The current Sixers lineup of promising younger players like Jrue Holiday
has given the team its best start in nearly a decade.
Steve Bilsky W’71, the former standout point guard at Penn and the school’s current athletic director, can be spotted at the Palestra just about every time his alma mater plays a men’s basketball game. But going to the Wells Fargo Center is another story.
“In terms of teams, I would put the Eagles and the Phillies and the Flyers ahead of the Sixers,” Bilsky says. “Now I’m thinking of going to a Sixers game as soon as I can.”
Why the change of heart? Well, for starters, the way this particular 76ers team is constructed is satisfying for people like Bilsky who enjoy “watching good basketball rather than a bunch of dunks and superstars.” And, of course, the Penn connection is one that has the athletic director very hopeful about the direction of the city’s NBA franchise.
Even before the new ownership group took control, Bilsky got the chance to speak with Harris and Aron, and was immediately impressed with their desire to reach out to Penn. The Sixers owners have since followed through on that commitment by holding the introductory press conference—and later an open practice—at the Palestra.
“Those things are not accidental,” Bilsky says. “It wasn’t like they were looking for a place to have the press conference. They wanted to make a statement by having it at the Palestra—both by reaching out to the community and reestablishing their Penn ties.”
Vince Curran EAS’92 W’92, a former player and current radio commentator for the Quakers, has become very friendly with some of the new owners, particularly Wrubel. And he’s seen firsthand the connection they’re trying to foster with their alma mater.
“The thing that strikes me about the new Sixers ownership group is that they are loyal Penn people through and through,” Curran says. “It was very important for them to reconnect to the University when they came back to town. They’re going to be active here. To have loyal Penn people like that around that great organization, and combine that with our great institution, I think it’s going to be a win-win for everybody.”
At this point, it’s not entirely determined in what ways the Sixers-Penn relationship will develop. Bilsky said the Penn band may play at an upcoming Sixers game, and Curran noted that job opportunities and internship programs could pop up for Penn students and graduates. But most of the owners admit they’re still in early stages of talks with the University.
Whatever the case may be, it doesn’t seem likely that the owners will ever lose sight of their Penn ties. For some, the school has been in their blood since they were born. Harris and Wrubel’s fathers went to Penn. So did Blitzer’s two older siblings. Pending owner Ignaczak’s son was recently accepted here. And since graduating, they’ve remained involved with their alma mater as Harris, Wrubel, and Ignaczak all serve on the Wharton Undergraduate Executive Board and Leder on the Huntsman Program Advisory Board.
“I think Penn does a great job building relationships with their students while we attend school, and even more so once we graduate,” says Leder, who left a job at Lehman Brothers in 1995 to start the private investment firm Sun Capital Partners, Inc. with former classmate Rodger Krouse W’83. “It feels like a large, extended family. I have a lot of friends who went to school in Boston or Washington or LA, and they graduate and move to wherever they’re going to live and they don’t give their school or city another thought.”
Wrubel, who called going to Penn “the single most transformative thing I ever did,” says that the “whole notion of coming back and giving back to the area was really cool.” And it’s only gotten cooler for them to see the Sixers get off to their best start in nearly a decade and ascend to first place in the Eastern Conference.
From here, the goals for the new ownership group are clear. They want the Sixers to continue their on-court success and for fans to pack the arena as they once did. They want the team to be a perennial championship contender as they once were. And, yes, they want their investments to be profitable in the long run.
But there is more to it than that. When asked what they hoped to get out of it, all of them talked about having fun with old classmates—in the shadow of the school that shaped them—and cheering on their new favorite team with their families. In that regard, they’ve already enjoyed many goosebump moments. Here’s one:
At the home opener, Wrubel sat with his 10-year-old daughter Ava (“a nutball about basketball,” he says) at the scorers’ table. Ava was wearing a Jrue Holiday jersey. Holiday, perhaps the best player on the Sixers, approached the scorers’ table from the bench, saw the young girl in the jersey and winked at her. When it was time for him to check into the game, he bent over and put his hand behind his back, like he was ready to take a relay baton. Ava slapped his hand. Holiday sprinted into the game. Ava’s smile stretched to the rafters. So did her father’s.
“I never thought any of this would happen to me,” Wrubel says. “Here I am, a partner in an ownership group that owns the Philadelphia 76ers, with a lot of my friends. I feel like a little kid.”
Dave Zeitlin C’03 contributes frequently to the Gazette and oversees the magazine’s sports blog.
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