Taking his game from hoops to houses
By Andy Serwer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – TO SAY THAT RONY SEIKALY IS LOOKING TO HIT THE BIG time may sound a little strange. After all, the 6-foot-11 former basketball big shot--who hails from Lebanon by way of Greece--starred at Syracuse University and then played for 12 years in the NBA, averaging nearly 15 points a game. But after hanging up his jersey five years ago, Seikaly traded in his raw talent and bank shot for raw land and a bank loan. Yes, today Seikaly, who just turned 40, is in the commercial real estate business, where he hopes to make his mark much as he did when he was a grind-'em-up center for the Miami Heat.

Through his Quadrant Investment Group, Seikaly has so far raised a modest $64 million, which he is looking to place in real estate deals across the country. I recently caught up with Seikaly about Quadrant and the property market (and, yes, the NBA playoffs). First of all, Rony acknowledges that real estate is positively bubblicious in certain regions. And second, he wants us to know that he is no Rony-come-lately. "I've always been interested in real estate and have invested in it for over a decade," he says. Since he retired from basketball, he's been buying and selling residential properties, hotels, condos, and retail centers. (Seikaly declines to discuss his returns; let's just say you'd really have to try to lose money selling property in Miami in recent years.)

Seikaly's fund is giving him the throw-weight to partner with Miami-based FORTUNE 500 homebuilder Lennar. "The Lennar deals require a lot more capital [than I could provide on my own]," he says. "You need anywhere from $10 million to $200 million in equity." So Seikaly tapped friends in business and other wealthy folks--Quadrant has a $1 million minimum--to come up with the moolah. (Rony, who majored in business at the 'Cuse, avoided asking former teammates for cash; he says he wanted only investors who understand real estate. He did, however, pony up more than $3 million of his own money.)

What Seikaly and Lennar have teamed up to do is known in the biz as "land banking." One of them finds a piece of land--and then Lennar and Quadrant both invest in it. When Lennar is ready to build, Quadrant prepares the land for home sites and then sells out to Lennar. The arrangement allows Lennar to defer costs on some of its land. In one deal in Las Vegas, for example, Quadrant bought 200 acres for $24 million; it'll then sell the property when Lennar is ready to begin construction on the 1,098 houses it's planning.

But Rony! Baby! You say yourself there's some bubble in real estate. Aren't you afraid of ending up with Bazooka all over your face? "Listen, I live in Miami, where the real estate market is crazy today," he says. "I absolutely would not touch sectors like condos right now. The condo guys are going to keep building until the correction. I don't know if that's this month or in five years. What we are doing is buying land, which isn't interest-rate-sensitive like condos or big homes. Worst case scenario: There is a correction in my market, and I'm still sitting on scarce, prime real estate that a major builder is going to want." Could be.

On a personal real estate note, Seikaly has built a couple of houses in Miami over the years and later sold them. One now belongs to the Miami Heat's current center, Shaquille O'Neal. Big Diesel reportedly offered $20 million for Rony's former manse on Star Island. Now Seikaly and his wife, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Elsa Benitez, are finishing what Rony calls his "dream house," which he insists he won't be selling anytime soon. So what does Seikaly see in real estate anyway? "I'd rather own something I can touch and feel rather than just a piece of paper. And historically real estate was the way great wealth in this country has been created. Plus, it's fun. You sometimes hit home runs in this business, but mostly you win with singles and doubles," he says. And you thought Rony only knew from slam dunks.