For Adam Aron, a dream job came true

New 76ers CEO Adam Aron (front, left) with majority owner Josh Harris and team alumni (from left) Bobby Jones, World B. Free, Moses Malone, Earl Cureton, and Julius Erving at the Wells Fargo Center for the team's home opener against Detroit on Friday.
New 76ers CEO Adam Aron (front, left) with majority owner Josh Harris and team alumni (from left) Bobby Jones, World B. Free, Moses Malone, Earl Cureton, and Julius Erving at the Wells Fargo Center for the team's home opener against Detroit on Friday. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)

The 76ers' new CEO is a hometown guy on the go at all times.

Posted: January 08, 2012

Adam Aron, 57, treasurer of the Abington High Class of 1972, became co-owner and CEO of the 76ers on Oct. 18.

Friday was the home opener.

Evan Bayh, former governor and senator from Indiana, arrived early and was about to give his lifelong friend a hug when Aron waved him off. "Hold on. I'm on the phone with Dr. J."

Aron was the host, the celebrity, living a boyhood fantasy, CEO of his hometown team. He was operating on "nine levels of adrenaline," and hadn't slept more than five hours a night in months. He wore an executive's blazer and khakis, but his shirt was untucked by halftime because of being constantly on the go.

Bayh hung with Aron for a bit. "It's fun being his wingman," he said.

The 76ers are the team of Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving, but have been abandoned by fans in recent years, playing in one of the emptiest arenas in the NBA.

Aron has made it his mission to reconnect the team with its heritage, to create energy and excitement, to make it fun again. This opener was a coming-out party for Aron and the new ownership.

The biggest priority, of course, would be to put winning basketball on the floor, but that would be left largely to coach Doug Collins and team president Rod Thorn.

Aron worked for months to reinvent and reinvigorate the pregame show. He hired the Philadelphia Orchestra to record a special version of the national anthem, which will play on the big screen every night. He got American Idol finalist Ayla Brown to sing the anthem live for every home game. She's beautiful, with an amazing voice - and, as a bonus, she played basketball for Boston College. (One night, she's going to sing at midcourt, turn, and hit a three in heels. Just wait. Too much pressure to ask her to do it opening night.)

Joshua Harris, 46, the hedge fund founder who has known Aron for 18 years and asked him to invest in and run the team, just ran the Philly marathon in 3 hours, 48 minutes, 10 seconds. But it was Aron, with his ample girth, who gained speed as home-opening day and night wore on.

In the third quarter, a crew from Comcast Sportsnet struggled to keep up with the CEO. He told them, "I'm not the thinnest person in the world, but I'm lighter than I've been in years, and if I keep this pace up for the season, I'm going to look like you guys."

At 9 a.m., NBA commissioner David Stern had called to wish him luck. Stern has adopted Aron, and said he'd come to the first sellout.

Listening to the fans

Aron and 14 other owners paid $280 million for the Sixers. Because of the NBA lockout, Aron only got the schedule on Dec. 8. Three weeks ago, only 4,500 tickets had been sold to Friday's game.

But Aron had been relentless on radio, TV, and Twitter, and an hour after he hung up with Stern, staff told him sales were over 18,000. Walk-ups could be another thousand. (Maybe Stern should get on a train!)

Aron called Harris, a Wharton grad and the largest investor, still in New York but leaving soon for the game.

"Are you ready for this? We're going to have 19,000 tonight."

Silence from the man worth $1.4 billion.

Then, a mild expletive and: "You're insane, Adam! I love it!"

At 10 a.m., Aron hit the arena floor as the Sixers ran through plays.

As he watched, he tweeted. Back in August, when he learned he would become Sixers CEO, he read a book by former Sixers CEO Pat Croce, who said Lesson 1 was listening to fans. Aron now receives 300 tweets a day.

"I just got Follower No. 7,676," he gushed. "On the day of the home opener. Is that karma, or what!"

After practice, Collins pulled Aron into a private meeting with players. Aron had scripted the pregame show - every song, video, and line. But players asked him now for their own warm-up music - jams that would pump them up, but not exactly top-40 tunes. Aron agreed. He felt it was important to listen to players.

Collins was pleased. He and Aron pounded fists.

Aron then told his staff.

"Lou Williams wants Rick Ross' 'Ima Boss,' and I'm told this needs to be heavily edited."

"Oh yeah," said Derrick Hayes, live events manager.

Aron spent the next hour organizing tickets for owners, VIPS, family, and friends. A critical piece of the new experience would be to reconnect the team with its legends, so he invited Erving, Moses Malone, Bobby Jones, Earl Cureton, and Andrew Toney and planned to introduce them at midcourt and also show highlight videos of them during timeouts.

This was also a huge night for Aron personally - his twin sons, 21, were coming, and his siblings, and the mayor, and his oldest friend from high school, and even the Abington assistant principal who wrote Aron's recommendation letter to Harvard.

Tickets organized, it was back on the floor to watch pregame rehearsals.

Opening statement

After getting an MBA from Harvard, Aron created the frequent-flier program at Pan Am airlines. He was vice president of marketing at Hyatt Hotels by age 32, went on to run Norwegian Cruise Lines, and then was CEO of Vail Resorts, with 16,000 employees and stock on the New York exchange worth $2 billion.

But he always dreamed of producing a Broadway show, and this was his chance, only it would be at the south end of Broad Street. He hired a company that created the Madden 2012 video game to do a highlight film, and a team nominated for 27 Tony awards to install lighting.

During a break in rehearsal, World B. Free, the team's ambassador of basketball, handed Aron the rock.

"Let me see you do it."

"Not with the press here," Aron said, handing the ball back. "You think I'm going to miss a shot on opening night? Spoil the karma? No way."

"Just do a layup," Free goaded.

"No chance."

By 5:30 p.m., family, owners, and legends gathered in Champions Lounge. Aron walked up to Erving, Malone, and Jones. "Guys, I want you to meet my brother . . ."

He introduced two Indonesian owners, Handy Soetedjo and Erick Thohir, to Mayor Nutter.

"After the game," Thohir asked the mayor, "should I go to Pat's or Geno's?"

"I'm a Pat's guy," said Nutter, who invited both men to City Hall and promised many other investment opportunities here.

The owners had to be courtside by 6:55 p.m. for the pregame fanfare, in which they would also be introduced. During the national anthem and pregame video, Aron had them all look up at the big screen. He had created a new motto for the 76ers - Passionate. Intense. Proud. - and those words described Aron perfectly at that moment.

This was his opening statement, his greeting to 76ers fans.

Energy in the building

The team, with its young talent and great coach, did its part, whipping the Detroit Pistons by 23 points. Aron didn't watch much of the game. He was busy playing host, flitting from box to suite to courtside seat.

He visited Don McGinley, his old assistant principal, who had Aron pegged as a millionaire 40 years ago, nicknaming him "J.P. Morgan." Aron had raised enough money for all 975 seniors to attend Abington's prom for free.

All night, fans recognized Aron, congratulated him, told him they loved the energy in the building, his effort, and his accessibility. As he rode up an elevator, a young fan going down yelled: "Adam Aron - I follow you on Twitter!" They high-fived - poetry in motion.

This was just one game, but one to savor. The Sixers were 4-2, in first place. Aron made his way to the locker room. Players had showered and gone. Collins was relaxing after his postgame news conference.

Aron sat beside him.

"I know how hard you've worked, Adam," the coach said, "and I appreciate what you've done."

"This is a night I'll never forget," Aron said. "Let's come back tomorrow and do it again."


Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639, mvitez@phillynews.com, or @michaelvitez on Twitter.

 

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