THAT FITZ, HE'S A HONEY

Honey as in money, with which Fitz Dixon, owner of the 76ers, is lavishly supplied. He bought that sculpture—now if only his players could love one another...
November 06, 1978

He is standing disconsolately in one of his outer offices, this proper and burdened man who, it is rumored, was born wearing a necktie. The late afternoon fall sun highlights the glories of his 500-acre farm just outside the Philadelphia city limits; four years ago Philadelphia magazine said the flowers alone were worth $1 million. But he pays no attention. For Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr., 55, is brooding. He stands among other reminders of how rich he is (net worth: $150 to $200 million, in the estimate of Dixonologists), including models of airplanes he owns or has owned, a small replica of one of his yachts, an autographed basketball and, perhaps most significant, a tiny nickel slot machine.

All around are plaques extolling Dixon's virtues—Man of the Year, Splendid Achievement and myriad other boy-are-you-super sentiments engraved in brass and cast in bronze. So much demands his attention. There are his other homes, in Maine and Florida, his 81-foot yacht, his horses (thoroughbred, show jumping, dressage), his cars, his cattle, his sheep, his charities (this year, he and two other trustees have started dispensing $22 million from the estate of his uncle. George D. Widener, and Dixon says it's a problem because the trust "grows at more than $1 million a year"), his involvements with educational institutions, his civic responsibilities, his sporting investments (he was in the Intrepid syndicate when it defended the America's Cup in 1970 and he owned a share in Secretariat when the Triple Crown winner was sent to stud.)

Dixon's most public trinket, however, is the Philadelphia 76ers. It is a team that for the third year in a row is said to be the best in the NBA, although it turned out not to be the best in the playoffs of 1977 and 1978. "Sometimes," says Dixon at the end of this very trying day, "I wish I didn't have all this bleeping money."

Ah, yes, the bleeping money.

Nothing irks him more than constant reference to it. He wants to be loved for himself, not for his checkbook, yet they seem inseparable. All conversational paths lead to Dixon's dollars, which makes him explode, "There you go, talking about the bleeping money again. Let's talk about something else." Only grudgingly does he admit that there is a chance people might be nice to him and say yes, sir, to his every statement because of his wealth. But late one day when there were no more phone calls, no more interruptions, no more meetings, he said, "When you have as much money as I do, you are viewed from a different perspective. I know that. I just hope that when they put me in the sod, a few people will shed a few tears and somebody will say, 'Yes, sir, that Fitz Dixon, he was a pretty good boy.' "

Indeed, Fitz is a pretty good boy—impatient at times, irritable (his wife curbs his appetite for martinis because she says they make him that way), compulsive, quick to blow up. But generous. Lord, is he generous. Yet he is almost a prisoner of his fortune, which he inherited from his mother, Eleanor Widener Dixon. It was Great-Grandpa Peter A. B. Widener who founded the fortune with dealings in public transportation, Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, the then fledgling tobacco industry and the first lead acid battery. But Fitz Dixon, to whom so much has come, seems somehow cursed by the cash. "Money," he snaps on the way to one of his garages that reveals two Mercedes and a Bentley T2, "does not ensure happiness. Or success."

Nowhere is that more evident than in his 95% ownership of the Philadelphia 76ers. It is his toy. But it always seems broken, and he complains that it is taking a lot more time than he thought it would, often as much as one hour a day. He finds it difficult to explain why he bought the club for $6.2 million in May 1976, from paper executive Irv Kosloff. Kosloff and his son recently repurchased 5% with the option of acquiring up to 25%, which Kosloff says they will do. Says Dixon, "I just always wanted to own a pro team in Philadelphia." He has often been on the fringes, and Bill Campbell, a Sixers broadcaster, says, "He chafes when he's not in control."

In the '40s, Dixon was involved with the Phillies. He owned 1,000 shares, which he bought for $10 each and eventually sold for $50 and $100 apiece. In the '50s, he owned two shares of the Eagles, purchased for $3,000 and sold shortly thereafter for $65,000 each; Dixon laments that he should have bought the whole club then for $5.5 million. Years later, he stopped bidding on the Eagles at $14.5 million; that time the club went for $16.1 million. Why did he desist? "Sixteen million was too much," he says. He recently owned 25% of the Flyers, which he purchased for $1.2 million and sold for $2.2 million—after he failed to buy out his partners. He did own Philadelphia's pro lacrosse team, but the league bellied up and Fitz lost $1 million. "I guess I bought the basketball team because I hate soccer and this was all that was left," he says. "Frankly, my background in it is zilch."

Indeed, not long after Dixon purchased the team, General Manager Pat Williams told him, "Julius Erving may be available to us."

Dixon: Who is Julius Erving?

Williams: Uh, well, he's the Babe Ruth of basketball.

Dixon: Oh.

Clearly, then, he is not in the game because of his longtime love for it. And it is not because his father enjoyed owning the Philadelphia hockey team and, with a partner, a controlling interest in the old football Eagles. Says Fitz Sr., "Everything was going out, nothing was coming in. It wasn't fun." Nor is it because Kosloff spoke glowingly of the experience: "As an owner you can do one heck of a job and things still turn out wrong."

No, the most logical explanation is that Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr., his blood a dazzling blue, simply longs to be one of the boys. And, his disclaimers notwithstanding, he yearns for public adulation. Or at least thanks. Serving on hospital boards and being a member of the Jockey Club doesn't cut it in the hearts of the beer-and-T-shirt crowd. Therefore, basketball—the game of city streets—may be Dixon's ultimate pipeline to the ears of the average guy. If the Sixers are good, then news of Dixon's other enormous good works likely will be spread more thoroughly throughout the Delaware Valley. Certainly the masses are not going to stand and cheer his work as president of the Philadelphia Art Commission or Chairman of the Board and sugar daddy at both Temple University and Widener College; they may, however, applaud the Sixers.

After graduating from Episcopal Academy in suburban Merion, Pa. Dixon attended Harvard for seven months. He then joined the Episcopal faculty. That was partly because the private school was not stuffy about shortcomings like lack of a college degree and partly because Dixon could do whatever he wanted—and he wanted to teach. During his 16½ years there he taught Pennsylvania history, health, English and French and served as assistant to the headmaster. He also coached football, tennis and squash. "I was a pretty good teacher," says Dixon. "Those were the happiest days of my life." He left in 1960 when it was time, in the Dixon pecking order, for him to handle the family business. Jay Crawford, headmaster at Episcopal, says of Fitz' buying the 76ers, "It's just an itch he always wanted to scratch." But thus far the Sixers have left Dixon scratching his head. They have brought him little more than boos, grief and torment. And more attention to his bleeping bucks. The Sixers, like the Yankees, have been called the Best Team Money Can Buy, but Pat Williams insists that's a bad rap because, he says, there are three or four teams with higher payrolls than the Sixers'. And the only star player whose contract Philadelphia has out-and-out bought recently was Dr. J before the 1976-77 season. That deal, of course, was a whopper. After the papers were signed, even Dixon was impressed. "I can't believe it," he said, "I just spent $6 million for one basketball player."

A lot of fans thought that meant Dixon also had just bought an NBA championship. After all, he had three of pro basketball's 10 best players in Dr. J and George McGinnis (both getting $400,000 a year) and Doug Collins ($350,000). After losing to Portland in the finals in 1977, in part because of inept play by McGinnis, the team got a slogan for the following season: We Owe You One. But the Sixers lost in the division finals and fans quickly concluded: You Owe Us Two. This year there is no slogan, partly because Dixon doesn't like debts that can't be repaid.

The Sixers have been one of the greatest collections of one-on-one players in the history of the game—which has been the problem. What they really needed coming down the court was five basketballs. Last year Collins said, "Coaching this team borders on the impossible." One writer suggested that the players' attention spans could be timed by the 24-second clock. And when Dixon fired Coach Gene Shue only six games into the 1977-78 season—a move Dixon insists was not impulsive—the boss picked up the paper to read, "So, once again. we learn that you can go to Harvard, build a few ships, wear polished loafers and still confuse manure with tuna fish." Dixon says he has never built any ships.

It's this kind of thing that has led to Dixon's simmering relationship with the press. Says one reporter who covers the Sixers, "He thinks because he gives all this money to charity, he should be treated like a saint. After all, he has been treated that way his entire life." It doesn't serve Dixon well these days that he has adopted a Nixonian attitude toward the local writers, repeatedly referring snidery to "my friends in the Philadelphia press."

The problem exists largely because Dixon—for all his locker-room language, which most think he uses to try to be like the other boys—is ostentatious. Which he comes by naturally. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the fantastically rich do put their pants on differently. Even Erving, one of Dixon's big admirers for reasons beyond the money Fitz pays him, admits, "His presence can be intimidating. It's nothing he does. It's just power." Says another writer, "He's not an evil man. He just doesn't know how to behave."

That may be too harsh, but it is true that the Fitz Dixons of this world are not accustomed to criticism. Like most executives, he says he doesn't want to be surrounded by yes men; but like most executives, he really does. One notable exception to the yea-saying is Williams, who is among the sport's most astute executives. But while Dixon's underlings are given to saying yes, yes, yes, the press is given to saying no, no, no, and Fitz feels that this attitude has unjustifiably warped his image. Four incidents have contributed to the public conception, or misconception, of Dixon:

•When he bought the team, the question immediately arose, "Will he buy us a championship?" That is precisely what Dixon intended, and intends, to do. Yet the question itself intimates something impure. It's as if it is somehow better to have drafted or traded or hoodwinked than to have spent. Which is nonsense. Williams, in a feet-on-the-desk conversation, muses, "I've told Fitz, and he absolutely agrees, that having the best players doesn't guarantee anything but having a better chance. The trouble is the public views us as swaggering along and buying whatever we want. That's not true. But success in pro sports is predicated on being a high roller." Again, the bleeping money.

•After a loss during the 1976-77 season, Dixon said to Shue, "What's your excuse tonight?" Shue and his friends considered the comment in poor taste, classic meddling by an uninformed owner. Dixon, greatly embarrassed, insists he said it as a joke. But the incident definitely made Fitz frosty toward the press. Says he, "It doesn't take any genius to learn to keep your damn mouth shut." Whatever, this episode set in concrete the unfair view that Dixon is a meddler, treading unfamiliar boards and taking off-balance shots. Nobody admits less knowledge of basketball more quickly than Fitz Dixon. "I'm just a spontaneous, outspoken and occasionally obstreperous fan," he says. Says his son George, "I do think there are times when he opens his mouth and blurts something out when he could use a little more discretion." But Pat Williams comes to Fitz' defense, saying, "In this era of power-crazed owners, I tell you Fitz is a relief."

•The Shue firing. The timing was atrocious. Shue had taken over the Sixers in 1973-74 after they had finished the previous season with a 9-73 record. Three years later they were in the NBA finals, and to fire him in the off-season would have been outrageous. But to do it after a 2-4 start in 1977-78 hardly improved Fitz' reputation for impulsiveness. Fact is, Dixon didn't like Shue, the coach's life-style, or much of anything about him. Dixon talks privately of other factors, but he had been carrying the noose for some time and needed only to find a suitable hanging tree. A 2-4 record was a bad choice. Dixon could have said, "I'm firing Gene Shue because even though he's a great coach, I don't like him." Of course, that wouldn't have won him many points, either.

•Dixon descended from his private box once and viewed a game from court-side. He liked it. So that's where he always sits now. But he didn't like people walking in front of him, so he has guards stationed so nobody can block his view or otherwise disturb him. Obviously, he's the owner, and if he wants to be the only one in the Spectrum for the games, he can do that, too. The point—and the point that is lost on Dixon—is that to the average fan who pays $5 to $9 a ticket, such behavior is ostentatious. Fitz can do this, don't you see, only because of his bleeping money.

While the going has been rocky his first 2½ years, Dixon doesn't cotton to the suggestion that he is still trying to learn how to be an owner. "I know how," he says. He wants to be loved by Philadelphia fans (although daughter Ellin says, "He doesn't get up in the morning and say, 'Oh, God, I wonder if everybody will love me today' "), but his demeanor is forbidding. One of his 76er board members, Bob Babilino, says, "He's respected around town—and sometimes feared." Dixon genuinely doesn't want to interfere, but he wants to know; he wants to be close to the players, and at arm's length from them. He has had parties for the team, but the athletes didn't really like to come, and when new Coach Billy Cunningham gently told Fitz so, Dixon understood. "Christ, I don't want to spend $10,000 to entertain a bunch of prisoners," he said.

Dixon likes to tell how he was the first one in the hospital room to see Erving when he was hurt, how he and his wife paid a call on Cunningham to console him after the team was eliminated from the playoffs last year. "There's nothing he wouldn't do for any of us," says Dr. J. And there is nothing cheap about Fitz Dixon. His devotion to Philadelphia is unquestioned. Alas, if his style were just a little smoother. If he just wouldn't spend so much time complaining about the difficulty he has keeping the mobile phone working in his Mercedes.

Winning, of course, will cure most of the problems. When hopes are so high, as they have been in Philly, the fall is tough. This year dawned with new optimism. And with justification. For one thing, George McGinnis had been traded. McGinnis and Erving did not mesh, and twice in playoffs, McGinnis was a flaming failure. Gene Shue twice asked Fitz to get rid of McGinnis. Once the request so angered the boss that he snapped, "If you can't coach him, I'll get somebody who can." But when Cunningham was hired and several months later made the same request, Dixon acquiesced. Why? "I have to take advice from somebody," he says.

So last summer McGinnis was sent to Denver. The main man the Sixers got in exchange was Bobby Jones, perhaps the league's best defensive player. He runs, steals, blocks shots, rebounds and—egad!—passes off. All of which are novel to most of the members of the gang that can't shoot enough. Says Jones, "I don't have to have the ball to be happy." Experts think Jones just could be the one to make the Sixers whole, the guy who will teamwork the club to the title. Is that true, Bobby? "Aw, once a trade is completed, everybody says that." The difference, in this case, is that a lot of people think it's true.

Does Fitz Dixon expect an NBA championship? "Sure," he says. "I have felt like we were good enough to win for two years. But it's just like making a good daiquiri. You take three parts of rum, one part lime juice. Everybody does that. But then I add a dash of Cointreau. It's that Cointreau that just makes a daiquiri. And it's that dash of Cointreau that we've been missing."

Dixon says it is disheartening to frequently watch a flagrant lack of effort on the floor. He sniffs, "I try to treat the players like men, but some are children. I do think they should work as hard for the dollars I give them as I work for the zero dollars I get at Widener and Temple." Dixon knows what it's like to work for someone else from his days at Episcopal Academy. When he retired in 1960, he was dragging down $7,800 a year. "I fully realize," he says, "that I am very lucky not to have to work for a living."

Dixon, a man of neatly structured schedules, doesn't like surprises. He does like watching the local news on television at 6 p.m., the national news at 6:30, having cocktails at 6:45 and dinner at 7:30. He doesn't like to party along the Main Line and he has few close friends. When he goes to restaurants, he goes where he is known. Bob Bruce, vice-president for development at Widener, says of Dixon, "He works very hard to use his money properly, and Philadelphia is a lot better off for it." Few dispute that, for Widener-Dixon money cuts a wide swath, in ways big and small.

Example: A fireman was killed and Dixon promptly sent a $17,000 check to pay off the man's mortgage.

Example: A piece of sculpture—the word LOVE—had been on loan to the city and on display in Kennedy Plaza. But the sculptor, Robert Indiana, wanted it back or, in lieu of that, $45,000. Dixon stepped forward, said he'd pay $35,000, and thus a typical Dixon-style compromise was struck. "I like it," he explains. "A lot of other people liked LOVE. And I couldn't imagine the city coming up with the money to pay for it." But even that didn't make everyone happy. A letter to the editor of one paper said, "If Dixon wants to do something for the city, why doesn't he lower ticket prices instead of giving $35,000 to buy a damn sculpture?"

Not long ago Dixon was looking for educational institutions to be-friend. Living in a huge house ("When I asked a friend of mine who had 10 kids if he'd like to buy it and he said it was too big, I knew I was in trouble") and anxious to get rid of it, he offered it to the University of Pennsylvania. The university said if he would include $35,000 a year for five years for upkeep, they might be interested. Whereupon Dixon called Temple University and had lunch with the president, who was delighted long before coffee was served to accept the house. It is now the Eleanor Widener Dixon Conference Center. Dixon subsequently has made substantial contributions to Temple in time and money. Already this year the George D. Widener Trust has given more than $2 million. Penn no longer interests Dixon.

Last September, after one of Dixon's horses, Jet Run, won the American Gold Cup, a premier show-jumping event, Fitz leaped to his feet shouting, "Holy cats in the outhouse." It was an unguarded moment of excessive exuberance, such as he might exhibit following an Erving slam dunk. "I can really make an ass of myself," Fitz Dixon says, "but I'm a hell of a fan." And that self-portrait is the bleeping truth.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERJulius Erving and Bobby Jones get the jump on Dixon on the basketball court, but Fitz has the horses off the court—for example, Jet Run, who can fly and who has given his owner a title.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)