Lewis Katz’s life was filled with joy and love — for his family and friends, people in need, his alma mater Temple, sports (that’s the Nets’ NBA Eastern conference title trophy he is hoisting) politics and much, much more
By Theodore N. Beitchman
Lewis Katz was a man of many enthusiasms.
He was a wildly successful businessman, a loyal friend, great father, granddad and husband. And he was a generous philanthropist and a spectacular political fund-raiser, which is just another form of philanthropy.
He had homes in Philly, Manhattan and Florida, but he always considered himself a Jersey boy, which he was when his dad died and his mom raised him on a secretary’s salary in a poor section of Camden.
And Lew Katz was one of the biggest sports fans I have ever known.
He was tall and lanky and I imagined he would have loved to have played basketball for Harry Litwack at Temple, his alma mater. His dexterity and competitiveness came in handy when he joined a game of Horse with President Clinton, Ed Rendell and David L. Cohen in Cohen’s City Hall office 20 years ago.
Like a lot of fans, Lew lived vicariously through sports.
One of the first things he told me when we met in 1992 was how proud he was that he and his 9-year-old son Drew had box seats for the 1980 World Series at the Vet. And when a foul fly popped out of catcher Bob Boone’s glove and into the diving Pete Rose’s mitt, “We got on national television!” he exclaimed with a broad smile on his face.
Lew was scary smart, won scholarships to Temple and Dickinson Law, became an attorney and a Camden County freeholder, then got into business — banking, real estate, billboards, parking lots and cable TV — all of which made him a boatload of money. But he was a true democrat (as well as a big-ticket Democrat), and he judged people on their character, their manners (especially to servers in restaurants and of course valet attendants) and their loyalty.
He was supremely modest, unlike a lot of wealthy folks who need for you to know how many things they own.
One night in November 1997, I spotted him before a Sixers game in his first-row seat and congratulated him on his recent business success. He had sold Kinney Parking to a national company and he had a million options in CoreStates Bank when it was sold to First Union. He never cashed the shares of a small Jersey bank he had sold in the mid-1980s, and the shares kept rolling over with each succeeding bank sale. That week the strike price was $81.75.
“Yeah,” he agreed, “I had a pretty good week.”
His modesty was put to the test when he and fellow philanthropist Ray Chambers bought the New Jersey Nets, who were described by the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan as the “Exit 16W Nets,” owing to the fact that there was no city to speak of around the Meadowlands Arena.
They had a unique business model: 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. If there was any profit, $250,000 annually would be plowed into Newark.
New York magazine was so enamored of Lewis that a starry-eyed profile called him “The Nets’ Good Guy Owner.”
Unfortunately, the Nets and the Devils, which Katz and Chambers had also acquired, were hemorrhaging money — even though the Nets went to the NBA finals in 2002 and 2003 — and they had to keep plowing cash into both franchises.
But Lew’s business chops came into play. What about a regional sports network? No one would want one with just the Nets and Devils. So he approached George Steinbrenner about the idea, got the green light and then got Goldman Sachs to invest. The YankeeNets were born and with it the YES network, which today televises the Yanks and the Nets, who now play in Brooklyn, and was sold to Fox two years ago.
Lewis never said if his investment in YES was his biggest payday, but all he would say was, “Steinbrenner was the worst partner I ever had.”
Reams have been written about Lew’s generosity to countless people and institutions like Temple, the Boys and Girls Clubs and many others. And I recommend my old boss Ed Rendell’s sweet piece on today’s Inquirer op-ed page. Ed knew him better than most people, and he provides an insight into Lew’s character and his generosity.
In the last few years I would run into Lew around town or more often on Amtrak headed to Manhattan. He would pick my brain about the Inquirer and Daily News, and one day two years ago when we got to New York he gave me use of his town car and driver until he needed it that evening. A nice perk in a place like Manhattan.
He was headed to a Park Avenue fund-raiser for Doris Kearns Goodwin’s son who was running for office in Massachusetts, and he invited me. I couldn’t go and he texted me all during the event to entice me to come — “You can’t believe who just walked in!”
After he and Gerry Lenfest won control of the Inquirer and Daily News in an auction, I saw him last Friday when he banged on the window at Smith & Wollensky and waved. He was in a great mood, and he texted me Saturday at 4:30 and said we should have lunch this week.
Five hours later he was dead in a plane crash after a charter school event at the Goodwin home in Massachusetts.
It’s hard for many of his friends to get our heads around Lew’s death, so I will quote the late great New York Times columnist John Leonard:
“The definition of a friend is someone the world can least afford to lose.”