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Joe Lacob and Nicole Curran on Championships, Charity, and Childhood Dreams Come True

Catherine Bigelow | January 4, 2018 | Story News and Features

During last year’s World Series, Joe Lacob, the Golden State Warriors majority owner, sat in Dodger Stadium for Game 1 between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Houston Astros. Yet his eye wasn’t trained on the field. “There were 60,000 people watching the game, but I was actually watching the peanut vendors,” Lacob recently recalls with a laugh. “I was imagining myself, 45 years ago, selling peanuts to baseball fans.” His first job in sports was at Anaheim Stadium, home of the Angels. Seated beside him, his fiancee, Nicole Curran, chimes in, “Didn’t you sell soft drinks too?” Lacob confirms her recollection: “You don’t start out selling peanuts. First you get the sticky stuff—Cokes and ice cream. You work up to the peanuts. For seven years, starting at 14, I hawked food in the stands and was able to pay my way through college at UC Irvine.”

In the decades since, Lacob, 62, has gone from bleacher-seat vendor to courtside seats on the floor of Oakland’s Oracle Arena—with Silicon Valley success as a former venture capital managing partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in between. It’s late October, a few hours before a Warriors home game, and, as usual, he and Curran, 49, arrived early to entertain friends and VIPs in the Bridge Club, a swanky near-the-locker-room hideout with gourmet food and wine, where, from behind a mirrored wall, guests thrill to the sight of players storming into the arena. She is decked head-to-toe in a glamorous pink ensemble to honor the month of Breast Cancer Awareness, a disease that she survived. Although Curran’s pro-sports fandom was initially fired up by football, the 5-foot-9 brunette—even taller in her signature sky-high heels—has become a fixture at “Roaracle,” wildly cheering on the Warriors or vociferously chewing out refs, who, in her view, made a bad call.

According to Forbes, Lacob is an owner of the third-most valuable NBA franchise; the Warriors are worth $2.6 billion, trailing only the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. In 2010, Lacob and entertainment mogul Peter Guber led an ownership group to purchase the Warriors—then the worst team in the league—from Chris Cohan for a record $450 million. (They beat out Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who was considered a favorite to buy the team.) The new owners also inherited its philanthropic arm, which, at the time, was in complete disarray. “Basically, we had to shut it down so we could legally rebuild the foundation,” says Curran. “The Warriors Community Foundation relaunched in 2012 as a new 501(c)(3). And much to my surprise, Joe named me foundation president.” With Lacob and Curran at the helm, a new era was underway for the franchise, as well as the foundation.

Lacob and Curran, who reside in Atherton, share an easy banter as they reminisce about their basketball journey—one that began a few years into their dating life, which was sparked in 2006 when they met at a golf tournament in Pebble Beach. They became engaged in 2009 and plan to wed this summer. “I don’t think a professional basketball team was in Nicole’s life plan. But I told her, ‘I promise, you’ll thank me later for this. It’s going to be great.’ Besides, I needed someone to run the foundation,” says Lacob, chuckling over Curran’s initial surprise at her appointment. “Nicole was a teacher and is so committed to education. I knew she’d be a perfect fit.”

Since its 2012 inception, the Warriors Community Foundation, one of the NBA’s most successful, has distributed $8.9 million in grants to 49 local organizations, including Aim High, College Track, BUILD, Girls Inc. of Alameda County, Envision Education and Reading Partners. Lacob takes pride that their foundation is not an endowment—sitting on a big pile of cash that’s annually doled out in 4 percent increments from its funds. “Through the dais of having this team, and the fact that we’ve become bigger and more influential in the community, it gives us the ability to raise more capital,” he explains. “We’re only on this earth for a short time, and we want to see results now. Everything we raise in a year, is given out that same year.”

Their grantees are dedicated to such fields as youth development, STEM studies, literacy, college access and educational equity for children and young adults in Alameda and San Francisco counties. The foundation also earmarks $50,000 flagship grants for the Unified School Districts of Oakland and San Francisco. “My focus now is persistence programs, primarily working with kids who are the first in their family to graduate,” says Curran. “There’s intense support for high school students. But when they get to college, they founder.” Hence, the foundation’s involvement with the East Bay College Fund, which provides low-income public high school students with college access programs, scholarships and continued at-college support. The foundation also hosts annual fundraising events, including the star-studded Charity Poker Tournament scheduled for Jan. 26 at The St. Regis San Francisco. Last fall, the foundation distributed 3,500 backpacks and school supplies to students-in-need during its Back to School in the Bay campaign. Its Makin’ Hoops program, in partnership with the Good Tidings Foundation, has refurbished 70 Bay Area basketball courts—creating safe, clean recreation spaces for low-income communities.

The day to day of the Warriors Community Foundation is run by Executive Director Joanne Pasternack. But Curran and Lacob, who is also a trustee, are hands-on with its mission: enriching the educational lives of underserved, inner-city youth. “We carefully researched who the foundation should support,” says Curran. “For example, we live in Atherton, where 100 percent of kids graduate college. But in Oakland, only 1 out of 10 kids graduate college. Another new focus is San Francisco’s Bayview district, where just 23 percent of people have high school diplomas.”

Team members are equally inspired to participate in philanthropic efforts: Warriors three-point kings Stephen Curry, a two-time NBA MVP; and three-time NBA All-Star Klay Thompson lead an occasional Splash Brothers charitable fantasy basketball clinic for families. And since last season, head coach Steve Kerr donates proceeds from all of his speaking engagements to the East Bay College Fund via a scholarship named in honor of his late father, Dr. Malcolm Kerr. To date, that’s raised more than $600,000 and funds the college dreams of 20 local students. “There’s great passion for the foundation’s work among the team,” notes Lacob. “A lot of our players come from backgrounds that, if they didn’t have basketball, they might not have attended college or achieved success as professional athletes.”

Tough facts-of-life are inherently familiar to Lacob and Curran, each of whom grew up in less-than-stellar circumstances. Lacob was born in New Bedford, Mass. His father worked for a paper products company and his mother worked the night shift at a supermarket. He was a typical kid, mad for baseball and basketball, especially his beloved Boston Celtics. “I grew up very poor. I still remember, when I was 9 years old, we played basketball at a boys’ club, and I saw an indoor court for the first time,” he says of that resolute emotional charge. “I was so excited about that hardwood floor; I never forgot it. That’s when I knew, someday, I wanted to own a basketball team.” (Apparently, the sports bug runs in the family: Lacob has four children from his first marriage, and sons Kirk and Kent are also part of the Warriors organization. Daughter Kelly works at Medtronic, while her sister, Kayci, recently graduated from Stanford.)

When Curran was 4, her parents divorced. Neither parent could afford proper care for their daughter, so 13-year-old Curran was enrolled at Milton Hershey School, a Pennsylvania boarding school for children from lower-income families. At 15, she moved to Washington, D.C., where her still-single mother had found work. To assist in her support, Curran worked part time as a model and pulled shifts at an ice-cream parlor. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, Curran was able to earn her degree from George Washington University.

“Education is the key to everything,” says Lacob. “As the first person in my family to attend college, education has always been a focus in my personal philanthropy. Now, investing in kids who may not realize they can attain the goal of attending college is a vision Nicole and I share.” For seven years, Curran taught high school history and government in public and private schools in Washington, D.C., and Arizona. “I joke that the kids drove me to drink, and that’s how I ended up in the Napa Valley running La Jota Vineyard near Angwin,” she teases. “But wine was a secondary passion of mine. And to supplement my $23,500 teaching salary, I taught wine courses and consulted with restaurants on their wine lists.” Curran later worked for LVMH, repping high-end labels such as Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot to deep-pocketed Bay Area accounts. That’s how she met Lacob—as they flirtatiously parried at Pebble Beach over which French grapes were more fancy.

“Nicole is very glamorous yet grounded, as is Joe,” says Shannon Getty, a decades-long friend of Curran’s since they met as single-gal neighbors while living atop Russian Hill in San Francisco. “They’re visible because of the team. But in their private life, attending a society gala is not their thing.” Prior to her marriage in December 2016 to philanthropist Peter Getty, Shannon was a Silicon Valley tech recruiter. Over the years, she has spent time with Lacob and Curran at their Atherton home. She remains impressed that Curran still does the couple’s laundry while Lacob dutifully takes the garbage to the curb. “You’d always hear buzz about the hottest VCs, but Joe was never a TechCrunch sound bite,” Shannon continues. “He was doing his big deals behind-the-scenes. Joe is the guy who took his kids to Dunkin’ Donuts after a pick-up ball game or writes a big check anonymously. Until he bought the Warriors, Joe was a Silicon Valley secret.”

Although Golden State is not the only NBA team whose owners have ties to the VC world—there’s the Celtics, Sacramento Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers, to name a few—much has been made about how the reigning champs operate like a Silicon Valley startup, an unconventional approach in professional sports. Last March, Lacob and the Warriors were feted in San Francisco at the annual gala for BUILD. Typically, the youth empowerment nonprofit, which provides entrepreneurial skills to propel high school students to college, honors a tech titan. But the NBA organization was singled out for the innovative spirit and leadership that Lacob has infused in the management of the team. This honor was even sweeter as Lacob’s efforts garnered him BUILD’s Pitch Prize, named for Silicon Valley venture capital pioneer Franklin “Pitch” Johnson, co-founder of the seminal Draper & Johnson Investment Company and a former Stanford Graduate School of Business professor.

Johnson clearly recalls his former student’s drive, active participation and intelligence, qualities that served Lacob well as a venture capitalist. Later, they’d run into each other at Stanford men’s basketball games—where Lacob would be seated on the floor to the side of the court, intently observing the battle. When Johnson heard Lacob bought the Warriors, he sent a note of congratulations. Two years later, Johnson watched on television as Lacob was booed by everyone in Oracle Arena for trading away fan-favorite Monta Ellis. “I wrote Joe again, saying not to worry. I knew him well enough to be certain Joe believed in his decision and had a smart plan for the team,” says Johnson. “And Joe wrote back, ‘Well, yes. But your class never taught me what to do about being booed by 19,596 people.’”

Those boos were quickly erased by cheers. Lacob and his sharp management team, including General Manager Bob Myers and President Rick Welts, have, in their short tenure, guided the Warriors—twice—to championship glory. “When Peter and I won the auction, the Warriors had only made the playoffs once in 17 years,” says Lacob. “The team had a bad reputation among players. And worse, as a business decision, we lost $25 million in our first year of operations. But this was now my hometown team. I’d been in venture capital for 25 years and was ready to take on the Warriors full time for the second act of my life.”

Lacob had learned the NBA ropes back in 2004 as a limited partner with his boyhood team, the Celtics. He was recruited into that ownership group by another Massachusetts-bred VC, Celtics co-owner Wycliffe Grousbeck, also a Stanford GSB alum. Assuming the mantle of Warriors CEO-owner, however, has proved a much deeper commitment. There’s the business side, the entertainment aspect and the complex real estate deal: In 2019, the Warriors’ new $1 billion, state-of-the-art Chase Center arena opens at Mission Bay in San Francisco. “Rule 1 of being an owner of a sports team is being involved in your community and having a positive impact,” emphasizes Lacob. “And the fourth leg of this ownership stool, which is very important to us, is our foundation.”

That commitment was evident last fall when the Warriors, and other local sport franchises, donated $450,000 to victims of the devastating North Bay wildfires. The tragedy also became a personal mission for Curran, who cried for days thinking about the people who lost their homes and possessions. Jumping into action, she met Shannon at Target, where the friends loaded up on basic items—like underwear, bras, batteries and toiletries—to deliver to shelters, in suitcases Curran liberated from Lacob’s closet. “That’s a bit of a sore subject for Joe,” says Curran. “Every year the NBA receives suitcases from its partnership with TUMI. Apparently Joe really liked some of the cases I took because he wrote me a terse note.” Shannon later laughs at this story: “Joe was complaining Nicole gave away his favorite suitcases. But she gave it right back to Joe, shaming him as only a woman with Italian heritage can: ‘Did you just lose everything in a fire? Did you?’”

As Curran recounts the suitcase tale, Lacob blushes slightly, then prods Nicole, “Tell her what you did for the dogs.” Curran is mad for animals. And when Hurricane Irma slammed into Florida, she was distraught over abandoned animals and damaged shelters. Coordinating through the foundation with FedEx and a Miami Heat basketball friend, Curran organized an airlift for 163 cats and dogs. Once the precious cargo landed at Oakland International Airport, team players helped carry the animals off the plane. Ken White of Peninsula Humane Society supplied medical treatments, then organized the animals for adoption. That’s how the couple’s brood of three dogs grew to four, with a miniature pinscher that Lacob named after the NBA Championship Trophy: Larry O’Brien Lacob. (Curran and Lacob famously slept with the 2-foot-tall trophy the night the Warriors won the 2015 finals.)

“What’s so cool to me is, if we weren’t the Warriors, that animal rescue wouldn’t happen, and those animals would’ve been put to sleep,” observes Lacob. “With the notoriety we’ve achieved as a team, Nicole and the foundation can make something like that, and our education efforts, happen very quickly.” Beaming, Curran announces that she’s got the headline for this story: “Boy of 9 dreams of owning basketball team, succeeds. Now dreams of making other kids dreams come true.” Indeed, there’s more that both Curran and Lacob desire to achieve—with the foundation, with the team. Standing in the kitchen at the end of our photo shoot, Lacob scrolls through images of the Chase Center construction site. His next task: chief food-taster for the project, a role he relishes. Oakland’s Bakesale Betty and a reprise of Big Nate’s BBQ, an homage to late Warriors Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, will be among the restaurant concessions inside the arena; the purveyors on the plazas outside are still under consideration. “The hard part is over,” Lacob enthuses. “Now it’s all about the food.” And peanuts will, of course, be on the menu.

Originally published in the January/February issue of Silicon Valley

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