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Heisley had appetite for St. Charles

Published: Monday, April 28, 2014 10:23 p.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, April 28, 2014 11:05 p.m. CDT

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Dollar burgers and NBA basketball at Rookie’s Pub spelled bliss for late St. Charles billionaire Michael Heisley.

The former Memphis Grizzlies owner, who died Saturday at 77, frequented the Main Street restaurant without attracting attention to himself or his prestigious past.

“You would never know he was a billionaire or whatever he is on the Forbes list from walking into Rookies,” owner Bob Karas said. “He was very nice, very humble. He wasn’t flashy. He was just the nicest man.”

The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported Heisley died in Illinois from complications of a stroke he suffered in early 2013.

He is survived by his wife, Agnes, and five children. One daughter, Emily Heisley Stoeckel, was listed as chairman of Chicago-based The Heico Companies, LLC, a holding company which Heisley founded. Heisley served as chairman emeritus until his death.

Even as he traveled extensively throughout his business career, Heisley maintained a passion for St. Charles, still keeping his base there when he owned the Grizzlies from April 2000 to October 2012.

Heisley served on the District 303 school board in the mid-1980s, when current St. Charles Mayor Ray Rogina headed the teacher’s union.

“We retained a friendship thereafter and I can’t say enough about him,” Rogina said. “Here’s a guy that he’s a powerful business entrepreneur with Heico, his corporation, he’s an owner in the NBA with the Grizzles. … Having said all of that and with all the companies he was involved in, at the end of the day he was all about community. He was all about the community of St. Charles.”

An active parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Heisley was often a recent inclusion in the “pray for the sick” listings in the parish bulletin, Rogina said.

“He’s a giant in this community as far as I was concerned, but at the same time low-key,” Rogina said. “A big loss for our community. He’s a great man. I’m sad today.”

Heisley bought the Grizzlies when the expansion franchise still was located in its original Vancouver, British Columbia.

With the operation scuffling and more losses expected, he moved the Grizzlies to Memphis, Tenn., before the 2001-02 season.

At that point, Karas had owned Rookie’s for a few years and was in the early phases of taking stock of his high-profile customer. Management kept a respectful distance when Heisley visited. It wasn’t until Rookie’s manager Nori Jasarovski assisted Heisley with some iPhone troubleshooting several years ago that a more special relationship formed.

As the Grizzlies developed into a Western Conference contender, Jasarovski often flew to playoff games in Heisley’s private jet. Rookie’s soon became a de facto Grizzlies’ hangout.

Among the most prominent pieces of donated Memphis memorabilia is a jersey near the front entrance signed by star center Zach Randolph. Karas sometimes lobbied Jasarovski to help coax Randolph into joining the Bulls.

Heisley occasionally dined and watched sports privately with Karas, partner Mike Maridis and Jasarovski on holidays when Rookie’s was closed.

Between the time he sold the Grizzlies for a reported $377 million and the time he became ill, Karas said Heisley pondered purchasing the recently sold Milwaukee Bucks in a bid to run an NBA operation closer to home.

“A very nice man, very nice. Very interesting,” Karas said. “He’d tell stories about how he started out in business and his philosophies on business. Obviously, he commanded a presence when you sat with him, and you really just listened.”

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