Katz's tenure with Nets says it all

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images file photo)

"A FRANCHISE whose existence has been marked by poor management, bad personnel moves and fan apathy now has a chance to take its total turnaround even one step further."

So read the Associated Press story describing the New Jersey Nets' first appearance in an NBA Finals back in 2002, four years after Lewis Katz had purchased controlling interest of the team and vowed to fix a franchise so infamous for its missteps that it was thought to have been jinxed, a la Babe Ruth, by the sale of Julius Erving to the Sixers decades before.

Katz, who died Saturday night in a private-jet crash, saw the jinx for what it was: poor decision making, constant shifts in operating philosophy, chasing short-term dollars for long-term strategy. The departure of Doctor J had been, in its essence, a money grab. Those who owned the team before Katz had once made headlines by offering then-49-year-old Wilt Chamberlain a spot on their roster heading into the playoffs.

Chamberlain, sensing a publicity ploy, turned them down.

Katz brought structure and respect to the punchline-drunk Nets, his ownership stretching from 1998 to 2004. He and partner Raymond Chambers built the team's first training site. He took risks, hiring a young college coach, John Calipari, and firing him after an ethnic slur was directed toward a reporter, not to mention starting his third season 3-17. He approved the trade of Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd, a deal that resulted in two consecutive trips to the NBA Finals for a franchise that, until that point, had won just one playoff round since joining the league in 1976.

He pushed for a move to a new arena in Newark. He invested in a startup cable network that would break the stranglehold Cablevision held over New York's professional franchises at the time and allow more control over the broadcast of the team's games. The Nets never made Katz much money, which is too bad because profits were earmarked for charity anyway. But the growth and eventual sale of the YES Network to News Corp. - the 2012 sale of his and others' shares was for a reported $3.4 billion - made his dalliance in sports both profitable and visionary.

I was looking forward to that kind of a chapter at the Daily News and Inquirer, because of what I knew of that, and of what I had heard about him through mutual acquaintances. Katz was a guy you felt as if you knew, one of those rare people whose smarts and heart operated, and succeeded, simultaneously. The guy made millions and gave millions and yet never seemed to carry himself in any way other than as a single mother's son who made good.

"Life, in my view, is meant to be enjoyed," he told graduates last month during commencement ceremonies at Temple, his alma mater. "It's meant to have as much fun as you can conjure up."

The best bosses, I have found over my 33-year professional career, are not the ones with all the answers. In fact, they tend to be the worst. The best bosses, best leaders, recognize not only their own strengths but their most glaring weaknesses. Literally hours after their winning bid for the Daily News and Inquirer was made public Tuesday, Katz and partner H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest announced plans to bring in an experienced newspaper publisher to oversee their $88 million investment.

The best bosses, best leaders also tend to have this in common: They think outside the box. When Katz improved the profitability of the parking lots he owned by erecting billboards on them, it reflected both his pragmatism and creative thinking. So did the YES Network, which has become a template for similar ventures.

The best bosses I have had also have this in common: They might fear failure, but they are not immobilized by it. Actor Charlie Day, a star of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" and several motion pictures, recently urged students during a commencement speech at my alma mater, Merrimack College, to "do what's uncomfortable and scary and hard but pays off in the long run."

"You do not have to be fearless," he said. "Just don't let fear stop you. Live like this as best you can and I guarantee you will look back on a life well-lived."

Lewis Katz was enjoying that view Saturday, even as he added to it by helping a friend's fundraiser. He leaves a daughter, Melissa, and a son, Drew, who yesterday described his late father as "my best friend."

As any striving father will tell you, it is the ultimate compliment, worth more riches than the world possesses. The good news for readers of both newspapers and Philly.com on this sad day is that Lewis Katz' best friend will take his place on our board of directors, and thus take part in the latest fun his father had begun to conjure up.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon