SI Vault
A Too-Tall Order
Michael Bamberger
December 11, 1995
Sixer owner Harold Katz's big plans for 7'6" Shawn Bradley came up—like Katz—short
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December 11, 1995

A Too-tall Order

Sixer owner Harold Katz's big plans for 7'6" Shawn Bradley came up—like Katz—short

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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.