HAROLD KATZ was raised in a row house in Philadelphia and was a
spirited guard on a high school basketball team that he wasn't
expected to make. Now, at age 58, he lives in a mansion in the
suburbs and owns his hometown NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers.
The trajectory of his life has been directed by three traits
common to most successful entrepreneurs: confidence, diligence
and relentless optimism. Optimism is the cornerstone of his
business plan. He got rich selling diet food.
On the day of the 1993 NBA draft, armed with the second pick,
Katz had a cheery idea that he believed would return the Sixers
to prominence. At enormous expense he would hire a
player--an extremely tall player--of such spectacular promise that
the whole nation of basketball would watch with fascination and
envy as his pet project evolved from curiosity to franchise-maker.
It did not matter to Katz that Shawn Bradley was the skinny son
of skinny parents; he would beef the kid up. It did not matter
to Katz that Bradley had played only one year at Brigham Young
before leaving to become a Mormon missionary in Australia; Katz
would give him on-the-job training. It did not matter to Katz
that Bradley was preternaturally unaggressive, that he was out
of shape, that his passion for basketball was limited, that
nobody his height had ever made a dent in the NBA. It also did
not matter to Katz that Bradley's first eight years as a pro
would cost him $44 million, or about $4 million more than Katz
had received when he sold Nutri/System in 1986. Shawn Bradley
was six inches short of eight feet; he was nearly two feet
taller than the man who was paying him. What else mattered?
Last Thursday, after two seasons and 12 games of a third, Katz
decided to junk his grand experiment. The Sixers and the New
Jersey Nets announced they had swapped their heavily funded
projects. Philadelphia was giving up on Bradley, who is 23, and
New Jersey was letting go of Derrick Coleman, who is 28. Coleman
has an irregular heartbeat, he's surly, and he has played, over
the course of his five years in the NBA, mostly when he feels
like it. But he has what Bradley does not--a high level of
basketball skill. Katz's workers can put away their lab coats
and take out their Freudian texts. The transformation of Coleman
will require no physiological breakthroughs, only psychological
ones. The optimism of the entrepreneur is truly boundless.
The union of Katz and Bradley was in trouble from the start, but
poor Katz could not see that. Bradley passed up three years of
college eligibility to turn pro in part because he anticipated
the arrival of rookie contract restrictions, and he knew that
would mean he might never sniff $44 million again. Also, his
counselors in Utah reminded Bradley that the more money he made,
the more he could give to the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, and that logic appealed to Bradley. As Katz's
grandmother might have said, Shawn Bradley is a nice boy.
Katz, who has been known to bring his secret basketball
discoveries to his house for private auditions on his indoor
court, never saw Bradley play before signing him, but this did
not deter Katz. From everything Katz heard, Bradley wasn't just
7'6", he was a 7'6" athlete.
Katz was determined to spend whatever was needed to make the
partnership work. Before Bradley's first season fitness guru Pat
Croce, who helped to keep Philly sports legends Julius Erving
and Mike Schmidt going strong nearly into middle age, was
assigned to Bradley and charged with thickening him. Before
Bradley's second season Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was hired to teach
him the sky hook. But the lessons didn't stick. Bradley showed
only meager improvement on the court and no weight gain. Even
with 7,000 calories a day, there was no part of Bradley's arms
wider than his elbows. Katz wanted a center who would scare
people. The only thing scary about Bradley was watching him
topple over; onlookers feared bones were breaking with every
fall. From time to time Bradley would shove somebody to prove he
had a mean streak. But the shoves were an obvious show, and
opposing players would look up at Bradley as if to say, "Oh,
Shawn, please--we know you're a nice boy."
When Katz signed Bradley, he made a public plea for patience.
Give him three full seasons, Katz said, and then judge him. But
patience is never an entrepreneur's best virtue, and Katz
himself could not wait out the entire term. On the day after
Thanksgiving, Bradley played 20 minutes and didn't have a
rebound. The following day Bradley played 23 minutes and scored
no points. Katz had seen enough.
Coleman has not played a game all year. He is overweight and out
of condition and not interested in playing for another lousy
team. Still, Katz is certain he got the better end of the deal.
He couldn't get Bradley to gain any weight. At weight loss, Katz
is an expert.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: EVANGELOS VIGLIS [Drawing of man in suit attempting to inflate basketball player who has hole in knee]