Larry Brown a big fan of Lewis Katz

Larry Brown. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Larry Brown. (Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Posted: June 06, 2014

Ed Snider assumed ownership and control of the 76ers in 1996, and one year later, Lewis Katz began playing a vital role in his dear friend's venture into an unfamiliar sport, serving as an adviser to the brilliant and demanding basketball mind Snider and team president Pat Croce had hired as head coach.

Larry Brown has always needed a coterie of counselors to massage his neuroses, serve as sounding boards, and assure him everything would be OK. From Jerry Stackhouse to Derrick Coleman, from Tim Thomas to a tempestuous second-year guard named Allen Iverson, that '97-98 Sixers team tested Brown's patience throughout a long, 31-win season. So Katz became part of the franchise's inner circle, joining Snider and Croce for Brown's group-therapy sessions, forming a friendship with Brown that had lasted ever since.

"We'd talk about situations that were happening with our team, with Allen in particular," Brown, the head coach at Southern Methodist, said in a phone interview. "Lewis was always so calm about things. You know how some people can put you at ease right away and make you feel that a problem you know you have is really nothing, but also make you feel like you're important and he wanted to help? I don't think a lot of people have that ability. He was good for me."

Katz died Saturday in a plane crash - just four days after he'd won a private auction to secure co-ownership of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com - and Brown was on his way back to Dallas from visiting family in the Hamptons when his wife, Shelly, called him with the terrible news.

Through his purchase of the New Jersey Nets (and the NHL's New Jersey Devils) in 1998, through Snider, through a succession of philanthropic campaigns and causes, Katz had kept in close and easy contact with Brown, more connections between them developing and their relationship deepening over time.

When Brown was coaching the 2004 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, for instance, security concerns intensified because these would be the first Summer Games since Sept. 11, 2001, and they would be held at a site thought to be particularly vulnerable to terrorism: Athens, Greece. So instead of residing within the Olympic Village, Brown, Iverson, and the rest of the team stayed on the Queen Mary 2, where Katz - flouting the purported danger - joined them for some off-the-court socializing, turning what could have been a tense setting into something of a pleasure cruise.

Upon buying the Nets, Katz had to hire a head coach, and his choice was one of Brown's friends and disciples: John Calipari. The saddest of sad-sack franchises until Katz and Jason Kidd arrived in East Rutherford, the Nets won the Eastern Conference championship in 2002 and 2003 under Calipari's replacement, Byron Scott. And after Snider and Comcast Spectacor sold the Sixers to Josh Harris and David Blitzer's group in 2011, Brown remembered that remarkable Nets turnaround and wondered what might have been for his old team.

"It's a sad thing," he said. "I was always hopeful Lewis would buy the Sixers after I knew Mr. Snider was considering selling because he loved Philly, and he loved basketball.

"I think he thought about it. I hate to speak out of turn, but I got that feeling that he thought about it."

It's not surprising that Brown also believes Katz could have overseen a faster, less-painful renaissance for the Sixers, given his affection for Katz and his disdain for the organization's newfound enthusiasm for bottoming out in the name of building itself back up.

"The first thing they've got to do is stop saying this has worked out great and 'We're satisfied with the year we had,'" Brown said, referring to comments that Harris made to reporters in April. "That kind of pissed me off because people in that city love basketball."

But the Nets had bled so much money during Katz's six years of ownership that he was hesitant to buy another pro sports team, and that reluctance extended recently to Philadelphia's Major League Soccer franchise, the Union, which Katz also passed on purchasing.

Had Katz bought the Sixers from Snider, it would have been interesting to see what Brown's reaction would have been, whether he would have been willing to coach in Philadelphia again. Forever tiring of one place and finding himself refreshed in another, he's linked to the Los Angeles Lakers' head coaching vacancy thanks to reports from ESPN, and one can never fully rule him out of any job anywhere.

Yet over the phone, he sounded like a coach who would need the perfect situation to coax him back, a coach who knows that such a situation will never come about now that his friend is gone.

"If you're not really connecting with the owner, you've got no shot," he said. "If the coach, the president, and the owner are all on the same page, it seems to me there's no way you can fail. . . . When I look back at my life in pro sports, whenever I've been involved with an owner who cared about me and was there for me, it made it pretty easy.

"I think Lewis was that way."


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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