Culture / Sporting Life

Tilman Fertitta On His UH Big 12 Message, Real Rockets Expectations and The Most Underrated Houston Superstar Ever

The Rockets Owner Isn't Much For Speeches, But He Made Sure to Talk to Dana Holgorsen's Team

BY // 09.02.22

Standing in front of the University of Houston football team, Tilman Fertitta got right to the point. The Houston billionaire and UH Board of Regents chairman is not one for long speeches (this business tycoon talks with a purpose and hates speakers who drone on). He’d keep his UH message simple — and beyond clear.

Fertitta laid out how crucial this UH football season is to the entire university as the school prepares to enter the Big 12 next season.

“It’s very important,” Fertitta tells PaperCity. “Just letting the guys know how important this season is. As we go into the Big 12, we need to put everybody on notice.

“That we’re going to be here — and we’re gonna be tough.”

Fertitta does not give a lot of talks. He’s a beyond busy guy for starters — with a schedule that is more packed than U.S. 59 at rush hour and constantly shifting like a Tetris puzzle. His Fertitta Entertainment Inc. just opened the largest (and certainly grandest) sports book in Louisiana at the Golden Nugget Lake Charles on Thursday night, just in time for the first full week of the college football season. (For more on this showcase space, stay tuned to PaperCity for the full inside story.) He now controls 6.2 acres of prime property on the Las Vegas Strip, which could become his most luxurious casino land ever — and something of another game changer. Of course, he also owns the Houston Rockets and seemingly a million other things.

“I don’t like to do a lot of speeches,” Fertitta says. “Because I don’t put them up on my calendar. And I’m like ‘Why the hell did I sign up for this?’ ”

Fertitta made an exception when it came to UH and head football coach Dana Holgorsen, a coach he’s always believed in and a good friend. “Dana called me a couple of days before. He knows how I am. And I made a point,” he says.

Fertitta would do his part in setting the stage for a 12-win followup season that starts with Saturday’s game against UTSA in the Alamodome. The pre-Big 12 season.

If anyone is wondering if Tilman Fertitta is any less committed to continuing to help improve the University of Houston now that has the young, rebuilding Rockets and massive ventures like that future Las Vegas Strip project he’s purposefully keeping mysterious (for now) also drawing his attention, they can stop. For those closest to this billionaire quickly dismiss any such notion, describing Fertitta as UH fanatical as ever.

Just ask his youngest son Blake.

“The hardest time I had was when I said, I’m going to LSU,” Blake Fertitta laughs.

Fertitta’s son and I are talking at a VIP preview of the Golden Nugget Lake Charles’ sprawling new sports book, sitting in one of the plush booths of a place that’s geared to be food orientated as well. Blake Fertitta did end up going to LSU, graduating from there last May. But that does not mean he still does not hear about it — and UH — from his dad.

“He looks at UH as much as he looks at anything,” Blake tells PaperCity. “It’s grown with our family. . . The Houston Cougars are an unbelievable place. And my family as a whole, we support them with all our heart. And seeing the passion that my dad has for a school like that. A school that people don’t respect as much as they should.

“. . . And he’s shown us how much we should appreciate that school. And coming down to me and my siblings, that’s our school. That’s how it went. It grew on us. And we care about that place as much as we care about anybody else.”

“This is the right way to do it. And I know this year isn’t going to be great either. But these guys are going to get a lot of experience and we have so much cap space going into next year now.” — Tilman Fertitta on the Rockets rebuild

Tilman Fertitta’s love for UH even extends to his latest Rockets move, retiring the jersey of Elvin Hayes, with Hayes’ No. 44 to be lifted to the Toyota Center rafters on November 18. Hayes also starred at the University of Houston of course, including leading the Cougars to a win in the Game of the Century at the Astrodome. Current UH basketball coach (and program resurrector) Kelvin Sampson has regularly championed Hayes as the Greatest Cougar Ever, arguing that one of the best basketball players in the history of the game (Hayes is one of only four players in NBA history to average at least 21 points and 12.5 rebounds for a career) is often somehow overlooked in favor of flashier, more recent past stars.

Not that Tilman Fertitta ever needed any convincing, having loved watching Hayes as a kid.

“People forget how great he was,” the 65-year-old Fertitta says. “Hakeem (Olajuwon) came after him, which this generation mainly remembers. But Elvin was as dominating as there was. To lead the NBA in scoring as a rookie. And to score the 39 points against UCLA and Lew Alcindor and win that Game (of the Century).

“That’s two of the most remarkable things in the history of basketball.”

The University of Houston Cougars basketball team defeated the Virginia Cavaliers at the Fertitta Center
Houston athletic director Chris Pezman and UH great Elvin Hayes share a moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Yes, Tilman Fertitta can list off some of Elvin Hayes’ stats by memory. Including that 28.4 points per game Hayes scored as a rookie in 1968-69, which is still the last time a first year player won the NBA scoring crown. Still don’t think Fertitta is a true basketball fanatic?

A Big Summer For the Rockets?

Now, the guy who used to carry around his grandfather’s briefcase as a kid, and tell people he had his business in it, is excited about the Rockets’ new young potential. Jalen Green did not lead the NBA in scoring as a rookie, but he and this year’s third pick, Jabari Smith Jr., have already impressed Fertitta. And while many outside observers seem to expect Fertitta to demand more wins this season, the billionaire makes it clear he will continue to take a more patient approach in our interview.

“This is the right way to do it,” Tilman Fertitta tells PaperCity. “And I know this year isn’t going to be great either. But these guys are going to get a lot of experience and we have so much cap space going into next year now. Because (John) Wall will be off of our books after this year.

“That’s what people don’t realize. He’s still on our books this year. Even though we paid him off. So we look forward to getting all these young guys a lot of experience this year. And we hope to make a move next year.”

While it sounds like next summer could be a very interesting one for the Rockets in free agency, Fertitta makes it clear he looks at Jalen Green and Jabari Smith as foundational future stars.

“This is how you win championships, you have two stalwarts like them,” he says. “And I think some of these other guys that we picked up. Watching the development of Alperen (Sengun) and watching the development of (17th overall pick Tari) Eason, I think people are going to be shocked by these guys.”

The NBA is truly a family affair for the Fertitta — and Blake Fertitta is going to join his brother Patrick Fertitta, who is very involved with the day to the day operations of the franchise, in doing some work with the Rockets. (Blake Fertitta also will be involved with the Lakes Charles casino, the Fertitta restaurant empire and the family’s luxury car dealerships.)  Still, Blake Fertitta fondly remembers sitting courtside at Rockets game as a kid with his brothers Michael, Patrick and his sister Blayne, with the family often right next to former owner Leslie Alexander’s seats.

There’s something about the Rockets and Jalen Green and Jabari Smith that resonates differently with him too.

“These are kids and they have skills unlike anyone else in the world,” Blake Fertitta says of Green and Smith. “They can compete with anyone. And to be able to have them at the 21, 20, 22 age and help them develop, and to be able to see this happen and grow it from the bottom and find people that care.

“They know the respect that we have for them and they have the respect for us. . . Because it’s a new team. This isn’t the Rockets of three years ago. The journey is different. It’s a harder journey. But that’s what it’s about. And these kids are there to fight for it. They want it.

“They don’t care what the critics say. They don’t care what ESPN says. They want to get out there and they want to play basketball to the best of their abilities. And they can compete with anyone when they play to their passion.”

“As we go into the Big 12, we need to put everybody on notice. That we’re going to be here — and we’re gonna be tough.” — Tilman Fertitta on UH and this conference transition year.

Michael Fertitta, Tilman Fertitta, Blake Fertitta; Photo by Alexanders Fine Portrait Design
Michael Fertitta, Tilman Fertitta, Blake Fertitta at the Houston Police Department True Blue Gala held at the Fertitta Family Home in River Oaks (Photo by Alexander’s Fine Portrait Design)

Life has changed for the Fertittas. Blake Fertitta still hasn’t quite gotten completely used to people treating his dad like a celebrity spotting, something that happened more and more after his Billion Dollar Buyer TV show. And has only intensified since the Rockets purchase. But the love for UH and the Rockets hasn’t changed. Even if Tilman Fertitta taking the time to give a little speech may resonate a little differently these days.

“Those guys seeing Tilman Fertitta in person and what it’s like listening to him,” Houston defensive coordinator Doug Belk says. “They usually see him on TV. They see him on the sideline of the Rockets game.

“Those relationships can last a lifetime.”

For Fertitta, UH is a lifetime relationship. Still — and always.