Larry Ellison — The oracle of Oracle

Mr. Ellison is an exotic character, to say the least. Myriad stories of his escapades confirm the largeness of his character. I’m going to attempt to add to the lore and legend of Larry Ellison.

Now, the story I’m about to tell is a first hand account that I was told from one of Oracle’s top leaders. I heard this story 15 years ago, but I still remember sitting there in wonder hearing this wild tale. Admittedly, I myself may be embellishing just a little, only for dramatic value, of course. But hey, what’s a little embellishment to a man like Larry Ellison?

I received my MBA from University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business. While there, I was naturally enamored with the tech industry. When I heard that Jay Nussbaum, a Terp alum, was coming to speak to students, I had to meet him. I was one of a small handful of students invited to have lunch with Jay. That lunch was a memorable experience. As we sat around eating our lunch, Jay told the following story.

Jay was in the “inner circle” of Larry’s leadership team, heading their federal division. Most people know that Larry leads an extravagant lifestyle. He is famous for his second baby — competitive sailing and the Americas Cup — and has probably spent well over a billion dollars on yachts over the years. One day, Jay received a call from Larry.

Larry: Jay, you and your wife need to come out with me on my yacht. When can you make that happen?
Jay: Larry, I promise I’ll work it in.
Larry: Jay, make it happen.

It never happened.

Larry chased Jay down again and again over the next couple of years. In the meantime, he upgraded to a brand new, state of the art yacht bigger than anything he’d ever had. Jay received another phone call from Larry.

Larry: Jay, you and your wife need to come out with me on my yacht. When can you make that happen?
Jay: Larry, I’ll work it in.
Larry: NO, Jay. You WILL come out on my yacht. We’re picking a weekend RIGHT NOW and you’re not going to miss it.
Jay: OK, Larry, I’ll clear my schedule.

Jay finally made it out to Larry’s impressive new investment. Now, Jay was an athlete at University of Maryland. He’s a pretty big guy and stays in great shape. Larry not only loves to play basketball and other sports, but he is ultra-competitive. As Jay and Larry cruised, Larry invited Jay to shoot some hoops. Where, you might ask? On the deck, of course, where Larry had a basketball court installed. As they were shooting, every once in a while one of the two would miss a shot. Jay would run over as fast as he could and grab the ball before it went over the rail and into the ocean. Larry would never move to retrieve a ball. Over and over, Jay would run to catch the ball before it went over. Each time, Larry would shoot him a puzzled look. Finally, Larry looked at Jay squarely.

Larry: Jay, what ARE you doing?
Jay: Well, Larry, I’m just trying to catch the ball so that it doesn’t go into the ocean.
Larry: Jay, give me the ball. GIVE ME the ball, Jay!

Jay tossed Larry the ball, who immediately launched it off his deck and into the ocean. Jay immediately thought, “OK, he’s a billionaire, he probably has loads of basketballs on the boat.” But, just as the thought crossed his mind, from below deck, Jay hears the “vrumm VRUUUMMM” of a Jet Ski. Moments later, with Jay standing there dumbfounded, a wet basketball comes flying back over the rail, landing on the deck.

Now that’s a story fit for Larry Ellison!

Larry Ellison didn’t always play by the rules. He also didn’t always walk the straight path. Doing things differently, trying options that others wouldn’t think of characterized his leadership and made Oracle great. This is well beyond the realm of “out of the box” thinking.

We have a lot to learn from a wet basketball.

PS: If you want to know more about Larry’s basketball retrievers, and you subscribe to the WSJ, you can read all about their incredible experiences.