A 33-year-old basketball exec rises in Phoenix

Inside Phoenix Suns’ new CEO Josh Bartelstein’s vision for the franchise

Josh Bartelstein

Phoenix Suns

Josh Bartelstein

When Josh Bartelstein took over as CEO of the Phoenix Suns organization in April, it looked like he was joining a franchise at the top of its game. A blockbuster midseason four-way trade had recently landed the Suns superstar Kevin Durant — fueling hopes that the team might actually win its first championship title in 55 seasons — while its WNBA counterpart, the Phoenix Mercury, was celebrating the long-awaited return of star player Brittney Griner — after nearly 10 months of detainment and imprisonment in Russia over drug charges.

Internally, however, the franchise was a mess.

In November 2021, an exposé by ESPN, detailing instances of alleged racist and misogynistic behavior by franchise majority owner Robert Sarver throughout his nearly two decades with the Suns, led the NBA to conduct a 10-month-long investigation into the tycoon. The inquiry concluded on Sept. 13, 2022, hitting Sarver with a one-year league suspension and $10 million.

Days later, amid public outcry, Sarver announced he would be selling his share of the organization, which would eventually go to businessman Mat Ishbia — and brother Justin Ishbia as an alternate governor — in December for $4 billion. The NBA approved the purchase on Feb. 6 — just three days before the Suns signed Durant.

Phoenix Suns owner, Mat Ishbia looks on during the first half of the NBA game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Footprint Center on March 08, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.

But Sarver was apparently not alone in creating a toxic work environment. Suns personnel told investigators, and later ESPN, that Sarver’s misconduct had led to mistreatment by other top executives, including CEO Jason Rowley, of lower-level staff that included instances of verbal abuse, retaliation and intimidation. Rowley eventually stepped down the same day the NBA approved Ishbia’s purchase.

Bartelstein, who most recently served as assistant general manager of the Detroit Pistons, inherited all of the unrest when he took over from Rowley, and has spent his first few weeks trying to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor.

“The focus initially has been on the people here and making it an amazing place to work,” Bartelstein told Jewish Insider a month into his new role. “Literally I’ve met with every single person in the organization to hear about who they are, what they’ve done here and where they want to go, because it helps me shift and frame what this organization is going to stand for.”

At 33, Bartelstein is one of the youngest CEOs in the league, but he is bringing a lifetime of basketball know-how and experience to the position. 

Growing up in the upscale Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill., Bartelstein watched his father, sports agent Mark Bartelstein, work with dozens of professional athletes, dreaming of reaching the NBA like the clients he served.

“Watching how hard these guys worked every single day, I think my work ethic comes from my dad and [them],” Bartelstein told JI. “I knew I wanted to work in the sports space, and I knew if I did, the best way to get where I wanted to go was to be a really good person and work incredibly hard at it.”

That drive led Bartelstein to the University of Michigan, where he played four years of college basketball, earning the position of team captain his senior year and helping the Wolverines reach the Final Four of the 2013 NCAA March Madness tournament, a feat they hadn’t achieved in 20 years.

Though his playing time at Michigan was limited, Bartelstein’s leadership and commitment to success were essential to the team, qualities that made him attractive to the Pistons. So despite not making it into the league as a player, Bartelstein found his way into the NBA as the special assistant to the Pistons vice chairman, Arn Tellem. 

“My first job there was getting his coffee, emails, all the monotonous stuff. But my view was like, ‘I’m going to do a great job of that and earn his trust.’ If you earn someone’s trust, they’ll give you more and more responsibility,” Bartelstein recalled. “My big break there came when we moved the Pistons from Auburn Hills to Detroit, in being part of that field team that really moved the team downtown and having a large role.”

It was the start of Bartelstein’s own Cinderella story. For eight years, he worked his way up in the organization, going from Tellem’s assistant to chief of staff, and then executive vice president of business and basketball operations before finally landing as the team’s assistant general manager. Ishbia then sought him out to replace Rowley.

“When [Ishbia] bought the Suns, he was looking for someone to kind of run the operation, had both knowledge of business and basketball, and he requested to interview me from the Pistons,” Bartelstein said. “We talked about our vision and where we think opportunity was and how we would build it, and what I stood for, and one thing led to another, and next thing you know, he offers me the job and I move [to Phoenix] with my wife and our 2-year-old dog.”

Bartelstein knew vaguely of the new owner from his time in Michigan — Ishbia had a similar collegiate career on Michigan State’s basketball team — but had never interacted with him directly. After meeting, the two ended up sharing similar goals for the organization.

Kevin Durant #35 of the Phoenix Suns leaves the court after being defeated by the Denver Nuggets 125-100 in game six of the Western Conference Semifinal Playoffs at Footprint Center on May 11, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona.

“[Ishbia] has four main priorities: making this a great place to work for our employees, [creating] an amazing fan experience, impacting the community and winning,” Bartelstein said of the four pillars Ishbia outlined for the franchise in his first press conference as owner. “So as he shapes that, my job is to kind of figure out within those four pillars, what is the process and systems behind it to bring those to life.”

Heading into his third month on the job, Bartelstein has one main objective — to turn the organization into a family, a feeling that he first cultivated with the Pistons, and one that had been lacking under Sarver and Rowley. 

“To me the biggest thing is how important relationships are. I told everyone my first day here, I don’t like the term ‘employee,’ I think it’s stale and cold. I want to know who the people are.” Bartelstein said. “I don’t take myself too seriously, I don’t have all the answers. I’m a big believer in the kind of humility and self-deprecation that all helps, in the end, build these true authentic relationships.”

Even with Ishbia and Bartelstein’s positive new direction for the organization, growing pains seemed inevitable. Bartelstein spoke to JI ahead of Game 6 of the Suns’ Western Conference semifinals series against the Denver Nuggets, which they would end up losing. Two days later, the Suns fired head coach Monty Williams, who had been with the team since 2019 and just last season won the league’s Coach of the Year Award. On June 6, the Suns named Frank Vogel, who coached the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship in the Bubble in 2020, to replace Williams. Before the announcement, no reasons were given for Williams’ ouster.

The Suns are rumored to be making a number of shakeups to their roster next season, including waiving all-star point guard Chris Paul, though Vogel recently told Sports Illustrated that no such plans for Paul are in place.

The Phoenix Suns are going through an identity crisis, but Bartelstein is working to fix it.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.