Last October 28, the National Basketball Association's board of governors held a private meeting of team owners at the Equitable Tower in New York. The lockout was postponing the beginning of the season, and the mood was tense. The players' union leaders were meeting at the Sheraton hotel across the street.
It was the first board-of-governors meeting for Lewis Katz, who that day took over as the new co-chairman and principal owner of the New Jersey Nets. A tall, skinny 57-year-old, with just enough light-brown hair to cover his head, Katz felt like an overgrown kid with a big new toy, and he quickly became a center of attention. He began raising questions -- about the new NBA store, about television contracts, about league finances.
"I am going to recognize you again, Lewis," NBA commissioner David Stern joked, "even though it is your first meeting and you are supposed to keep quiet."
Katz is the flamboyant and well-connected front man for a group of seventeen investors, inspired by the publicity-shy financier and philanthropist Raymond Chambers, who bought the Nets for $150 million. They want to make the team into the engine driving a philanthropic plan to redevelop central Newark, fund scholarships and support programs for poor inner-city kids, and recruit the team's players to do part-time social work.
And they may not stop there. People familiar with the group's plans say they have held talks about possibly acquiring the New Jersey Devils and the Minnesota Vikings and even the New York Yankees -- raising the startling possibility that the Bronx Bombers could be working for a group currently dedicated to social uplift in the state of New Jersey.
Katz and the other owners won't comment on any talks. But Katz says they are potentially interested in acquiring other sports and media properties. "If anything comes up, we are keeping our ears open," he says.
The group has acquired the Nets at a time when independent team owners face stiff competition from conglomerates merging teams, arenas, real-estate investments, and media venues. The NBA lockout underscored the unseemly degree to which money dominates pro sports. To many fans, players and owners seem greedier than ever before. But the Nets' new owners have something very different in mind.
"We want to give back," says Katz, a Cherry Hill, New Jersey, lawyer who became a small-town banker, a parking-lot-and-billboard mogul, and a Democratic Party power broker. "With the positions we have, we want to improve the quality of people's lives. We thought a sports team could be very effective, because it's so visible and because so many of the players come from the inner city. If we generate any profits, what we would like to do is give them back to the community, to see if we can make a difference."
To do that, Katz and Chambers have together donated their 38 percent stake in the team to a new charitable trust, the Community Youth Organization, dedicated to providing social services primarily in five impoverished New Jersey cities. Katz and Chambers won't receive any personal gains from the investments. In fact, if the team makes no money, they have promised to donate $200,000 a year to the new trust. "The biggest owner is a nonprofit trust, but it's more of a business," Katz says. "The idea is to invest your capital so that its impact multiplies, for more kids. The people involved are all dreamers."