, having joined the family business, knew his son would hear the entitlement whispers.
“I went through similar experiences where people always questioned whether I’d earned the role I had,” Micky Arison said. “He learned it from the ground up, every way you could learn it. It’s in his blood.”
In one respect Nick Arison’s blood is blue.
Basketball, by happenstance, played a prominent role in Nick winding up at Duke University, which was just one of the schools he was considering. His visit, according to Micky Arison, coincided with the game against North Carolina.
“That was it,” Micky Arison said.
Only Nick Arison wasn’t content to watch games with his fellow Cameron Crazies, as the inhabitants of the Duke student section are known. He spent four seasons as team manager under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski who, according to former Blue Devils player Shane Battier, brings the same detail and discipline to his program that he learned at West Point.
“Being a manager at Duke under Coach K is probably more stressful than being a player. The standard by which they’re measured is almost a military level,” said Battier, who won a national title at Duke and who now plays for the Heat. “To be a freshman manager at Duke -- talk about low man on the totem pole. The beauty of Nick is that he’s earned his stripes.”
When Jerry Colangelo asked Krzyzewski to coach the U.S. national team, he got the coach’s staff, too, including the billionaire’s kid who never complained about performing the most menial tasks.
“I was blown away by how humble he was,” said Colangelo, the chairman of USA Basketball. “You wouldn’t have picked him out on a bet as someone who may have been privileged growing up. He was a doer, a giver.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has known Nick Arison since he was a kid, recalled his 2 a.m. arrival at the U.S. team’s hotel during the 2006 World Championships in Japan. He encountered Arison folding the team’s laundry.
“For those who work with him you would never know that he owned the team,” said Silver, who replaced Stern as commissioner on Feb. 1. “He’s on top of everything on the court and in the business. He’s also a strong advocate for the league, able to see the issues from different perspectives so he can help me do my job.”
Nick Arison was so amenable to performing menial tasks during the 2008 Olympics that Krzyzewski said, “I had to remind myself that this was the son of a billionaire.”
“Given what he’s accomplished professionally with the Heat organization, it was amazing to see him as a manager again, packing bags, loading equipment,” Krzyzewski said. “He wants respect to define him, not his personal or family’s wealth.”
According to Colangelo, the U.S. players were fond of Nick Arison’s low-key demeanor.
That affinity was evident when the Heat courted free agents, including James, who has reached four straight NBA Finals since joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
“He was the one person that when we walked into the room LeBron gave a hug to and said, ‘How ya doing?’” Micky Arison said, recalling their recruitment of James prior to the 2010-11 season.
The father, more and more, is accustomed to being overshadowed by the son.
About five years ago, Micky Arison was strolling the streets of an Italian resort when he spotted Los Angeles Lakers star and USA team member Kobe Bryant, whom he had never met. Arison introduced himself.
“He said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re Nick’s dad,’” Micky Arison said. “I knew then I had gotten old.”
Said Silver: “Increasingly, Micky is becoming known around the league as Nick’s dad.”
And that’s just fine with the father, who this time of year speaks to his son every day. They sit together during games, as they will tonight when the best-of-seven championship series resumes in Miami, where Micky Arison sums up their respective roles with the team like this:
“He’s the man; I’m the fan,” he said.