On a muggy late-September morning in Atlanta, a scrum of local journalists gather at the Atlanta Hawks practice facility for Media Day. Over several long, exhausting hours, players pose for photos, field dozens of questions from reporters and shoot hoops with a few lucky young fans. In other words, it’s just another typical day in the NBA.
But then — making an anything but typical entrance — Jami Gertz strolls onto the court, all 5-foot-5 of her, wearing a skirt in fluorescent “volt green” (one of the team colors) and black stilettos, which click-clack on the polished gym floor as loudly as a drumroll. Yes, that Jami Gertz. The perky preppy from sitcoms like Square Pegs and The Facts of Life. The Shakira-esque bad girl from broody teen ’80s flicks like The Lost Boys and Less Than Zero.
Today, the 52-year-old actress is starring in a new role: She’s the public face of the Hawks, the team her 59-year-old billionaire husband, Tony Ressler, purchased in 2015 for $720 million. The notoriously press-shy financier is nowhere to be found at the moment — he made a brief appearance in the morning then slipped out before camera crews started arriving — but his wife, it turns out, is indisputably good at working a room, even one the size of a sports arena.
Within 15 minutes, Gertz has gabbed with power forward John Collins about his 21st birthday the night before (“You’re finally legal!”), caught up with shooting guard Kent Bazemore (“How’s my girl Sam?” she asks the former Golden State Warrior of his wife) and congratulated “Uncle Steve” Holman, the Hawks’ longtime radio announcer, on his upcoming 2,500th game. (“She always greets me by name,” Holman notes. “Our old owner, Ted Turner, would just call me ‘Mr. Radio.'”)
“I get it,” Gertz says during a break in schmoozing, acknowledging the weirdness of her journey from screen ingenue to billionaire’s wife and basketball team owner. “It’s not your everyday Hollywood actress tale.”
That tale begins in 1986, around the time Gertz, then 21, was acting with Kiefer Sutherland and Corey Haim in The Lost Boys, Joel Schumacher’s campy classic about a gang of rocker-cool vampires marauding the California coast. But it’s not the girl-meets-billionaire story most people assume. “Everyone thinks I married a rich guy,” she tells me the following day over lunch. “But I made more money — way more money — than Tony when I met him. I paid for our first house. I paid for our first vacation. I married him because I fell in love with him.”
It was Gertz’s publicist at the time, Susan Geller, who introduced her to Ressler, who was then working at Drexel Burnham Lambert, the banking firm that four years later would collapse over the illicit dealings of junk-bond king Michael Milken. After they met at a dinner party at Ressler’s L.A. apartment, Ressler asked Gertz to brunch, then followed up with a dozen roses, sent to the dressing room of the small theater on Santa Monica Boulevard where Gertz was performing opposite Jason Patric — another Lost Boys co-star — in a play “about two people committing suicide every night.”
“All I knew was that she was a working actress,” says Ressler of their early romance. “I didn’t know [her movie and TV credits].” Still, he liked what he saw. Gertz, who was raised in a Jewish working-class family in Glenview, Illinois (her dad sold siding), was similarly taken with the 27-year-old Ressler, a tall, handsome Jewish boy from Long Island who wouldn’t shut up about the L.A. Lakers. “He was a nice guy with a job,” says Gertz. “Which is what any Jewish girl from Glenview would want. It would have been nice if it was a doctor or a lawyer, but a banker was OK, too.”
They were married two years later. Despite the lure of Wall Street, Ressler decided after Drexel’s collapse to make things work in Los Angeles, for Gertz’s career, which at that time was humming with gigs on movies like Renegades and a role on the ABC family drama Sibs. It wasn’t long, however, before Ressler was earning enough to start paying for the vacations. In 1990, he co-founded private-equity firm Apollo Global, then, seven years later, launched his hugely successful Ares Management. “We’re a $125-ish billion asset manager,” he says when asked to clarify what Ares does. “I guess the right quote would be, ‘We’re the most amazing investment firm in the history of the universe.'”
At least part of what Ressler does is snatch up struggling companies like Serta Simmons and Neiman Marcus at bargain prices and turn their fortunes around, along with his own. Forbes estimates his net worth to be $2.1 billion, rich even by the standards of the gated community in Beverly Hills where he and Gertz have lived in a seven-bedroom estate since the 1990s, raising their three sons, Oliver, 26, Nick, 23, and Theo, 19. One of their neighbors is Prince Nayef bin Ahmed Al-Saud of the Saudi royal family. Mark Wahlberg lives there, too.
In 2010, as roles grew scarcer, Gertz created her own production company, Lime Orchard Productions, and started getting involved behind the camera. “You reach an age, and you slow down, and the jobs are a little hard to come by,” she says. “So I decided to put money into a project of my own.” The company had one success — Chris Weitz’s A Better Life, a 2011 film about an L.A. gardener that earned an Oscar nomination for star Demian Bichir. But the rest of Lime Orchard’s slate never came to fruition. “I tried for five years and was not very successful,” she concedes. She estimates she put millions of dollars of her own into the venture — and lost it all.
So, instead of becoming a producer, Gertz threw herself into entertaining the couple’s circle of powerful friends. She held lavish dinner parties around the Jewish holidays, attended by the likes of Disney chairman Bob Iger and wife Willow Bay. Even those who have grown up rich and famous in L.A. tend to be startled by the level of wealth on display at the Resslers’ parties. “I was doing an episode of Ally McBeal with Marlo Thomas,” Gertz recalls, “and I wanted to get home because I was having 70 people over for Passover.” Gertz invited Thomas to the Seder only to see her jaw drop when Thomas arrived at something closer to a state dinner. “She was just so stunned to come into this home,” says Gertz. “She knew me as this actress playing her daughter. She had no idea I had this whole other side to my life.”
Meanwhile, as her husband grew more and more successful, he began, as billionaires sometimes do, to fantasize about owning his own basketball team. Hoops already was a big part of family life for the Resslers. “When Mom married my dad, she realized how much he loved the sport and slowly started to gain an appreciation for the game,” explains middle son Nick (who recently relocated from New York City to Atlanta to work as the Hawks’ coordinator of basketball services). Before long, the idea of owning a team became a frequent topic for dinner-table conversation. ” ‘Wouldn’t it be cool? Wouldn’t that be fun?'” Gertz recalls family members contemplating. “At some point, it became a reality.”
Their first shot at ownership came out of a scandal, after TMZ released a conversation between L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his mistress, V. Stiviano, in which Sterling complained about her “associating with black people.” The ensuing firestorm led to the forced sale of the Clippers, and Ressler joined forces with basketball legend Grant Hill to buy the team. They lost the bid to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who paid a staggering $2 billion for it in June 2014. A few months later, they got a second chance when yet another NBA owner was revealed to be spouting racist sentiments. This time it was Hawks owner Bruce Levenson, who in a 2012 email had complained to NBA officials that “the black crowd scared away the whites.” Levenson issued an apology and announced his intention to sell his controlling share of the team. Hill called Ressler, and the two committed to bidding on the Hawks.
Despite living in a 13,000-square-foot mansion at the time, Ressler did his best negotiating from inside a closet. “He has a little tiny desk in there, and he was taking calls in the closet,” Gertz recalls of Hawks auction night in June 2015. “I was walking in and out of the closet. And he looked at me, and I looked at him, and he’s like, ‘Jami, are we going to do this?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. I’m so scared.’ And he’s like, ‘It would be so much fun!’ And then we were jumping and screaming, ‘Oh my God — we just bought a basketball team!'”
In the three years since that night, Ressler and Gertz have built their new team a 90,000-square-foot training complex and sports medicine center on the Emory University campus. They’ve also overseen the $192 million makeover of the former Philips Arena, newly rechristened the State Farm Arena, in downtown Atlanta — $142.5 million of the renovation was covered by public funds, the remaining $50 million was paid for by the Resslers and other team investors, like Sara Blakely, the billionaire founder of Spanx — outfitting what was once the Hawks’ dumpy nest with blond wood paneling, copper accents and plantation shutters. Think Staples Center meets Soho House. Right now, an army of 800 construction workers is toiling in 10-hour shifts to finish the refurbishment in time for the Hawks’ Oct. 24 home opener against the Dallas Mavericks.
Says Ressler, “Many of the things we’ve done we thought were luxuries but we realized early on were requirements: having a top-tier practice facility and a really world-class arena. Trying to redevelop downtown so that people are excited to come downtown. Engaging with the community.”
That last part — the engaging — Ressler leaves mostly to his wife. This division of duties is by design: Gertz is all smiles out front, while Ressler furiously works behind the scenes to lift the Hawks out of the cellar. “I think it’s fair to say that she makes a better impression on our fan base than any of us in the organization,” Ressler says. “I’m very active on the business and player personnel decision-making. But Jami steps in when it comes to so many parts of the business that I did not appreciate or have any experience in.”
He describes, for instance, a rousing pep talk Gertz recently gave to 1,500 new employees hired to work at the soon-to-reopen arena. “She explained to them the importance of the fan experience,” Ressler adds. “She made that point beautifully to 1,500 people. She’s great at that. And I am not.” It was Ressler who in May insisted that Gertz represent the team at the nationally televised NBA Draft Lottery, in what essentially was her coming-out party as the face of the Hawks, a move that caught many fans off guard. “Needle off the record — Jami Gertz owns the Hawks???,” tweeted one viewer. The notion of Gertz being the team’s ambassador was not popular with NBA officials, who typically want the role to be filled by a team legend like Dominique Wilkins. “But I said fuck it,” Ressler says. “I’d rather go with Jami.”
Running a basketball team has turned out to be something of a full-time job, but Gertz and Ressler have thrown themselves into it. After their youngest son went off to Georgetown last year, the couple relocated to Atlanta, where they’re building a house, in order to fully focus on the Hawks. So far, they say they have been warmly received by the locals, so long as they keep their Left Coast politics to themselves. “We’re not registered Republicans or Democrats,” Ressler says. “We are supportive of candidates but keep it private.” As for their friends back in L.A., not all are thrilled with the move. “We’d prefer Jami and her husband Tony to spend all of their time in L.A.,” says Iger, adding, “but we are excited about their stewardship of the Hawks.”
Of course, the move to Atlanta has made it hard for Gertz to stay on top of Hollywood opportunities. And though she continues to dabble in acting — she appeared last year in an episode of Hulu’s since-canceled Difficult People — she’s less focused on that part of her life. “It just seemed like a natural moment for me to take a break from acting,” she says, pushing away her lunch plate. “It’s hard to even say it out loud because I love what I do. It’s given me so many beautiful things in my life, taught me so many things about myself and the world around me.”
And on that note, she excuses herself from the table and hustles to her next appointment. There’s a State Farm Arena staff uniform fashion show that evening, and she’s both the organizer and emcee.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.