Gillett, 50, is a short, stocky, bespectacled bundle of physical energy and business evangelism. He grew up in Racine, Wis., the only son of a wealthy surgeon, who financed George's expensive boyhood hobby of racing motorboats and sent him to Amherst College with the expectation that he would study hard and become a doctor. It didn't happen.
"I was a terrible student," Gillett says. "Among other things, I discovered the game of bridge and the women of Smith and Mount Holyoke. I had never been outside a disciplined environment, and I was quite young and I was no good at science courses. I didn't flunk out, but after three years my father called me back to Racine. He told me that I could continue to live at home, but that I was now completely on my own. He told me that if I wanted a college education, I would have to do it alone, but that it didn't appear to him that I was much interested in college. He told me that somewhere I had got the idea with those motorboats on the lake and cars in the driveway that money grew on trees. He also said that if I thought that I would ever inherit a dime of his money, I was wrong, because the Gillett tradition was that the money goes to the women of the family, and, therefore, my sister would get whatever there was."
Young Gillett found a job on the graveyard shift at the local American Motors plant, attended Dominican College in Racine during the day, got a degree in liberal arts in 1961 and came to believe that his father's stern approach had been the best thing that ever happened to him. "Among other things, my father told me that whatever I did, I should always love it, and that I should try to help people be happy if I could," he says. "By saying these things, he unburdened me from having to lead a traditional life or follow traditional patterns."
Gillett's early forays into business were traditional enough—first with a huge paper company, Crown Zellerbach, as a salesman and then as an associate with a management-consulting firm, McKinsey & Co. In 1966 tradition went to hell. Gillett read a study about the coming boom in the leisure-time business in America and decided that his best opportunity lay in sports and leisure management. Six months later he called NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to ask if there were any teams up for sale.
There is still awe in Gillett's voice when he recalls that episode: "Rozelle actually took my call. I was—what?—27 years old, a kid from Racine. I always thought that maybe Pete mistook me for one of the razor-blade Gillettes. My father always used to get a laugh by saying that we had one fewer e and a lot fewer G's than they did. Anyway, I was frank with Pete about who I was and what I had in mind. For some unknown reason, he took me seriously, and he told me that a previously unsold 22 percent of the Miami Dolphins was available. Well, I had a little nest egg put away and I knew where I could get some other money, so, brash kid that I was, I phoned Joe Robbie, and he agreed to see me."
Gillett and one of the heirs to the Racine-based Johnson Wax fortune bought that 22% of the Dolphins, and in January 1967 Gillett moved to Miami to become business manager of the team. "I did some marketing that winter and spring. Ticket sales rose. We drafted Bob Griese. Things looked great," he says. "But I saw exactly one Dolphin game—that was an exhibition against the Broncos in July—and then I was gone."
Opportunity had beckoned once again—an opportunity that was just as bizarre in its way as his buying into the NFL: He became president and general manager of the Harlem Globetrotters. Abe Saperstein, the Trotters' founder and owner, had died in 1966, and the trustees of his estate decided in August '67 to sell the team. When Gillett heard that, he quickly sold his slice of the Dolphins, found another friendly angel to augment his own small fortune and purchased the Globetrotters for $3,710,000.
"The problem with the team was not the show or the management," Gillett says. "The main thing wrong was that it was a one-generation attraction that appealed to middle-aged males, period. We had to broaden that audience to include younger people and women."
One of Gillett's first moves was to widen the Trotters' TV exposure. He went to CBS and asked what kind of rating numbers the network needed to break even in prime time. "They had to have at least an X in the ratings," Gillett says, "so I rashly countered by volunteering that if they didn't get X, then we would do the show for nothing but if they did better than X, they would pay the Globetrotters for a series of prime-time shows. They liked that a lot, but, of course, I had taken a terrible risk." Not So terrible, as it turned out. The Trotters' ratings were X and then some, which assured the team of prime-time exposure for several years.
Still, Gillett wasn't satisfied. He wanted even more kids to see his lovable basketball clowns, so he and Fred Silverman, the programming genius who remade network TV during the 1970s, hatched the outlandish idea of creating a Saturday-morning cartoon series about the Trotters. This, too, worked. By the early '70s the Globetrotters were netting $3 million a year, and Gillett and his three partners sold the team in '75 for more than twice what they paid.