Just before the pandemic, I took a friend’s son to a Sixers game. We were seated under the basket, caddy-corner to the Sixers’ team bench. “Who is that?” my young companion asked. “Is that the Sixers coach?”
He was eyeing the team huddle during a timeout, zeroing in on the diminutive elderly figure who seemed to stand if not in it, then smack dab on its periphery. While the team gathered, while the coach gave instructions, there stood this interloper, impassive, right on the edge of the most insular moment in sport, decked out in full Sixers regalia — the jersey reading “Sixth Man” on the back, the ball cap. When the huddle broke, the players turned to high-five and hug this strange Buddha-like presence in their midst, some sort of solemn ritual, before heading back out to engage in hardcourt combat.
“No, he’s not the coach,” I explained. “But he’s kind of the heart of the team.”
And, one might add now, of the city. I speak of Alan Horwitz, who turns 80 next week and who for decades has held his perch for all to see at Sixers’ games right next to the team bench, a seeming extension of it. He’s a wealthy developer turned late-in-life philanthropist, and he has redefined what it means to be a fan — a fan of a team, a fan of a city. His is a dying breed; Philadelphia has always been a place dotted by the inspiring presence of characters and by men and women of character, and Horwitz qualifies on both fronts.
Real estate developer, craps aficionado, sideline maniac — the only fan I know of not only to have a technical foul called on him, but also to have been tossed from an NBA game. You see him tooling around Rittenhouse Square in his black Lamborghini and you think, There’s a guy who knows how to wring joy out of life. The last time I bumped into him, at Zarett Rehab, the physical therapy spot where legions try to stave off the encroachments of age, I made the mistake of announcing to a roomful of hyperventilating machers that Horwitz had once been ejected from a Sixers playoff game at Boston. (Yes, he goes to away games, and has been known to fly on the team plane.)
“Rondo set me up!” he roared, referring to the then-Celtics’ point guard, and then he was off, telling the tale, but in that Philly way of assuming that one’s listeners know the backstory’s ins and outs. Something about how, in reaction to Horwitz’s heckling from his seat near the Celtics’ bench, Rondo used the presence of his teammates as a shield to hide the lowering of his own shoulder into the loudmouthed fan. When Horwitz followed Rondo onto the court, all 5’8” of him getting up in the pro athlete’s face, security descended. At least I think that was the gist — in the telling, there’s so much detail and outrage and good humor mixed in, it can be hard to keep track.
That’s Horwitz, all Philly and all heart, in the way that those two things so often intertwine. Those traits will be on full display next week, at the opening of the state-of-the-art Alan Horwitz Sixth Man Center opens, a basketball and education complex in North Philly that, for nearly a decade, has been the driving dream of Kenny Holdsman, a visionary and hustler with a background in education. This will be no soulless hoops factory. Instead, it will be, in the words of Holdsman, a “holistic on and off-court program” that provides at-risk youth positive coaching relationships, not to mention a curriculum built around sportsmanship, resilience, conflict resolution, academic support and leadership and character development.
“Alan has something to share.”
Back in 2018, Holdsman had raised all of $2 million of his then-$25 million goal. This being Philly, where the default position on ambitious dreams tends to be No, there were real doubts. And then, one day, a teary-eyed Holdsman entered Fitler Club. His friend, Andrew Yaffe, asked how he was doing.
“I’m reeling,” he said. One of his beloved PYB youth mentors, Joe Daniels, had recently been murdered in Strawberry Mansion, leaving behind a 10-year-old son, Zahir. “Wait here,” said Yaffe, one of many Horwitz mentees.
When Yaffe returned after a call to Horwitz, he asked if Holdsman could bring Zahir, his family, and 25 of Zahir’s closest PYB friends to that Friday night’s Sixers game. I was there that night; I remember Horwitz courtside, amping it up pre-game with Zahir and a group of his wide-eyed pals. The next thing Holdsman knew, he was hearing tales of Horwitz taking Zahir to Eagles games and to hang out with Joel Embiid and other Sixers stars.
Holdsman placed a call to developer David Adelman. “What don’t I know here?” he asked.
Adelman, who is a supporter of The Citizen, is not Horwitz’s biological son, but the two have long been intimately linked. When Adelman was growing up, Horwitz was a close family friend — hilariously, a long-ago bet between the two started Adelman’s career in real estate, and Adelman ultimately took over and grew the company Horwitz had founded, Campus Apartments.
Real estate developer, craps aficionado, sideline maniac — the only fan I know of to not only have a technical foul called on him, but to have been tossed from an NBA game.
“You gotta understand,” Adelman told Holdsman upon hearing of Horwitz’s burgeoning mentoring of the grieving Zahir. “This is very personal to Alan. He lost his own father when he was 10 years old.”
Like Zahir, Horwitz was born in Strawberry Mansion before the family moved to Wynnefield. The tonic for the 10-year-old fatherless Horwitz? The religion of Philly basketball, which linked races in Philly — particularly Blacks and Jews — in a way few other outlets could. He went to Overbrook High, a few years behind Wilt Chamberlain. He’d watch the Big Dipper in the Overbrook gym, mouth agape.
His father had owned some distressed real estate properties, and in his teens Horwitz cruised around town in a Dodge convertible, collecting rent. Soon, stricken with the real estate bug, he dropped out of high school to grow his father’s business. In the early 60s, he noticed a crowd of Penn students lined up around the block for housing. Geez, their parents sure would love it if there were a landlord who professionalized the nonexistent student housing business, no? In short order, he transformed University City, and then Adelman took the company national. (It now has over $2 billion in assets.)
As his business grew, Horwitz performed charitable one-off acts, but he wasn’t what you’d call philanthropic. Then, a few years ago, came his $2 million donation out of some $10 million raised by Adelman for the Horwitz-Wasserman Holocaust Memorial Plaza at 16th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Wasserman? That was Sam Wasserman, the family friend and Holocaust survivor who became a de facto father to Horwitz after his father’s death. So here was Adelman, Horwitz’s de facto son, enabling his mentor to honor his own father figure. “We went to movies. We went to sports events,” Horwitz said of his relationship with Wasserman in the Jewish Exponent at the time. “I would talk to him about my girl problems. Whatever it is. Typical stuff you talk to your dad about. What David talks to me about all [those] years. I was like David’s dad. That’s the craziness about it. It’s like history repeats itself.”
Now comes the Alan Horwitz Sixth Man Center, with its roots in the tragedy of Joe Daniels’ murder and Zahir’s loss of his father. While Holdsman struggled to raise funds, Horwitz made the connection: PYB was all about how basketball can change lives, and he’d seen the truth of Holdsman’s proposition in his own life. He wanted to help. He and Adelman arranged a call with Holdsman.
“Kenny, Alan has something he wants to tell you,” Adelman said, in on the joke.
“Kenny,” Horwitz said, “I know you’ve got a capital campaign going and I want to help. So I’ll buy one of those $250 paver bricks. That good enough?”
Dead silence. Holdsman knew that, as he puts it, from a man of Horwitz’s stature, a paver brick “wasn’t even a single.” But he couldn’t say that. “Well, I’ll never look a gift horse in the mouth,” he said. “But I was hoping for something a little more substantial.”
Pause again. Adelman, the kind soul, couldn’t keep up the act. “Kenny, Alan has something to share,” he said.
“I’d like to have my name on the center and be the lead gift,” Horwitz said.
It would be a $5 million contribution, and it would make Holdsman’s project real in the eyes of Philadelphia society, opening up the philanthropic floodgates. With the imprimatur of the Sixth Man and of Adelman, Holdsman raised $21.5 million over the next 13 months. “People knew that David Adelman and Alan Horwitz play to win,” Holdsman says. “Without them, I’m uncertain we would have broken through.”
A character in a town of Sixers game characters
When asked what accounts for Horwitz’s late-in-life generosity, Holdsman says that as people age, they look for meaning and purpose. For something that says they were here and made a lasting impact.
That’s probably true, but I think Horwitz had purpose all along. He was of that generation of Philadelphians who carped some diem every damn day. Sixers games were full of such characters. Many of them, not surprisingly, were swaggering developers — because to build is to convince yourself of your bullshit before selling others on it, at which point it ceases to be bullshit.
The most prominent was the late Steve Solms, whom Horwitz has modeled himself after. He too sat courtside and was considered part of the team. I still remember that momentous night of Dr. J’s first game, when Solms walked to midcourt — uninvited — and bestowed upon the player with the coolest nickname in sports a black medical bag, the applause raining down.
Even the announcer at those games was unique, the late, legendary Dave Zinkoff. He was a type of anti-announcer, with his nasal Philly twang. One night, he called out my seat number — I’d won a raffle prize. I nervously made my way to where he bellowed into his courtside microphone, and promptly collected a salami he pulled out of his briefcase. Dave Zinkoff carries salami in his briefcase. I treasured that salami until it turned colors. Solms, Zink, Horwitz: a generation of quirky characters who oozed passion for the quirkiest of cities.
The fans get these characters, and the notion that there are many ways to show love for your city. That’s why social media blew up a while back when a viral clip appeared to suggest that James Harden had blown off Horwitz. Now, I think the evidence is inconclusive. And, anyway, I was already sick of Harden’s dribbling the ball until the shot clock was winding down. But when I saw the clip of the Sixth Man approaching Harden at the scorer’s table to no doubt impart some words of wisdom, and Harden maybe ignoring him and walking away? I was like all those who opined on Twitter: Man, fuck James Harden. He doesn’t get us.
Even before Adelman became a Sixers owner (buying Michael Rubin’s minority shares), the team promised that, if they win a title, Horwitz will get a ring, just like the players. That alone is enough to make me root like hell for them, because when that facility opens next week? It will have a civic champion’s name on it.
MORE SPORTS COVERAGE FROM THE CITIZENAlan Horwitz, left and Kenny Holdsman, director of Philadelphia Youth Basketball pose for a photo in front of a future hoops facility that will include a dozen courts, among other amenities. Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Youth Basketball.