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New 76ers owner Harris enjoying the ride

Josh Harris, the new owner of the 76ers, is happy sitting center court at almost every home game. He has the best seat in the house, and why shouldn't he?

"It's exceeded all expectations in terms of the fun I'm having," Josh Harris said. (Matt Rourke/AP)
"It's exceeded all expectations in terms of the fun I'm having," Josh Harris said. (Matt Rourke/AP)Read more

Josh Harris, the new owner of the 76ers, is happy sitting center court at almost every home game. He has the best seat in the house, and why shouldn't he?

He is a billionaire and, as he sees it, he made his fortune buying companies at just the right time - down-and-out outfits, in need of a fresh approach - just like he has done with the Sixers.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart. In the Sixers' case, nearly all the key ingredients to success were already in place - great coach, nucleus of solid young players. The lockout scared other potential buyers away. Harris got in, infused the franchise with energy, re-signed two key players, and, so far, the team is winning.

"It's exceeded all expectations in terms of the fun I'm having," Harris said. "I've become an überfan. I haven't missed a minute of any game. I haven't gone to all the away games, but I've been to nearly all the home games, and I have a league pass, and I have whatever you need to see every game."

He's a billionaire, but sometimes he's just a boy, too.

"Being able to go into the huddle before games - they let me in there - that's a lot of fun," he added. "We've all been high school or college athletes, but very few people get to see what it's like in a pro locker room, seeing the professional coach talk to his players.

"Being on the inside is a lot of fun."

Let's get to the dish right away. Harris says he's falling back in love with Philadelphia, his college town, and promises to be the kind of owner fans will want him to be: committed to winning a championship.

"Will we spend what it takes?" he said. "Yes. We're going to be very opportunistic. We're not going to be silly about it. We have a deep-pocketed ownership group, and we want to win. It's not as easy as you think. The elite players in the league can play wherever they want, and everyone wants them."

He said the challenge is to build a "high-quality organization on and off the court," to create a team and environment that will attract elite players, similar to the way pitcher Cliff Lee chose to come to Philadelphia and play with the Phillies.

Wrestler's outlook

Harris, 46, is cofounder of Apollo Global Management, an investment firm and buyout specialist in New York that manages more than $60 billion in assets. His personal worth is estimated by Forbes magazine to be about $1.45 billion. He agreed to talk about his purchase of the team at an interview at the Four Seasons, at the same breakfast table where he first kicked around the idea with Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast, the former majority owner of the Sixers.

He ordered a fruit plate - ate the berries, left the cantelope.

Harris wrestled in high school and for part of his time at the University of Pennsylvania. "There was a lot of dieting involved, and I was wrestling at 118 pounds, and that was a long way to drop," Harris said. "It was definitely cutting into the college experience."

He still has a wrestler's build, trim and fit, and became a marathoner - he ran the Philadelphia Marathon in November in 3 hours, 38 minutes, 12 seconds. Now he is converting to triathlons.

He still has a wrestler's outlook on life and business - do the work, the preparation, and it will pay off. "It's good in teaching you how life works," he said. He is not an animated man, but serious, measured.

After Penn, a short stint at the investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert, and a Harvard MBA, he founded Apollo in 1990. He has bought more than 100 companies, he said, but he wasn't looking to buy a sports team. That is a much more emotional investment.

He grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and was a fan of the old Washington Bullets. He rattled of the names of Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge, and Phil Chenier as if he really knew what he was talking about. In recent years, he's come to know Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards, and when Leonsis was looking for partners, Harris talked with him. Harris had no interest in the Wizards, he said, but "that process allowed me to at least engage around what it's like to own an NBA team."

Harris has Philly roots. His grandparents are from Northeast Philadelphia, and his mom went to Temple. His father went to Penn, and his parents met in Philadelphia. Harris was a freshman at Penn during the Sixers' 1982-83 championship season.

"This had always been a team that I'd had a soft spot for and followed," Harris said.

After his conversations with Leonsis, Harris started thinking about buying the Sixers.

"In my day job," he said, "we buy a lot of businesses from big companies. It just struck me that [the Sixers] might be something that [Comcast-Spectacor] would ultimately be willing to part with because they are a cable company and [Comcast] just acquired NBC.

"They never officially put it up for sale . . . but they ultimately were looking for somebody. So it wasn't that I wanted to buy a sports team. I kind of wanted to buy this sports team."

Harris said the deal took 18 months to work out because it was complicated. Comcast would continue to be the cable partner, and Comcast-Spectacor would own the Wells Fargo Center, where the Sixers play. He said the former owners not only wanted to negotiate a fair price (reported to be $280 million), but "they wanted somebody that would be a good partner to them and the city."

Harris soon discovered that David Blitzer, 41, senior managing director and cochairman of the Blackstone Group, a fellow Wharton undergrad and longtime friend, had the same idea of buying the team. So they partnered. Harris is managing owner, Blitzer is comanaging owner.

"By a decent margin, I'm the largest owner," Harris said, though he did not share the amount of his investment. "The NBA, for obvious reasons, wants the decision-making part of it to be vested basically in one person. David and I are way larger than everybody else, but we do seek everyone's input."

There are 13 other owners.

"Most of the rest of the ownership group are people I've known for years," Harris said, "who went to Penn or otherwise I knew, and truthfully, what ended up happening, really, the ownership was much smaller, and people called and said 'This is great and I loved this team,' or 'I went to Penn,' or 'I've always wanted to do this.'

"In retrospect," he added, "[the Sixers are] off to a really fast start so the ownership is kind of happy, but maybe I should have not sold as much."

He smiled. He wasn't serious. Or was he?

The one owner he approached, he said, was Will Smith, the native Philadelphian and movie star.

"We want fans to have a memorable evening," Harris said. "Certainly, if the Sixers win, that's going to help a lot. But it also means seeing celebrities. Anyone who becomes an owner of a team, they tend to go more . . . so I'm sure he'll be attending our games. We have a couple other ones up our sleeves, maybe a couple other Philly personalities who are interested in becoming owners."

Harris said he knew right away he wanted Adam Aron, an Abington native who had run some of his companies for years, to come in as CEO and co-owner.

"Clearly you need someone who is day-to-day here with the fans and with the organization, and also he has a marketing background," Harris said. "So he's literally the perfect guy."

Harris said he would be closely involved in decision-making, but recognized that in coach Doug Collins and president Rod Thorn he had two great basketball minds, and he planned to let them run the team.

Competitive world

The type of investing done by Harris's company, Apollo, is rarely described in generous ways. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney often catches heat for Bain Capital, a similar company he founded.

Harris described his business this way:

"What we try to do is we take money from institutional investors - teachers and firefighters and ordinary people's pension funds. It's simple: They give us a dollar and they want to get back more than two dollars over a five- and seven-year period. We're supposed to create long-term equity value for these pension funds, and that's what we do. We do that by buying good companies and facilitating value creation.

"That can be in some cases growing the company. In some cases that can be making a good deal on the way in, buying a good company inexpensively, buy low and sell high. It can be improving the company's cost structure, making it more efficient, investing in it. There are plenty of ways to do it. But to create that kind of value, you have to change something."

What about criticism that Romney is facing, that Bain Capital killed companies, destroyed jobs?

"Ultimately, yeah, basically, there definitely are situations where you can create value through making companies more efficient," he said. "Sometimes that means that jobs are downsized. But really, we live in a competitive world, and to make a company successful globally, sometimes that needs to be done.

"And ultimately, really, the beneficiaries are the normal local firefighters, teachers, policemen, and people like that. I think over time, in any election, this will be positioned one way or another. But I feel good about what I do in terms of being good for the country."

Harris also feels good about his new team. He has a wife and five children, three of whom are old enough to be Sixers-crazy, though he and his family live in Manhattan and the kids won't be getting down here on too many school nights.

Harris usually comes by car, with a driver, though Adam Aron has been trying to persuade him to take the train. But the car's fast and easy. He isn't planning on quitting his day job, but has loved being back in Philadelphia and says he might buy a place here and spend more time.

At home games, you know where to find him.

"I like to be on the floor," he said. "I like seeing the games down there, and it's good to be down there with the fans. I get a pulse for how people are feeling. The funniest interaction I had with a fan was a fan said, 'It's hot dog night. You ran out of hot dogs. Then you tried to sell me cold dogs.' I reported that back quickly. I wanted to make sure we didn't lose so-and-so.

"But generally people are happy that we're around."

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