Maybe you groaned when Will Smith, a minority owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, took the podium on Friday to congratulate coach Doug Collins. Maybe you laughed as one of the world’s biggest movie stars grinned like a 12-year-old kid on Christmas.
If you were a Sixers fan, though, you had to love it.
Collins’ Sixers had just doused the Boston Celtics 99-86, earning the coach his 400th career victory while securing the team’s hold on the Atlantic Division lead, and few people were as genuinely excited as Smith.
“For me, this is absolutely ridiculous, to be here with Coach, to be an owner of my hometown team and to be sitting on the floor when we beat Boston,” Smith said. “Larry Bird ruined my childhood, so this is fantastic.”
In an ideal world, this is the way it is supposed to work. Some kid born and raised in West Philadelphia grows up idolizing Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and the rest of the Sixers, capitalizes on his talents and opportunities to become rich beyond his wildest dreams and comes home from Los Angeles to buy a piece of his beloved franchise.
As the recent lockout and relocation sagas in Seattle, Sacramento and New Orleans sadly reminded us, that’s not always how it works. For may of the men whose names top the mastheads of NBA teams, the franchise is just another business venture. Even in places where winning is part of the tradition, multiple championships can still be viewed as a sunk cost.
The Lakers are starting to have buyer’s remorse over those five championship banners they paid Kobe Bryant to bring them, and the wildly successful Memphis Grizzlies would be a prime candidate for relocation if not for a prohibitive arena lease. There were no stories from the NBA lockout like the NFL’s feel-good tale of Robert Kraft, the local boy who saved his Patriots from leaving the state, reaching across the aisle to help complete a deal that was satisfactory to both sides.
To be sure, Smith holds only token ownership of the Sixers. If the Sixers finish this year another $10 million in the red, as they did in 2011, and continue to play in an arena filled to only 84 percent of capacity, leveraged buyout specialist Joshua Harris will be the person fretting the most. Smith just has to keep clapping during games and kiss Jada Pinkett Smith whenever the camera spots them in their seats.
But unlike some other minority owners, who come to smile and shake hands so the ownership group can build some street cred among fans, Smith seems emotionally (not just financially) invested in his team.
Sure, Jay-Z seems amped about this Brooklyn Nets thing now, but will he still be a visible presence if the team opens up at the Barclays Center next fall with neither Deron Williams nor Dwight Howard on the roster? Unless Mr. Carter has fond memories of being one of the hundreds of fans who watched the New York Nets lose 60 games in their final season at the Long Island Arena, a few more 20-win seasons will temper his enthusiasm.
And Smith? Well, good luck tempering his enthusiasm. This is a guy who released his last rap album at age 36, and he has the market cornered on running away from exploding things while yelling. He’s sort of an enthusiastic guy.
Since assuming ownership last year, Harris’ group has slashed ticket prices by some 50 percent, introduced confetti showers after home wins, acquired the rights to the popular “1 2 3 4 5 Sixers” theme song and positioned the Sixers to control the Atlantic Division for the next several years.
Maybe Celtics fans weren’t too keen on Smith claiming Larry Legend ruined his childhood, but in a way, it was just what any rival fan should love to hear. Instead of some tycoon with slicked-back hair wearing an expensive suit spewing a few canned lines about a Hall of Fame forward he probably never watched play, Smith wore a puffy vest and a Sixers hat while admitting how much he hates the Celtics.
When Smith looks at the team he part-owns, he doesn’t see quarterly reports. He sees the ghosts of Moses Malone and Bobby Jones, just like his sons Jayden and Trey will one day see the red, white and blue and recall Andre Iguodala and Allen Iverson.
Maybe Smith can serve as an example, because in today’s NBA it often feels like owners just don’t understand.
Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame. He will pick a few questions to answer every week for his mailbag.
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