|Like many college freshmen, Harris plastered his dorm room wall with pictures. Only his were a little different than most. “He cut 40 pounds with pictures of burgers and pizza and spaghetti on his wall,” says Schlager, who met Harris the first week of college and later pledged the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity with him. “That shows tremendous willpower right there.”
Harris cut weight because he wrestled in the 118-pound weight class on Penn’s varsity wrestling team, where he remembers his record being slightly below .500. He ended up quitting the squad after his first season because he said staying at such a low weight put “too much of a dent in my college life.” But his determination and competitiveness poked through in other ways. Like when he and Schlager wrestled in the fraternity house and, according to Schlager, “absolutely destroyed rooms.” Or the couple times a week they played pickup hoops at Hutchinson Gym. “He’s not the best ballhandler,” says Schlager, who today runs a conservation investment company in Colorado. “But if you feed him on the wing, he can hit the layup.”
Harris showed a similar kind of drive away from the gym, and it was that work ethic, his friends say, that launched a career that began at the now-defunct investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert and continued at Apollo after Drexel folded (with a stint at Harvard Business School in between). “I think the biggest thing I learned from him is how hard he works and how he’ll do whatever it takes to learn something and be successful at it,” Schlager says. Ignaczak, who was also in SAE with Harris, agrees with that assessment, saying, “My first impression—and lasting impression—was that he was so focused and such a hard-worker.”
Like Schlager and Ignaczak, Wrubel first met Harris during his undergraduate days at Penn and has remained great friends with him ever since. They work out together. They play tennis against each other. They go on ski trips. “I spend as much time with him,” Wrubel says, “as I do with my own family.”
And as both climbed their way up through the investment world, Wrubel marveled at the way his best friend handled his business. “He’s a bright guy, but there are a lot of bright guys,” says Wrubel, a portfolio manager at real-estate-focused hedge fund Wesley Capital. “What separates Josh is his tenacity. He’s a very, very tenacious guy. I think the combination of being tenacious and thoughtful is unique.”
Harris’ best qualities were on full display last November when he ran the Philadelphia Marathon. He says it was his way of connecting with the city—finishing the race in a personal best time of three hours, 48 minutes, and 10 seconds was an added bonus. Yet it was hardly surprising. Whether running on city streets or running a business, raising his five children with his wife Marjorie or keeping old friends connected by planning vacations, Harris’ endurance has always been remarkable. Or, as Ignaczak puts it, “Josh can handle anything.”
But even though he put himself in the spotlight by running in the marathon, Harris doesn’t plan on making the story about him very often. He’s not going to become a notorious referee-criticizer like eccentric Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, or rappel from the rafters like former Sixers head honcho Pat Croce. As thoughtful as he is with his business acquisitions, that’s how thoughtful he is when talking to the media. Sometimes, he appears guarded, and perhaps even reluctant to admit that he grew up rooting for the Washington Bullets and is a “reformed Yankees fan,” instead focusing on how his freshman year at Penn coincided with the 76ers’ 1982-83 championship season. And he’s never loud or boisterous, even when the microphone is in front of him and the cameras trained on him.
“I think I’m sort of a lowkey person,” Harris admits. “It’s something I’m working on.”
Well, in some ways he’s lowkey. When it comes to watching the Sixers, Harris admits he’s turned into a “turbo-charged fan” who watches every minute of every game and “takes the losses really hard.” That makes sense, of course, because losing is not something he’s used to.
Says Wrubel, “He’s just a winner, man.”
Wrubel is breathless just thinking about the day: October 18. That’s when he and the rest of the new Sixers owners were unveiled at a Palestra press conference. And although the day itself was mostly a blur, Wrubel remembers thinking one thing throughout: How did this happen?
“I have a suit on, I’m standing center court at the Palestra and saw all sorts of Penn people and all sorts of Sixers things,” Wrubel recalls. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, we own the Philadelphia 76ers.’ When it hit me, it was the most humbling thing of all time.”
For Wrubel, this was more than just a business transaction. It was the culmination of a lifelong addiction to basketball. A self-admitted NBA junkie, Wrubel owned the entire basketball-card collection for the 1971-72, 1972-73, 1973-74 seasons. He idolized players like Walt Frazier, Bernard King, Andrew Toney, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving. And, perhaps most important to Philly fans, he loved the Sixers and hated the Boston Celtics.
“Everyone has their own thing,” says Wrubel, who grew up in Connecticut. “For me, I’m a giant basketball fan.”
Wrubel’s hoops obsession never waned into adulthood. Today, he says he can recite the starting lineup for every team in the league and can talk about the sport’s nuances “until I bore somebody.” So owning the same team where Dr. J once soared has a coolness and panache to it, he says, beyond what the financial opportunities may offer. And being a superfan-turned-owner has already proved advantageous. At an early-season viewing party, Wrubel met a 50-something-year-old Philadelphian who introduced himself as “the guy with the worst seats in the entire Wells Fargo Center.” At the home opener, Wrubel ran into the same fan on the escalator and invited him down to sit courtside with him, in part because of his appreciation for the dedicated fans who sit in the nosebleeds.
As insignificant as giving better seats to one person for one game may seem in the big picture, it’s those kinds of little things that the owners have pushed since taking over. At the 76ers-Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on January 11, Leder sat with Aron, who he said tweeted with fans literally the entire night. And they’ve listened to their fans’ demands. At the urging of many, for instance, the owners decided to replace “Hip Hop,” the acrobatic rabbit team mascot who tended to scare children more than excite them. (The official release announcing the non-beloved rabbit’s departure noted he got married and moved away to start a family.)
Why is it so important to push fan interaction to a whole new level?
“Because we are fans,” Blitzer says. “Put yourself in the same position. As a fan of both the Sixers and sports in general, the experience overall is extremely important to us. Frankly, one of the first orders of business was to really push on social media and push on fan engagement.”
When it comes to being a fan, Blitzer is one of the few people who might be able to compete with Wrubel’s passion. Growing up in New Jersey, he played almost every sport available but, like many, quickly realized he was never going to make it as an athlete beyond high school. Instead, he devoured the local pro-sports scene, going to Stanley Cup finals games for the Rangers and World Series games for the Yankees in the 1970s. He remembers attending his first basketball game when he was about seven years old to see the New Jersey Nets, then of the American Basketball Association. But like Wrubel and the other owners, he always appreciated individual basketball players more than teams, admitting he was a “complete Dr. J disciple.”
As he got older, Blitzer tried to understand more about the business of sports and wrote a thesis at Penn about free agency and the labor market in sports. So when he “got lucky enough to be in a position where he could invest in the Philadelphia 76ers,” he says, it was a perfect merger of his lifelong passion with his business acumen. And even if some people asked if he was crazy, perhaps the person that knows him best understood just how much the acquisition made sense.
“I actually went to my mom for approval,” Blitzer says. “And she’s sort of a conservative person. But she just chuckled and said, ‘You know, if you ever told me you’d do something as crazy as this, this would actually be the one thing that wouldn’t shock me. You’ve wanted to invest in a sports franchise since you were five years old.’”
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| ©2012 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 02/23/12