It’s after 11 p.m. on Monday night, and I’m slumped in my seat on the last Amtrak train out of Manhattan headed for Philly. As I finish off an ill-advised egg-and-croissant sandwich from Dunkin’ Donuts, two black guys, dressed in jeans and baseball caps and roughly 30 years old, sit down in front of me. They’re joined by a white dude in khakis and a button-down, striped dress shirt. He’s probably in his late 50s and looks like a mortgage broker. They make an odd posse. I overhear this joke: “You know what you get back from LeBron James for a dollar? Seventy-five cents. You know why? He doesn’t have a fourth quarter.” All three of them bust out laughing. They’re talking hoops non-stop. It turns out the two younger dudes are off-duty Amtrak workers and serious Sixers fans. The older guy? It’s Sixers CEO and co-owner Adam Aron.
For the next 45 minutes, Aron conducts a pop-up focus group with his two new friends. From the sound of things, they just met minutes ago, but Aron doesn’t hold back from answering all of their questions. What does he think about Andre Iguodala? “Andre was our best player all season. By far. But his trade value won’t be as high in a couple years.” How does he feel about this month’s NBA draft? “We have a fighting shot at getting a player who can make a difference.” Will he use the amnesty clause on Elton Brand next season? “We’d be paying him $15 million for nothing. That’s not funny money.”
The Sixers honcho yawns a few times, but that seems more a sign of his long day than any lack of interest in chatting up his constituents. Whenever he sees an opportunity to pick their brains, he seizes it. “I love Doug, too,” he said of his head coach. “Why do you think he’s so popular?” The guys give props to new TV color analyst Malik Rose. “Isn’t he great?” Aron says, explaining how he recruited Rose for the gig. He launches into the story of how he was tantalizingly close to bringing in the Boston Strangler himself, Andrew Toney, for one of the Sixers playoff games against the Celtics. The guys lose their minds. “That crowd would have gone crazy!” one of them says.
After a few minutes, I realize that I’m grinning—not because I’m hearing Sixers intel, but because I’ve stumbled into a rare moment. Watching a team’s top executive spend so much time with a couple of working-class fans is like seeing Bigfoot petting a unicorn. This isn’t a photo op. He doesn’t know I’m a reporter. These two guys aren’t even season-ticket holders. Aron asks how many games they’ve attended. A couple, they reply. He doesn’t hit them up for a 10-game plan. “That’s great!” he says. At times, Aron seems to be the one who’s most excited about their rap session.
The end of the Sixers season left me with a funny aftertaste—great promise for the future, but still a lot of question marks. Taking Boston to seven games was a bit of a mirage. They still need an impact player to make them truly competitive in the East; when Chicago and Miami are healthy, the Sixers are hopelessly outclassed. Yet this scene gives me a sense of hope that the team’s brass has their hearts in the right place. Aron isn’t shy about his opinions on personnel—Evan Turner needs to work on his mid-ranger jumper, he says, and a possible trade target the fans suggest would destroy the team’s chemistry (“That guy’s like Terrell Owens”). He also has the good sense to leave the basketball decisions to the guys who get paid to make them. “I know what I’m good at,” he says. “Confetti after the games. And the national anthem singer is really cute.”
As the conversation finally winds down somewhere near Trenton, one of the fans says, “Thank you for everything you’ve done and for talking to us regular guys.” Aron smiles. “That’s very nice of you,” he tells them. “I’m a regular guy, too.” Of course, regular guys don’t run the Sixers. And those guys usually don’t spend nearly an hour talking to strangers about their team. Seems like some other suits in South Philly could learn a few things from one of the newest sports moguls in town.