Those who know him say Joshua Harris, soon-to-be Sixers owner, lives for competition and success

Joshua Harris (right) with Harvard Business School classmate Dave Stenson . Harris was recalled as confident and helpful.
Joshua Harris (right) with Harvard Business School classmate Dave Stenson . Harris was recalled as confident and helpful.
Posted: August 02, 2011

Maybe we've found Joshua Harris' weakness: He doesn't have much of an outside shot.

He's competitive, aggressive, strong going to the basket, solid defending, but perhaps can be allowed a little room on the perimeter.

Harris, head of the investment group whose ownership of the 76ers is pending approval by the NBA board of governors, seems like a man with few weaknesses: He's a billionaire, a respected businessman, a family man, and an athlete - not necessarily listed in order of importance.

He ran the 2010 New York City Marathon in a time of 3 hours, 53 minutes, 41 seconds. He has five children with his wife, Marjorie. According to Forbes, he's worth $1.2 billion. He recently attended his 20-year reunion for Harvard Business School and came across as the same guy he was back in the days when M.C. Hammer was cool and when Harris couldn't afford to buy a small country: kind, down-to-earth, charming, clearly the smartest in a room filled with intelligence.

And even though he might not possess a deadly outside shot, one friend explained that "he's the most competitive human being that I know. On the court, if the game is tied, you can be sure he'd be a go-to guy."

Harris, 46, is a founding partner at the private equity firm Apollo Global Management. He is joined in the investment group buying the Sixers by David Blitzer of the private equity firm Blackstone, portfolio manager Art Wrubel, and former NBA agent and Sacramento Kings executive Jason Levien. All are making private investments, having no affiliation with the firms Apollo or Blackstone.

Harris, Blitzer, and Wrubel are graduates of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The group has agreed to buy 100 percent of the Sixers from Comcast-Spectacor for $280 million, a price that does not include the Wells Fargo Center; the NBA's board of governors is expected to approve the sale sometime in August.

Through a spokesman, Harris declined to be interviewed for this story.

Big Philly fan

Tony Ignaczak met Harris at Wharton undergrad. Both attended Penn from 1982 to 1986, both majored in the same subject, and both joined the same fraternity. They've remained friends since.

Their time in the city was a golden era for Philly basketball: The Sixers won the NBA championship in 1983, and Villanova won the NCAA men's basketball championship in 1985.

"We were big fans," said Ignaczak. "I don't specifically remember attending Sixers games, because tickets were expensive, and as students we didn't have a lot of money, but we were clearly Philadelphia sports fans, and that was a great era for Philadelphia basketball."

Harris wrestled his freshman year at Penn. After, he worked out regularly, and he and Ignaczak would often play pickup hoops in the rec gym near Franklin Field and the Palestra. They attended Big Five and Big East basketball games at the Palestra, and Harris - as you'd expect from a solid, middle-class kid from Chevy Chase, Md. - did not have premature visions of one day buying an NBA franchise.

"Not back in our college days; I don't recall joking about owning a team back then," Ignaczak said. "But in recent years, as he's had more and more success in business, he's certainly discussed it."

'Generous and confident'

Harris' classmates at Harvard Business School remember a guy whose intellect surpassed their own, but whose kindness and friendliness did not reflect the typical b-school ruthlessness.

"The thing I really liked about him," said Scott Stewart, who was in Section C - Harris' section - at Harvard Business School and graduated with him in 1990, "is that a lot of people went to him, myself included, to help figure out some complicated thing, and he was very generous with his time. It's a character thing he had, which I'm sure he still has. When you think again that you're being graded on a curve and how well you do is based, cynically, on how poorly everybody else does, he was generous and confident enough to say he had no problem helping you."

Larry Fromm was also in Section C. Fromm remembers Harris as having an uncanny ability to assess situations based not just on numbers but human motivation - always a complicated equation.

"I just think the position the NBA is in right now is an interesting one in terms of what direction it will go in terms of the [new collective bargaining agreement] and the imbalance between the teams," said Fromm, referring to the league's current lockout. "I guess it gives me a lot more encouragement that the NBA is on the right track if Josh is buying into it."

Considering Harris' investment group is purchasing the Sixers without ownership of the arena and with the team's cable rights tied up through 2029, motivation for the purchase has been questioned. For Harris' group, are the Sixers a toy, a status symbol for a collection of business school all-stars, a business investment meant to be quickly turned around - something Harris has done with unmatched efficiency at Apollo - or a passionate investment with visions of winning?

"I can't see him using this as a toy or a status symbol or some kind of crown jewel to illustrate his success to people or to himself," Stewart said. "He's a serious businessman, and he wants to make it a serious success. Is this a toy? No. There's just no way. . . . The way to be successful in this case in the NBA is to win NBA championships. It's a very definitive and tangible goal. His track record of success would lead you to believe that that's his ambition with the team: not only to win one but win multiple."

Added Stewart: "I think [Dallas Mavericks owner] Mark Cuban treats his team as a toy, and it's his ticket into the glitz and glamour. He's on Entourage, for crying out loud. You're not going to see Josh doing that."

Thriving under pressure

It's hard to gather information about Harris because, even though he's done plenty of headline-grabbing deals in the last two decades, he's rarely quoted or publicly involved. He remains in close contact with alumni relations at both Penn and Harvard, but he's never turned his immense wealth into social fame.

In a very significant way, that's about to change.

"This is a big stage," said Bippy Siegal, a good friend who has joined Harris at many Knicks games. "You screw this up, and you open up the newspaper, and you're an idiot. I think he thrives under pressured environments. I think this is a challenge he's never had before . . . but it was a no-brainer, when he told me I was like, 'What else is new?' "

Siegal said that he had dinner with Harris last week and that Harris was constantly on his phone: calls, texts, action.

"When the guy went into the energy-and-metals businesses, he didn't know anything about it, and within a year he was, like, the global expert," Siegal said. "He knows what he knows, and he knows what he doesn't know. And what he doesn't know, he learns very quickly."

Siegal said Harris is consistently honest and thoughtful with all of his decisions.

In this particular case, Harris and the investment group will have to assess the internal culture of the Sixers; the dynamics among current team president Rod Thorn, general manager Ed Stefanski, and coach Doug Collins; and how the potential addition of Levien to the front office could alter, or taint, those dynamics.

One thing is clear: Each decision will be carefully weighed.

"He makes very, very, very good decisions," Siegal said. "He understands the capital structure of a business basically like nobody else in the world does: in five minutes. People like working for him. If you continually are a good, honest businessman and what you say is what you do, that's when opportunities continue to come your way."

Win, win, win

Harris doesn't seem to be a die-hard sports junkie but rather an astute observer who's viewing professional sports through both an entertainment and business lens. (Siegal: "I don't think he's looking at the sports section every morning when he wakes up, but I think he's aware and interested.")

And, not of small consideration, Harris is a winner. To paraphrase DJ Khaled: All Harris has done is win, win, win no matter what.

"He loves Philly, he loves the people, he loves the culture, and he wants to add value," Siegal said. "He wants to be involved in building a championship franchise there. Period. This isn't the dress rehearsal. He's not doing this for any other reason. He wants to win."


Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at kfagan@phillynews.com or @DeepSixer3 on Twitter. Read her blog, "Deep Sixer," at www.philly.com/deepsixer

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