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The son of a lumberyard owner, Kroenke grew up in what was less a town than a village, two hours southeast of Kansas City. "I know this will sound corny," he says, smiling at a memory and causing that formidable mustache to curl up, "but I really walked to a one-room schoolhouse, two and a half miles each way." He played most sports as a kid, once putting up a record 33 points in a Cole Camp High basketball game. Attending Missouri on an academic scholarship, he spent much of his time running a clothing business that he describes as a precursor to The Gap. ("Sold it for a pretty good profit too," he says.) Kroenke stayed in Columbia to get his MBA and fell hard for a class in international business: establishing trade partners beyond borders; finding new market opportunities; hedging against currency fluctuations. There was one problem. "It was the only international business course they offered," he says. "Isn't that something?"
Around that time Kroenke took a ski trip to Aspen and met another Missourian, Ann Walton. They began dating, and on breaks from school he would visit her family, often hunting with her father, Bud, and her uncle Sam. Kroenke would ask them about their business, a chain of large retail stores they called Walmart.
Stan married Ann in 1974 and began a career in real estate development. He and his partners bought and cleared land for apartment complexes and strip malls and gas stations. Though Kroenke's associates stress that his success was independent of his wife's family, his company also developed malls anchored by Walmart. In 1991, Kroenke founded THF Realty in St. Louis. The acronym stood for To Have Fun, but it also made money; according to THF's website, it's a $2 billion company with properties in 18 states.
Make no mistake: Kroenke enjoys the trappings of wealth. He and Ann own a yacht and a jet. His Napa vineyard, Screaming Eagle, sells mostly cabernet sauvignon, some of which retails for more than $1,000 a bottle. He owns the largest working ranch in Canada, in British Columbia, as well as a 540,000-acre spread in Wyoming. Both properties turn a profit. Last year he and Ann bought one of the most expensive homes ever sold in Aspen. In Denver, Stan usually stays in a deluxe penthouse attached to the Pepsi Center. There's also a seven-bedroom Tuscan-style villa in Malibu that he bought from the estate of Dodi Fayed, the gentleman friend of Princess Diana.
That said, Kroenke takes pains to conceal his fortune. Pointedly, Stan and Ann are listed separately on the Forbes list. (She's worth $4.5 billion in her own right.) Their children—Whitney, 35, and Josh—went to public school in Columbia. When Josh played basketball at Missouri, he lived in modest housing with a teammate, Kareem Rush.
Those in his orbit invariably have a story about how Stan—always Stan, never Mr. Kroenke—lacks arrogance or ego or look-at-me sensibilities. Talk about him with anyone in his circle and the words grounded and humble and normal are in heavy rotation. "Stan's just this modest Midwest guy," says his friend Jon Sundvold, a former Missouri and NBA player. "He'll meet people and only later will they learn that he owns all these sports teams." Two years ago, when The New York Times published a front-page article about Kroenke, he and Ann were vacationing at the Canyon Ranch resort in Arizona with friends: sportscaster Al Michaels, former Rams executive John Shaw and their wives. "I'm at breakfast reading this story about the guy sitting across the table from me," Michaels recalls. "No big deal. Stan was more interested in where we were going to go hiking that day."
Kroenke still shoots the J, hikes mountains and squeezes in frequent early-morning workouts with Nuggets strength coach Steve Hess; he can bench-press 225 pounds 12 times. A few years ago, as the NBA team was evaluating draft prospects, a rumor rocketed around the Pepsi Center that the owner's percentage of body fat was lower than that of most of the players under consideration. Kroenke prefers buffalo meat to steak, eats a lot of fish and claims that the last time he got sick was in 2001. "And I could swear," he says, "that it came from drinking out of the Stanley Cup."
Earlier this year Jeff Fisher flew to Denver to interview for the St. Louis coaching job with Kroenke and the Rams' chief operating officer, Kevin Demoff. At one point Kroenke suggested that they take a lunch break—at Denver's oldest bar. "I'm thinking, We're selling Jeff Fisher on this global sports empire, and we're eating bison burgers and fries off paper towels?" recalls Demoff.
Fisher's take: "I'm thinking, That's the kind of guy I want to work for."
Kroenke's friends had long suggested that he buy a sports team. Lord knows, he had the wealth, and Lord knows, he liked the core product, but he wasn't going to own a franchise just for the sake of it. For all the great values Kroenke finds in sports, he's not drawn to money-losing propositions. In 1993 he looked into bringing an NFL expansion team to St. Louis, which was still smarting from the Cardinals' decamping to Arizona in '88. Though the new organization was awarded to Jacksonville instead, two years later Kroenke helped grease the skids for the Rams' relocation from Los Angeles, buying 40% of the team for a reported $80 million on the express condition the team move to Missouri. Within five seasons the Rams were Super Bowl champions. (In 2010, Kroenke bought the remaining 60% from the heirs of Georgia Frontiere for $450 million.)