76ers CEO Scott O’Neil just published a book called Be Where Your Feet Are.
His feet won’t be on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center anymore. He’s out.
The man who oversaw “The Process” is done processing. A day after longtime broadcaster Marc Zumoff retired, and 10 days after Ben Simmons’ ignominious refusal to dunk in an elimination playoff-game loss, O’Neil on Wednesday announced his resignation after eight years.
O’Neil also is selling his silent limited partnership in the team and its parent company; The Inquirer learned that he was a part-owner Tuesday.
He’s only 51, and he has daughters 21, 17, and 14, but O’Neil, who lives in Bucks County, said he has no immediate plans — not beyond visiting Mozambique next week with one of his girls, on a Mormon mission. When he does go back to work, he said, he’ll try to replicate the corporate turnaround he helmed in Philadelphia, where a $280 million franchise grew in value sevenfold in just eight years.
That’s over. His black hair slicked and shellacked, his hand clutching a walkie-talkie, his eyes gazing into the distance at the next crisis in need of resolution.
“I think I’m going to build another platform,” O’Neil said Tuesday. “I’m ready to find another mountain to climb.”
Has he really climbed this one? The Sixers’ mountain was supposed to be the NBA title: completely dismantle a franchise, rebuild it with draft choices, then win forever. They have not come close. Centerpiece center Joel Embiid still gets hurt, Simmons still won’t shoot, and the team hasn’t advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. “The Process” hasn’t produced even one parade. It will, O’Neil pledged:
“And I’ll be on Broad Street, throwing candy at them.”
O’Neil does not consider winning it all the only gauge of his success. The team last year hired high-profile coach Doc Rivers and a high-profile president in Daryl Morey, grew Embiid into an MVP candidate, and boasts more than 14,000 season-ticket holders. Besides, O’Neil is set for life. He said he couldn’t reveal how much of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment or the Sixers he owned, but it was “for me, meaningful.”
Will he ever need to work again? “No.”
Still, the timing seems curious, considering the additions of Rivers and Morey, their resumes, and their egos. Was O’Neil forced out? Could he have stayed?
“Oh, yeah. Of course,” he insisted. He cited the 200 nights every year he misses dinner with his family, and sighed. “I’m ready. I’m ready to go.”
He won’t go far, he said. A Villanova grad who once worked for the Eagles, O’Neil was raised in Newburgh, N.Y., but he’s a Philly guy now.
“I love this team. I love this city. I’ve been here 18 years,” he said. “This is my home.”
Here, he has built a frontline brand that, less than a decade ago, was an afterthought.
“[O’Neil’s] ambition, strategic outlook, and innovative mindset have been instrumental to the success of our business,” Sixers co-owner David Blitzer said in a statement.
O’Neil said he’d been planning his exit since January, and a team source said Blitzer and his co-owner, Josh Harris, began the search for O’Neil’s replacement in March and plan to name a successor within weeks, if not days. O’Neil said that he will remain to help in both the search and the transition.
Given the Sixers’ diversity initiative, which was conceived and implemented by O’Neil, who is white, it’s a fair bet that the next CEO won’t match O’Neil’s demographic. Whoever it is, his or her plate will be full.
The Sixers and their controversial, imperfect, and incomplete rebuilding strategy were not O’Neil’s sole responsibilities. His proper title grew to become CEO of not just the 76ers but, as the ownership group expanded its interests, of also Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. That meant he was responsible for the business strategies of all of HBSE’s teams and properties, including those of the New Jersey Devils and the Prudential Center arena in Newark, N.J.
Always intense and often irascible, O’Neil quickly rose, then fell, as president of Madison Square Garden Sports, his job before landing with the Sixers, but he says he’s mellowed during his tenure with the Sixers. Of course, running a franchise that intentionally went 75-253 from 2013-17 would mellow anyone.
Winning has never been everything for O’Neil. In an era when inclusion matters, the Sixers’ corporate offices look a lot less homogeneous than they did in 2013.
“When I got here, we were 95% white men,” O’Neil said. “I’m leaving, and we’ve got 18 women who are VP level or above. I inherited one [woman]. And people of color now make up 34% of our company.”
O’Neil’s focus on diversity long predated the murder of George Floyd and the tinderbox of outrage it ignited. But with the political turmoil of the last six years, the social justice initiatives with which so many Sixers staff and employees were involved, and the tragedy and polarization of the coronavirus pandemic, O’Neil, like many high-profile executives, reevaluated his life and his world.
“My world view has 100% changed,” O’Neil said. Did that influence his decision to depart? “It’s very likely.”
O’Neil says he’s not the only one. He sees other basketball titans moving on, and wonders if the changing world didn’t influence them, too: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, Celtics president Danny Ainge, Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Warriors president Rick Welts.
“You’d be hard-pressed to say that COVID and the social and racial justice movements didn’t change our outlooks; didn’t change our interest in changing the world in different ways,” O’Neil said.
O’Neil will try to change the world from outside of the business. For now.