PHILADELPHIA — Josh Harris’s trip to the big game began long before the black Escalade picked up his family that afternoon from their home in New York. It began before he purchased the Philadelphia 76ers last fall. Before the first billion and before the first million, too.
Harris stood deep in the bowels of the arena before his Sixers took on the Chicago Bulls in their first-round playoff game. Cheerleaders were warming up just a couple of feet away, as Harris was getting debriefed on the night’s elaborate pregame player introductions — video projected onto giant white sheets, lasers, pyrotechnics.
It sounded nothing like the Washington Bullets games Harris grew up attending at the Capital Centre. Those were more thrills, fewer frills. “Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier — they were something,” Harris said.
Harris is a Chevy Chase native who joined the NBA’s small fraternity of owners last October, heading a group that purchased the 76ers for $280 million. After graduating from the Field School in Northwest Washington, he attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s returned to Philadelphia three decades later, hoping to resuscitate pro basketball in a rabid sports town — no easy task.
The day after he was announced as owner last October, the Philadelphia Daily News published an all-caps, bold headline on its front page: “Rich Penn guys hope to turn Sixers around . . . Good luck with that.”
The team immediately slashed ticket prices, and less than seven months later, attendance jumped by more than 15 percent, the largest increase in the NBA. The 76ers have also sold more new season tickets for next season than any team. Harris says the franchise will come close to breaking even in Year One.
“Basketball has become very elitist. More people have to stay at home and watch,” said Julius Erving, the 76ers’ legend. “I think by dropping the ticket price in his first year, that was a huge step in trying to open a door that was closing very quickly. . . . It’s obvious that he’s concerned about the connection between the team and the city.”
Harris walked among the fans last Friday night, stepping onto the court to watch his players warm up for a pivotal playoff game against the top-seeded Bulls.
“I used to get a lot more nervous, but I learned to accept that I have no control over this part,” he said, as his players fired jump shots. “It’s like getting in an airplane and waiting for takeoff.”
Despite amassing a fortune Forbes tabs at $1.6 billion, Harris might be the most anonymous of NBA owners. In fact, he’s the only one without a Wikipedia entry. You have to dig around for the vitals: 47 years old, wife, five children. Born to an orthodontist, grew up cheering for Washington sports teams, hit Wall Street and co-founded the private equity investment titan Apollo Global Management.
When Apollo went public last March, Harris’s net worth skyrocketed and he began serious discussions to buy a sports team. A little over a year later, he was seated courtside for the 76ers’ first home playoff game, just a couple of seats removed from the team bench.
Harris, wearing a blue blazer and tan slacks, sat with his younger brother, Gabe, as the two teams grinded, exchanging blows and missing shots. It was a back-and-forth with which both brothers were familiar.
“We had a hoop in our front yard and there were some epic one-on-one battles,” Gabe said.
It was a middle-class upbringing, and Harris graduated from the eight-foot hoops at Woodlin Elementary to the more physical games at North Chevy Chase Park. Their father, Jacob, had Bullets season tickets and would regularly make the long trek to Landover with his sons. For Harris, any dreams of playing in the NBA ended around high school, when his height peaked at around 5 feet 8. He played soccer, though, and wrestled, as his entrepreneurial spirit blossomed.
When friends would throw away comic books, Harris would sell his to collectors. During one summer in college, he returned to Washington and managed a lemonade cart near the Farragut North Metro stop. And as a young hotshot on Wall Street, work and leisure were intertwined.
“We did these annual ski trips with seven or eight guys,” said John B. Williams, a friend since high school. “We’d ski all day, tear it up at night and still Josh was up at 5 or 5:30 the next morning working.”
Harris’s competitive streak carried over from youth sports. He ran the New York Marathon and is currently training for a triathlon. A good friend had five children and when Harris and his wife were pregnant with their fifth, Harris called: “I couldn’t let you win.”
As he sat at courtside watching the Bulls and Sixers, Harris’s eyes never strayed from the action. Philadelphia Coach Doug Collins took long, brisk steps in front of the owner, screaming to the court. Harris’s pleas don’t carry the same volume. Midway through the second, Philadelphia couldn’t hit a shot. “Come on, guys. Don’t go cold on me,” Harris said.
The owner prefers to remain seated and sips bottled water. He offers polite applause but never screams or removes his blazer. With less than two minutes remaining in the half, guard Louis Williams gave the 76ers a one-point lead with a pull-up jumper.
“Nice!” Harris said. “He’s so good at that.”
Harris knows the sport and knows the players, but he has no designs on making basketball decisions. He says he won’t flip the 76ers for a quick profit but is still running the team largely according to the Apollo blueprint: Hire smart managers, articulate a vision, hold people accountable.
Collins says because Harris is familiar with the Wall Street roller coaster, his patience has translated well to this other sport. “You don’t stage a parade for a five-game winning streak and you don’t blow things up with a five-game losing streak,” Collins said.
Harris’s boldest move was going outside the sports world to hire his top deputy. Adam Aron was a longtime Apollo associate who had experience running cruise lines and ski resorts, among other ventures. His marketing background and Philadelphia roots, Harris figured, were what the 76ers needed.
Aron immediately launched a Web site called NewSixersOwner.com and invited fans to submit suggestions. “They just poured in,“ said Aron, who is a minority member of the team’s ownership group, which also includes actor Will Smith. “We got 6,500 ideas. It was like hiring 6,500 free management consultants.”
Harris had no intention of leaving New York or his job with Apollo. So he wears two hats and regularly puts in 18-hour days.
“I say I have a day job and a night job,” he said.
If there’s been a drawback, it’s been the time commitment, Harris said. He’s attended most 76ers’ games, even traveling on the road for some.
“How does he do it all? Well, he doesn’t sleep a lot,” said his wife, Marjorie.
Those who know Harris say he can’t help but expend the same energy and fervor on the 76ers that he has every other life project, from his time on Wall Street to his days wrestling in dimly lit gyms around Washington.
“In contrast to a lot of people I see who change when they find success, Josh has been able to remain the exact same guy,“ said Mark Ein, a childhood friend who’s the chief executive of Venturehouse Group and owner of the Washington Kastles.
Marjorie took the seat next to Harris for the second half of last Friday’s game, and the Bulls — even without injured MVP guard Derrick Rose — pulled ahead by 14 points. Philadelphia chipped away, though, and with only 2 minutes 11 seconds remaining in the game, Spencer Hawes hit a jumper to give the Sixers a one-point lead. Harris jumped from his seat and threw his hands in the air. When the final buzzer sounded and the Sixers had locked up an emotional 79-74 win, Harris leapt up and down, hugging his wife and then Collins.
It was the team’s biggest win in years. For Harris, it was more.
“You know, I think I’m doing something important here. That’s what you hope, at least,” he said. “And then you see everyone celebrating, you see everyone come together and it’s like, yes, that’s exactly what I’m here to do.”
When the night’s festivities wound down, the Escalade picked up Harris and his family and headed back up the Jersey Turnpike, arriving home in New York around 1:30 a.m. He didn’t have much time to sleep. There was more Apollo work. Another 76ers game two days later (which they‘d also win, giving Philadelphia a 3-1 series advantage).
Plus, Harris had a simulated triathlon to complete at 9 o’clock the next morning.