A native of a small town on Long Island in New York. A diehard New York Knicks fan who bleeds orange and blue and is unapologetic about it. An Atlanta Hawks minority owner.
All three describe Jesse Itzler’s life, and those aspects will collide again Wednesday when the team he owns faces off against his beloved hometown team in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series.
With those credentials, most would assume being conflicted about team alliances is an understatement, but Itzler takes it in stride.
“When the Knicks play the other 28 teams in the league, I am a Knicks fan all day long,” says Itzler, one of several minority owners of the Hawks. “But when they play the Hawks, I have to root for my new hometown team.”
While Itzler’s story may be well-documented in business, sports and even hard-core hip-hop circles, his Knicks fandom began in Roslyn, New York, a quiet suburb where he grew up, 20 miles from the chaos of midtown Manhattan.
“I inherited it. My father was a Knick fan. My brother was a Knick fan. I was the youngest of four. I didn’t have a choice,” he said.
After moving to the city as a 22-year-old, and following a brief rap career (his 1991 single, “Shake It Like a White Girl” charted on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles list and peaked at No. 74), Itzler decided it was time to put his love of New York basketball on wax.
Inspired by entertainment in arenas, with DJs playing music during timeouts, team dancers and underdog stories such as former fan favorite John Starks, Itzler figured he might as well be a part of the show so fans wouldn’t just watch basketball. They could at least engage with the Garden’s raucous atmosphere.
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“In hip-hop, the call and response is a big thing. I wanted something to incorporate that, and that could be participatory and that was the origins of it,” he said.
That idea turned into the Knicks anthem “Go, NY, Go,” most associated with the 1994 team that lost in the NBA Finals in seven games to the Houston Rockets.
“I was in this tiny apartment in New York and recorded the song on a cassette, and I had to do it in one take. But I was driven by many things. I love the Knicks, I love basketball. I got lucky. The song got big,” Itzler said.
“The Knicks supported it; the community supported it. The players like it, the opposing teams hated it and it led me down a path that changed my life.”
That song, which is barely 90 seconds long, got the attention of several NBA teams such as the Bulls, Bullets, Mavericks and Hornets as well as the league, which commissioned Itzler to write and perform the Emmy-winning “I Love This Game.”
An unlikely business career followed that took him from selling private planes as a partner in Marquis Jet, to his other day job as the founder of the 100 Mile Group, a brand incubator and creative design agency. A subsequent move to Atlanta jump-started the next phase in his life and his association with the Hawks, first as a season-ticket holder, an NBA licensee, followed by a stint as a consultant for the team.
“I’m a basketball fan. I have been around it for so long,” he said. “When I moved to Atlanta, because of my history with the NBA, when the team became available for sale, I just put my hand up and said I want to be a part of it in a big way.”
The team sold for $850 million in 2015, months after previous owner Bruce Levenson stepped down after admitting to the NBA that he had sent a racist e-mail in 2012.
Despite the notoriety he gained with his companies and other entrepreneurial endeavors, Itzler shuns the “Hawks co-owner” label. “I went in with like 11 other guys,” he jokes.
Among the other investors brought in by the ownership group, led by billionaire equity and investment fund manager Antony Ressler, were Rick Schnall, a partner with private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice, former NBA player and seven-time All-Star Grant Hill, and Sara Blakely, Itzler’s wife and founder of shapewear company Spanx.
Some owners of professional sports teams are behind the scenes so much that you rarely see or hear from them, while others gravitate toward a microphone or camera at a moment’s notice. Itzler is mostly in the background, but his behavior suggests he could be on the level of a superfan, especially when it comes to the two teams he loves.
“I wouldn’t say he is conflicted about the two teams,” says Marc Hodulich, a business partner and co-founder with Itzler and CEO of 29029. “I think there is an inherent tension. There is a love of New York of course, and there is love of Atlanta.”
“Oh, he is all in,” Blakely adds. “It’s really entertaining to watch him watch any sporting event because he is so passionate. I used to be a casual fan. But since being involved in the team, it is much, much more.”
The makeup of an individual certainly comes from the people who deal with them on a daily basis, and this is no different for Itzler. Talk to anyone close to the 52-year-old and father of four, and the same themes repeatedly come up.
Uncontrollable, boundless energy. Passionate. Genuine. Comfortable in his own skin.
Itzler takes it all in stride.
“I’m just a serial entrepreneur with an insane life resume.”