During his five-year reign as president of the Philadelphia 76ers, the upbeat, unabashed, and sometimes corny Pat Croce turned the team into the Cinderella story of the NBA and achieved folk-hero status. This is what real leadership is all about.
The insanely upbeat former Philadelphia 76ers president proves that nothing succeeds like excess.
Pat Croce was early for his lunchtime appointment at the Palm Restaurant in downtown Philadelphia. It was a chilly day two weeks before Christmas. Croce paused in the sunshine at the entrance to the Palm on Broad Street, the city's central thoroughfare. A man wearing tortoiseshell glasses and a trench coat emerged from nowhere, grabbed Croce, and hugged him. Holding each other by the elbows like wrestlers ready to grapple, the two men exchanged pleasantries. "I love you, you're the best," said the man, heading off. Croce turned to me. "He's a neighbor of mine," he said. "A lawyer."
A moment later an attractive young woman hurrying along the sidewalk hailed Croce and swooped in to hug him. Croce introduced her to me as Alison Grove, director of corporate sponsorship for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
A middle-aged woman in a crimson parka, her blond hair in a ponytail, was not far behind Grove. She hugged Croce, too. "Maybe you can help me," she said to Croce. The woman asked Croce for advice about what she should do with her framed photo of the New York skyline. "You know me, I'm at 104," she said as she unlatched herself from Croce and scooted down the sidewalk, her ponytail bobbing behind her. "I don't know who she is," Croce said under his breath. "I don't even know what 104 is." And he hustled into the Palm.
Along with such exuberant salutations as high-fiving and hey-dude-ing, hugging is a Croce trademark. He made his ebullient national debut (of sorts) in May 1996, as the new president of the Philadelphia 76ers. Onstage with other representatives of National Basketball Association teams for a nationally televised broadcast of the league's draft lottery, he erupted with glee when the 76ers wound up with the number one pick. He leaped to his feet, pumped his fists, slapped the palms of the other teams' representatives. Then he hugged David Stern, the proper, gray-haired NBA commissioner, kissing him on the cheek, and patted him on the sleeve of his suit jacket.
Pat Croce talks at full throttle. He doesn't walk into a room; he bolts in like a bronco. "Hi-ya doing, big man?" he'll say. Or, "Yo, hey!" Ask how he's doing, and he booms out, with zero trace of irony, "I feel grrrrrreat!"
That three-word effusion is Croce's mantra. The titles of his two recently published books -- one a memoir, the other a compendium of motivational pointers -- play off the I-feel-great slogan. His latest book, 110%: 110 Strategies for Feeling Great Every Day, underscores his theme of heady optimism and dares to recommend such platitudes as rise and shine (no kidding) and buy a comfortable pair of shoes (no kidding, again), while making his own fetish explicit: "Hug things (people, trees, etc.)."
If Croce's style is cornball, verging on buffoonery, his unabashed attitude is "Damn right." "I'm making corny cool," he boasts, breaking into a toothy grin. He exemplifies an extreme variety of an American archetype. Call it the Dale Carnegie man. Croce's is the extravagantly upbeat personality that, when seen in glad-handing politicians and high-pressure salesmen, causes people to, well, gag and recoil.
Yet in Croce that upbeatness appears to work. He enjoys folk-hero status in his native Philadelphia. His mirthful face is as familiar to people of the city as the sober visage of another former local entrepreneur, Ben Franklin. "The king of Philly," said Charles Pizzi, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, when I asked him about Croce, whom he has known for 18 years. The reason for Croce's success, Pizzi said simply, "is the power of his personality."
There's no gainsaying his success. Croce's rise from a down-in-the-trenches physical therapist to one of Philadelphia's most successful entrepreneurs is the stuff of legend. He built his company Sports Physical Therapists (SPT) into an 11-state chain with 40 locations before selling it for about $40 million, in 1993. His record as a basketball impresario is, if anything, more remarkable. During his five-year reign at the 76ers (Croce resigned in July after being rebuffed in his bid for a larger role in the sports franchise's parent company), his team was the Cinderella story of the NBA. Before he took over, in 1996, the team's wretchedness was painfully evident, as much in its feckless business management as in its dismal won-lost record. Croce is widely credited with reinvigorating the business of the 76ers. Not coincidentally, the born-again team swept to the finals of the NBA championship last year.
Still, at the time of my conversation with Pizzi, I couldn't imagine that Croce had achieved his blockbuster success because of his hurricane-force personality rather than in spite of it. I doubted that his outlandish style could work to his advantage when he was functioning as a manager and leader. Operating at 110% joviality, as his book exhorts, wasn't just a mathematical impossibility. To me it seemed like a bad idea.
For the record I should say that, coming to this story, I was on guard against a Croce charm offensive. People who are always up, always bursting with happy talk, I regard as suspect. I see them as likely to be tedious and cloying, even false and manipulative. Do any of us, in this day and age, really believe in the power of positive thinking? Encountering unbridled optimism, I just wonder what I'm being sold. And frankly, a whole lot of selling is what I expected to encounter in Croce.
When I met him last December on the day before our lunch at the Palm, he was about to board an executive jet for a chartered flight from Philadelphia to Nashville. He had invited me along to hear a motivational speech that he would deliver later in the day to sales representatives of Reynolds and Reynolds Co., a maker of auto-industry software.
He didn't hug me. He extended his left hand for me to shake. He recently had had surgery on his right elbow and was sparing it on doctor's orders. Though his elbow ached, he smiled broadly and exuded good cheer. Despite his black belt in karate and reputation for derring-do (as recently as November he'd disarmed a knife-wielding suspect in Love Park in downtown Philly), Croce didn't seem physically imposing. Of medium height, as spare as an oak plank, and wearing goggle-style glasses, he was dressed almost entirely in black: long-sleeved shirt with a polo-style collar, trousers, and shoes. The garb would have been suitable for a clergyman.
During the two-hour trip to Nashville, Croce, who is 47, talked openly and easily about his background. His given name is Pasquale, after his father. The father, who died in 1993, was an Italian American who grew up in a Philadelphia orphanage and worked as a salesman and then a supervisor for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. The family was devoutly Catholic and lived in an inner-city neighborhood of north central Philly, eventually moving to the working-class suburb of Lansdowne. Croce attributed his "dream genes" -- that is, his optimistic nature -- to his mother, Dolores, who's of Irish descent and a former nurse. "She's a very positive person," Croce said. "I knew when my mom said, 'You can do it,' I could do it. That's how dumb I am."
About his father Croce said, "Loved me," but added quickly that he "beat the fuck out of me." (When I later called Dolores Croce, she concurred that the father had been a strict disciplinarian with Croce and his three younger brothers -- there were no sisters -- but went on to say that the father, like the son, had been uncommonly, vivaciously sociable. "That's the Italian," she said. "They're huggers." And, she noted, "his father was a super salesman. Pat's just like him in that way.")
When Croce's plane arrived at the Nashville airport, a black Lincoln Town Car limousine was waiting for him on the tarmac. His speech an hour later to 1,200 people in a ballroom of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center smacked of a rock concert. ("I'm an entertainer," he had told me during the flight.) With his fists raised in victory-salute fashion, he rushed onto a stage accompanied by an earsplitting rendition of "Born to Be Wild." On the two giant screens flanking him, video images flashed in rapid-fire succession. They showed Croce doing such things as cheering on the 76ers, bungee jumping, directing the Philly Pops Orchestra, rollicking in a wheelchair, gunning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and, decked out in grand-marshal attire, leading the Miss America Parade in Atlantic City.
If Pat Croce's style is cornball, verging on buffoonery, his unabashed attitude is "Damn right. I'm making corny cool."
Speaking for hire is one of several activities that Croce is pursuing post-76ers. He's working to "brand" himself, as he puts it. That is, he aspires to make his name nationally known so that he can exploit his fame in a variety of profit-making endeavors, not unlike Martha Stewart or Jimmy Buffett. Among Croce's milestones so far are a regular gig as an NBC basketball commentator and a weekly column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which he hopes to syndicate nationally. A subscriber-supported Web site that he envisions as an interactive motivational guide Ã la Croce is in the works.
What I found most noteworthy about Croce's performance in Nashville was less the content than the style. Throughout, he maintained the same high-voltage delivery and hyperkinetic flourishes with which he had begun. The message was standard fare as speeches by motivational gurus go. As in his book I Feel Great and You Will Too!, published two years ago, Croce extolled the virtues of a can-do attitude and never-say-die perseverance. Heed my example, Croce said in effect, as he drew on experiences from his life to illustrate how he had prevailed against long odds time and again. "You have the power, each and every one of you," Croce told the audience.
Making Torture Fun
Above all, Croce would have the world believe that he has the power. Make that powers. Energetic, driven, detail oriented, competitive -- Croce certainly possesses the stereotypical qualities of a successful entrepreneur, as his friends will point out over and over. "He's probably off the scale when it comes to his passion for winning," says Joe Masters, a friend of Croce's since high school and the best man at his wedding.
However, that supernova of personal power appears to run amok in ways that, by all rights, ought to hurt Croce as a business leader. That's the side of Croce that his friends have in mind when they joke that they drink only decaf when he's around and say that he's basically just a big, zany kid abounding with adolescent-like energy.
When he was a teenager, Croce had a yen for conferring nicknames on his friends. Masters became Bator, a creative extension of his last name. Others in Croce's circle were dubbed Jakester, Meat, and Hole. Masters recalls Croce as a "skinny little kid" in high school who played football tenaciously and was the first one to leap into a fight against a bully. Even then, Croce had a knack for organizing others. "It was always, like, 'We're gonna do this,' " Masters recounts. " 'We don't have Eagles tickets, but we're gonna go anyway, and we're gonna get in.' And we'd sneak in."
After stints as a physical therapist for hospitals in the Philadelphia area, Croce founded SPT in 1984, wheedling a local banker into lending him the $40,000 he needed to finance the start-up. It was part of a breakaway movement in physical therapy, and Croce was one of the boldest mavericks. His emphasis was not simply on treating injuries but on marketing sports-training services to fitness-minded Americans. Until then, physical therapists had worn white lab coats bearing the profession's official emblem on a patch on the pocket. Croce outfitted his employees in black warm-ups. "Physical therapists didn't knock on doctors' doors and ask them to send them business. Pat did," explains Masters, who worked for Croce at SPT and at the 76ers, where he is director of fan relations.
Croce had an eye for collecting friends who could put SPT on the map. A chance meeting in 1985 with Pierre Robert, a deejay on popular WMMR Radio, prompted Croce to invite Robert to work out every morning at SPT -- gratis. "He was taking it upon himself to find people who had extra baggage and offer them the opportunity," Robert recalls.
With Croce presiding, the workout sessions were "torture at the highest level possible," Robert says. If you didn't hit your weight, Croce would hover over you as you stood on the scales. "He would tell you what to do," Robert says, "and his henchmen would see that you did it." Robert's goal was to snap off 30 push-ups in a row. One day, when he stalled at 18 or 19, Croce noticed. "He starts yelling from across the room," Robert continues, "and comes running over and kicks me in the stomach. I collapsed on the floor. I was so mad, I started to take a shot at him." But Croce just laughed, and Robert couldn't resist joining in. Croce had a saving grace. He meted out the same torture to everyone, regardless of standing. When one bank executive swelled to more than 215 pounds and lied about it, Croce handcuffed him to a stationary bicycle.
A motley crew of celebrated athletes was soon working out at SPT. One morning six-foot-seven, 200-pound Julius Erving, then the 76ers' star forward, failed to show up for his 7 a.m. session. Croce telephoned Dr. J, as Erving was known. His wife, Turquoise, answered and told Croce that her husband was asleep, thank you. "He goes, 'Get Dr. J up right now,' " Robert recalls. "And she wakes him up. And Pat says, 'It's not a question. Are you going to make it? If you're not coming in now, I'm going over there to drag you here.' And Dr. J came in."
Before long, Robert was on WMMR offering early-morning physical-fitness tips he'd picked up from Croce -- a PR bonanza for SPT. Looking back on those days, Robert sounds wistful, even deeply grateful to Croce. "He helped me more than I could have helped him," Robert says.
Besides getting into shape, Robert got a front-row seat to witness the effects of what he describes as Croce's "unstoppable" drive to help people reach their goals. "People loved it," he says. "You feel pumped up when you're around him. What I've said is, 'Couldn't I get blood from him and bottle it and take an injection and feel wild and crazy and kooky like him every time I did?' "
People who subjected themselves to Croce's fitness regimen were awarded T-shirts emblazoned with bravado: "I Survived Pat Croce." Even the torture he made fun.
A Listener's Ear
Once he cashed out of SPT, Croce hit upon a wild and crazy and kooky scheme: he would buy the Philadelphia 76ers from the team's sole owner at that time, Harold Katz. And he did. The story of how Croce pulled off that caper occupies a special niche in the Philadelphia sports annals. Suffice it to say that for five months Croce chipped away relentlessly at Katz's reluctance. Asked at a news conference in March 1996 why he was selling to a group of buyers assembled by Croce, Katz quipped, "Pat Croce called me 50 times."
The challenge of bagging the 76ers played to Croce's strengths: boldness, doggedness, and unstinting optimism. Running the team was something else again. As I started to look into how Croce had fared as president of the 76ers' 80-employee franchise, I wondered if his bull-moose personality would suit a job that had to be done in a fishbowl and that demanded a manager's subtlety and finesse.
The job that Croce tackled was all the more daunting considering that, by the spring of 1996, the 76ers were the doormat of the NBA. The scene at the team's arena seemed ever more ugly and hopeless: Demoralized players were locked into long-term contracts. The fans' resentment was hardening, a fact that was increasingly conspicuous by their absence from games.
In one of his first moves as the incoming president, Croce offered Dave Coskey a job. Coskey had mixed feelings about it. From his three or four years as the team's PR director in the 1980s, he remembered Croce as an upbeat guy who had worked as a consulting sports trainer taping ankles in the 76ers locker room. Now Coskey renewed the acquaintance. He developed a favorable impression of what Croce might be like as a boss. He believed that they were of one mind when it came to dealing forthrightly with the news media. What's more, he sensed that Croce would foster a spirit in which "other people would enjoy your success as much as you do," Coskey says. He accepted the offer.
But once installed as the 76ers' vice-president of communications, Coskey chafed under Croce's management. Croce struck him as a fussbudget and intruded into what Coskey considered his domain. "I don't need a den mother following me around" is how Coskey, now the 76ers' executive vice-president, puts it. However, Croce listened to Coskey, recognized that he could handle the job, and backed off.
The capacity to listen keenly to others -- to keep an open mind and seriously consider others' points of view -- is a quality that stands in uneasy equipoise with the kind of blast-furnace confidence and drive that Croce embodies. Nevertheless, Croce does seem uncommonly blessed with a listener's ear. That quality served him well as he undertook the task of winning back the hearts of 76ers fans.
The circumstances could hardly have been bleaker. It wasn't just the disaffection among 76ers fans, who had suffered through five losing seasons in a row. That was horrendous enough. It was also the locale: Philly is known as a particularly brutal sports town. In 1999, for example, fans didn't even allow rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb a chance to suit up with the Philadelphia Eagles before booing him. Eagles fans chartered a bus to New York City and descended on the National Football League draft lottery to greet him with hoots and catcalls when the team chose him in the first round. Philadelphia bears a further distinction as a place where fans once booed the Easter Bunny during a Phillies game and pelted Santa Claus with snowballs during an Eagles game.
The chief executives of pro sports teams tend to make themselves scarce outside their corporate suites. Not Croce. Right away, he held an open meeting of season-ticket holders at the First Union Center. If they had complaints, he wanted to hear them straight from the shoulder. "I listened, and I took it, and at times it was heated," he recalls. To answer to bewildered fans after he hired Brad Greenberg as general manager, in May 1996, and then fired him less than a year later, Croce called another meeting. "I think that was absolutely the right thing to do because everyone was in an uproar," remembers Bennett Oltman, an apparel manufacturer and a longtime 76ers season-ticket holder who was at the meeting. Snagging the highly regarded Larry Brown as the 76ers' coach, soon after Greenberg's departure, further assuaged the fans.
Croce reinvented the role of NBA team owner, becoming to pro basketball what Sam Walton had been to retailing. Croce, by God, would meet and thank his customers personally. Before every home game he was a highly visible presence at First Union Center. As fans swarmed into the lobby, he was there to greet them, pump hands, ask their names. (Croce is obsessive about asking people's names, wherever he is.) He was publicly available in a tangible way. With his unflaggingly upbeat style he personified a dramatically different tenor in the 76ers' management. Croce in effect became "the fans' owner," Oltman says.
It only enhanced Croce's image in the fans' eyes that he "was from the streets, a Rocky-type guy," as Oltman puts it. Allen Iverson, the sensational guard the 76ers acquired with their number one draft pick in 1996, wasn't the only one on the team to be festooned with tattoos. The team president was, too. When Croce exhibited a wear-and-wash Liberty Bell tattoo commemorating the GOP Convention in Philadelphia, two years ago, it didn't seem hokey. He already sported a Queen of Diamonds superimposed over a tortuous dragon on his right arm, a black pirate ship under full sail on his left, and a brilliant parrot on his back -- all real.
Croce's realness was a source of great strength. He knew who he was. He had his rough edges, but he didn't pretend otherwise.
The more I learned about Croce and his tenure at the 76ers, the more I began to see his unassuming nature, especially his willingness to listen carefully to others, as an important counterbalance to his thundering style. If his manner seemed overbearing on the face of it, people didn't see him that way. They responded positively to his zest for fun and competition, his self-confidence, and his optimism. But people rallied to him, no less, because he was a leader who seemed genuinely interested in hearing where they wanted to go. He was manifestly believable to 76ers fans when he said, in so many words, that he wanted to win as much for them as for himself.
Croce may have a powerhouse personality, but he lacks the arrogance that's often associated with power. "He's a lunatic," notes Bill Lyon, longtime sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and coauthor of Croce's two recent books, "but in a lovable way."
The Magic Wand
In December, when I boarded a Citation Ultra to fly to Nashville at the start of two days of Croce watching, I was prepared to meet a beguiling personality. His sociability, I resolved, wouldn't distract me from my mission of divining how his peculiar brand of optimism motivated -- or was it manipulated? -- the people around him. Sure enough, I found Croce to be uncommonly likable. The Nashville audience apparently enjoyed his speech, feeding off his extraordinary energy and exuberance. He received a standing ovation.
But as Croce and I headed back to the Nashville airport, I felt that I still didn't have a completely satisfying answer to my question. With the speech behind him Croce seemed to relax. During the return flight to Philadelphia we settled into plush leather seats. We ate sandwiches and knocked down some Miller Lites.
When we finished eating, I picked up the thread of my interview with Croce, my notebook and pen in hand. What struck me most about him was the intensity etched in his face not when he talked but when he listened. He seemed to fix his head into place -- frozen. He locked his blue eyes on mine. I thought of a laser beam.
I asked how he came up with his "I feel great" signature line. It happened in the 1980s, Croce said. He was the host of a call-in show on a Philly radio station. For an hour each weekday morning he would answer questions about sports medicine. When a caller asked him how he felt, Croce replied with his stock line: "I feel great." He in turn would ask each caller, his voice warbling with enthusiasm, "How are you?" If callers responded with a listless "good" or "OK," he wouldn't take the question. Either they said, "I feel great," or he hung up.
"I believe that if you say it, you'll start to believe it," Croce explained to me. And he'd noticed something else. When he uncorked an "I feel great" in person, people would stand up straighter, intrigued. "They're thinking,'Why do you feel great?' All of a sudden, they want to know why you're feeling that way. It engages them," he said. If it boiled down to a variation on the old clichÃ‰ -- smile at the world, and the world smiles back at you -- so be it. If it was based on a fib -- surely Croce didn't always feel great -- that didn't matter, either. The gimmick, however primitive, worked.
My jaundiced impressions I kept to myself. Our conversation turned to the question of why Croce, a wealthy man, would undertake a new career as a national media star. He referred vaguely to wanting to have an "impact."
Then, with a flick of his wrist, he whipped the pen out of my hand.
"If this pen was a magic wand and you could do anything you wanted, what would you do?" he asked. I was momentarily stunned. Croce's audacity, which I had gauged with detachment until that moment, had become abruptly real. His snatching of my pen was a breach of civil behavior. He might as well have booted me in the stomach while I was doing push-ups. But I didn't detect the slightest malice in those laser-beam eyes. I sensed an overweening desire to help me succeed on my terms.
Those eyes left no space for an evasive answer. I babbled something about writing a book. He homed in: What book? When could I start? It was a galvanizing moment. He was the magic wand, empowering me to reach for my star.
Joseph Rosenbloom is a senior editor at Inc.
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