Lewis Katz turned a joke into a winner

Rod Thorn was just on the phone with Lewis Katz last week, the two old basketball guys talking about family and friends. Thorn and Katz had grown close enough to attend the weddings of each other's children, so they were not merely linked by their wildly improbable run of success with the New Jersey Nets more than a decade ago.

"Lewis had just gotten the paper in Philadelphia," Thorn said of Katz's purchase of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "and he was very wired up about that. Things seemed to be going very good in his life. I mean, to have something like this happen is just devastating."

Katz, 72, was among seven people killed Saturday night when their private plane crashed near a Massachusetts airfield. The former Nets owner who had dramatically altered Thorn's career, the man who had seemed so alive on the phone, was suddenly and tragically gone.

"He was one of the more philanthropic people I've ever met," Thorn said Sunday. "He helped so many people and kids less fortunate than he was, from building Boys and Girls Clubs in Camden [New Jersey] to many other causes. He was really a great man in that way."

Thorn would go on about how Katz was comfortable in any setting, about how he had so much going on in his life, about how he counted Presidents Obama and Clinton "and a lot of scions of industry" among his friends. Soon enough, Thorn was recalling the time Lewis Katz sold him on the job of saving the Nets.

"He had to talk me into it," Thorn said through a laugh. "Twice."

Funny how things work out. As the man known for drafting Michael Jordan in Chicago, Thorn had settled into a comfy, cushy career as David Stern's right-hand man in the NBA's league office. Legions of friends and colleagues told Thorn he would be positively mad to surrender all that for the unworthy likes of the Nets, and yet Katz found a way to close the deal, anyway.

"This gives us credibility," he said the day he hired Thorn in 2000. "This is really not going to be a lowly organization for too terribly long."

Thorn drafted Kenyon Martin, and made a once-in-a-generation deal the following summer, trading Stephon Marbury to Phoenix for Jason Kidd. Though the Nets' president wasn't made aware of it -- Thorn dealt directly with his superior, Lou Lamoriello -- Katz wasn't wild about the move, not even close. Marbury was his guy, his personal favorite. Katz had been a driving force behind the Nets' deal with Minnesota that landed Kevin Garnett's disgruntled sidekick, and the owner saw the point guard as a keeper, a local who could sell tickets, and a franchise player who could take the team places it had never been.

Thorn saw something else. The Nets' president identified a me-centric scorer who needed to be exchanged for a quarterback, Kidd, who was a scaled-down Magic Johnson, a visionary passer talented enough to transform the 26-56 Nets from a practical joke (they'd managed one playoff series victory and 13 seasons of at least 50 losses since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger) into a legitimate championship contender. Katz had the power to stop that transaction, and he chose not to exercise it.

"Lewis was always great to me on a personal basis as well as on a team basis," Thorn said. "He was competitive and involved and he wanted to know what was going on, but he was always supportive. He was somebody that I could deal with without any problem."

Kidd carried the Nets to back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals. One day along that magical ride, inside his Yankee Stadium office, George Steinbrenner told me that the job Katz and fellow owner Ray Chambers had done with the Nets represented "the most remarkable turnaround of any team in any sport I've ever seen."

It started with the firing of John Calipari in 1999, back when Coach Cal thought the NBA -- much like major college basketball -- still belonged to the coaches instead of the players. One longtime associate who was counseling Calipari back then told him that winning would protect him from the Katz-Ray Chambers group that had purchased the Nets for $150 million two years after the former UMass coach was hired. Calipari wanted to get rid of an assistant, Don Casey, who was close to Katz, and that wasn't helping his relationship with his boss.

"But I told him, 'John, as long as you're not 3-17, you're going to be fine,'" that associate recalled Sunday. "And that's exactly what John was the day he was let go, 3-17."

Katz cut loose Calipari after a blowout loss in Miami, on a clumsy perp walk to the owner's limo witnessed by the team's beat writers. The methods shaped another Same Old Nets moment, but Calipari wasn't half the coach then that he is today, and he needed to be fired as much as Thorn needed to be hired the following year.

A Camden businessman who made his fortune in Kinney parking garages and highway billboards, and a deep-pocketed fan of the Philadelphia sports scene eccentric enough to heckle Allen Iverson from his front-row seat (a rattled Iverson would have the seat moved), Katz was never afraid to go big-game hunting. He cut a deal with Steinbrenner's Yankees to merge their business interests and form the YES Network. He also threw a ton of money at Phil Jackson in a bid to persuade him to coach the Nets, and Jackson said the offer "captured my imagination" before he turned it down.

"I believe they had a vision," Jackson said of Katz and Chambers before his Lakers swept the Nets in the 2002 Finals, "and that vision is coming true."

The vision didn't last. Katz and Chambers, a Newark philanthropist, had promised to donate a sizable portion of the club's profits to inner-city programs. But no matter how much music Kidd was making on the fast break in the Meadowlands, the Nets kept hemorrhaging money, and the state legislature kept rejecting proposed subsidies for a new arena. The team ranked 26th in league attendance the first season it reached the Finals, and 23rd the second. In 2004, when Katz and Chambers made their $300 million deal with Brooklyn-bound Bruce Ratner, the Nets were 28th in attendance.

"The Knicks were always No. 1 in the market," Thorn said, "even when we were beating them all the time. No matter what we did, we couldn't become the No. 1 team."

Some saw a form of betrayal in the sale, anyway, especially with Katz retaining a stake in the team. But New Jerseyans weren't supporting the winning Nets any more than they had supported the losing Nets, and the owners made a business deal they had to make.

Katz was not a perfect steward of the Nets, but in the wake of his death his legacy as an NBA owner should be framed by victory, not defeat. He was the antidote to his bumbling predecessors, known as the Secaucus Seven, and an ambitious fan who helped create an incredible scene in Boston in 2002.

In the home of the revered Celtics, four years after buying a lost-cause franchise, Lew Katz was among the Nets officials posing with the Eastern Conference trophy in the middle of a champagne-soaked room. Who would have ever believed that?