Monday, August 01, 2016

Donald's Road Not Traveled

Sometime in one of the warm months of 1988, myself and maybe 10 other Patriots beat reporters were in a stuffy room in the Norfolk County Courthouse, watching top=shelf attorneys Joel Kozol, representing the Sullivan family, and Robert Popeo, for Philadelphia entrepreneur Fran Murray, argue about who really owned the New England Patriots.

Really sharp lawyers can make the most arcane case entertaining to the audience, and there was nobody sharper than these two. It was a pretty good show -- and show is the operative word here.

Unbeknownst to us, Kozol and Popeo had each made a horrifying discovery. Their clients not only didn't have enough money to own an NFL franchise, they didn't have enough to pay THEM. So while fighting for their clients in court, the two were also acting as brokers, seeking a third party with sufficient liquidity to satisfy their clients' urgent need for cash on hand, own and operate the Pats, and last but not least, assume all legal costs.

After a few days of courtroom scuffling, the two lawyers began a morning session by approaching the bench and informing the judge they'd found such a paragon who'd expressed interest in buying the Pats. In the reverent tones used by art critics naming Renoir, they said that if court recessed, they and the Sullivans would be in Manhattan later that morning to meet with Donald Trump.

Recess granted. Frantic scramble by reporters for pay phones right out of an old movie. I was ordered to fly the shuttle to LaGuardia ASAP and get to Trump Tower by any means possible.

(Those were the days! A newspaper beat guy of 2016 would be told to hitchhike, tweeting all the way.)

The plebian press was confined to the questionable taste and superb acoustics of the Trump Tower lobby while negotiations went on upstairs in Trump's office, or bedroom, or bathroom, who knows?
After more than a few hours, the Patriot supplicants descended and their palpably false optimism let us know that while Trump may have listened, he had not made anything that could be defined as a commitment. No sale.

At the time, we reporters felt this was an example of Trump's business acumen. Why would any sane billionaire get involved in the legal and financial chaos of the Patriots' sideshow? As even the best reporters can, we let the present blind us to the future. It was only years later that Bob Kraft showed us how business acumen, sufficient capital and persistent hard work could turn the NFL's orphan franchise into a gold mine, then an artistic success that was a gold and uranium mine underneath an oil gusher.

As the years passed, I came to a different conclusion as to why Trump passed on the chance to join the most exclusive rich man's club on earth. It wasn't his style. Owning an NFL franchise that both wins and makes money is a full time job. Real estate development is a gypsy calling. Find the project, make the deal, move on. Owning a USFL franchise had convinced Trump sports were a bad fit for him.

Lately, however, I've started to entertain a third possible reason why that 1988 meeting ended without a deal, a deal that would have created an alternative history timeline it's a delight to contemplate (Mine ends with Bill Belichick's trial for murdering his owner). My reason has the ultimate virtue of simplicity.

Donald Trump didn't buy the New England Patriots in 1988 because he didn't have the money either.


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