“May I ask you a question?” Josh Harris asks me.
Suddenly my heart starts beating a little faster and my body tenses up.
For the past several minutes, I had been listening to Harris, who graduated Wharton in 1986 and wrestled at Penn, explain what had pushed him to buy into the three professional sports teams he currently owns stake in. I was ready to ask him another question, but the thought of being put on the spot by the private equity investor who Forbes estimates has a net worth of 3 billion dollars was enough to give me some jitters.
Luckily for me, Harris doesn’t skip a beat.
“Is it okay if I walk downstairs and call you back from a car?” he continues.
“Oh yeah, no problem,” I respond.
“That would be great, just because I have to get to a meeting and it will give us a little more time,” he answers.
I thank him for the time he’s already given me and he tells me he’ll call me right back.
Just over five minutes later, he does just that. This time, I don’t skip a beat. Right away I ask him the question I was thinking of earlier and we pick up the interview right where we left off.
In the moment, I didn’t think much of this little exchange. In fact, it wasn’t until I sat down a day later to listen to the interview recording that I started thinking about it again. That's when it struck me; who in the world was Harris going to meet?
Just a couple of months ago, he had sat at a table with President Donald Trump, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and several other prominent business executives and Cabinet members. I also know that in the past, he had seriously considered running for political office as a Republican, but he ultimately decided that he could accomplish more in the private sector.
I didn’t know this at the time of the interview on Thursday, June 15, but the very next day, rumors began to explode that Harris’ NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers, were well on their way to negotiating a trade for the Boston Celtics’ No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft next week. That trade was officially approved several days later, paving the way for the Sixers to select Washington guard Markelle Fultz with the Draft's first pick.
I still have no idea who Harris was driving to meet with, but I do know one thing; whoever he was going to meet with is definitely a heck of a lot more important than I am.
As I’ve thought about it more, though, I’ve realized that maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that Harris agreed to let me interview him. While he keeps a low public profile, especially compared to a certain other Republican billionaire who graduated from Wharton, there are a couple things that are pretty easy to find out about him.
For one, he likes to stay busy. And this is something he’ll be the first to tell you. In his own words, “I must admit I’m like a 24/7—you know, I have a lot of energy.”
In my words, I wouldn’t be very surprised if most of his car rides are filled with phone calls and the fulfillments of various other responsibilities.
Secondly, he's candid about the status he holds, but he doesn’t try to isolate himself within that position. Instead, he makes conscious efforts to use his status to make a positive impact. For example, in 2015, he gave the Philadelphia Police Athletic League the largest donation it’s ever received. More recently, he has worked to launch local chapters of After-School All-Stars, a national non-profit organization dedicated to creating after school programs to keep at-risk youth on safe paths to success.
Despite these efforts, much of the media attention he does get has been critical. In 2015, he came under fire after he landed his helicopter on a school field that forced two youth soccer teams to cancel their game. It didn’t matter much that the school had previously given him permission to do this. And even though it was the school’s scheduling error, he still took it upon to himself to apologize to all the kids and invite all of their families to join him at a New Jersey Devils’ game, the NHL team he owns.
Even with the Sixers, plenty have criticized him for the approach the team has taken to rebuilding. After five straight losing seasons, many have accused the Sixers’ management of “tanking”—essentially prioritizing the potential of future success over the desire to win now. This Harris won’t apologize for.
“We have conviction that our strategy is right,” he tells me.
One could even say he trusts the process.
Harris acknowledges that “when you’re going through it, it’s not a lot fun,” but the approach has shown results. Wins have remained elusive, but the Sixers now boast one of the most promising young rosters in the league, which in large part, is due to the trades that Harris has signed off on.
The numbers validate the optimism as well. When Harris originally bought the Sixers from Comcast-Spectacor in 2011, the team had a season ticket base of only 3,000. Now, according to Harris, that number is approaching 14,000.
Harris has also seen incredible financial return. His investment group was able to purchase the Sixers with a bid of 280 million dollars. A recent estimate from Forbes valued the team at 800 million.
The fact that the Sixers have proven to be a wise investment for Harris shouldn’t be very surprising. After all, it was the success of his private equity firm, Apollo Global Management, that allowed him to accumulate the capital to buy the Sixers in the first place.
Harris, however, is quick to credit others for much of the success in his various ventures.
“What we do is we run them in a way similar to how we make private equity investments in terms of finding great people to run the business or the team,” he explains. “So for example in the Sixers’ case, I have Scott O’Neil running the business and I have Bryan Colangelo as the GM of the basketball. Ultimately, on a day to day basis, they are running the team and the business of the Sixers.”
That doesn’t mean that Harris isn’t involved in the big decisions, though.
“I have power in that I hold them accountable, but in terms of major decisions, I am definitely at the table,” he says.
With the NBA Draft and free agency period looming, Harris will likely find the Sixers taking more and more of his time as the team will have to make several important player and personnel decisions.
Something tells me Harris won’t mind the extra time commitment, though.