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Reinsdorf's Secret Weapon

From Comisky Park the the United Center, Howard Pizer has greased the wheels behind the deals.



For the last ten or so years, the wizard at the wheel of Jerry Reinsdorf's sporting empire has been a wiry and bespectacled lawyer named Howard Pizer.

By title, Pizer is executive vice president of the White Sox and the United Center, though a more revealing depiction of who he is and what he does is offered by the man for whom he's worked since 1972. "Howard's my right hand, my left hand, and half of my brain," says Reinsdorf, owner of the Bulls and the White Sox. "Without Howard there wouldn't be a Jerry Reinsdorf, or at least I wouldn't be what I am."

Like Reinsdorf, Pizer prides himself on being a dogged negotiator, someone unlikely to enter any deal that won't make rich men richer. So it's remarkable to find him at the forefront of a quixotic crusade to rebuild the near west side, a community devastated by riots, disinvestment, and neglect. His bosses (in this case, Reinsdorf and Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz) are the frontmen. But Pizer's the one attending meetings with residents, wooing developers, reviewing contracts, and leading potential investors on neighborhood tours.

If the west side blossoms--and so far it's in the first stages of bloom with new housing and businesses cropping up around the United Center--Pizer and his community allies will have succeeded where social workers, activists, politicians, and other businessmen have failed. "I think that one day this will be a flourishing neighborhood--not Lincoln Park, but a mixed-use neighborhood where people of all incomes live side by side," says Pizer. "And if you had asked me 30, 20, even 10 years ago whether I would be a part of something like this, quite frankly I would have had to say no."

By his own definition, Pizer was "a quiet boy, shy and reserved--a classic late bloomer--the kind of kid who blended in." Born in 1941, he grew up in Hyde Park, one of three children. "I was a mediocre student," he says. "I liked sports, but I wasn't very athletic." He was the equipment manager for the basketball team at Hyde Park High School. "I ran the clock and called in the scores to the City News Bureau. For fun? I'd go to the Museum of Science and Industry on Saturday, buy an orange drink, and have a hamburger. To me, that was a great way to spend a day."

Pizer says he hit his stride at Northwestern law school, where he finished second in a class of 150. "I went to the University of Wisconsin and studied accounting because my father thought it would give me something to fall back on. But I wasn't interested in accounting, so I went into law school. I liked the challege, the interaction. I wanted to go to class; I took down everything the professors said. I discovered I had an ability to absorb details and put them in order so a complex problem began to make sense."

While still in law school, he married Sheila Graff, "a wonderful girl I met in high school," and after graduation he went to work for McDermott, Will and Emery, a corporate firm. He specialized in multimillion-dollar mergers and acquisitions. "I'd travel across the country and find myself sitting across the table from some 50-year-old lawyer out in San Francisco or someplace, and we'd be haggling over the details of buying a company. I loved it. I loved studying the business and walking the factory and soaking up the details.

"I was pretty involved in my work. I didn't pay much attention to the world around me. Civil rights, antiwar protests--I didn't follow that stuff."

In 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and riots erupted on the west side, Pizer and his wife were living on the 16th floor of a high-rise apartment complex on the near south side. "I remember walking back from Michael Reese Hospital after my daughter Jacqueline was born, and looking out the window to see the west side in flames. I thought, "What kind of world am I bringing my child into?' The west side was so removed from what I was doing. It was a different world."

The job that changed Pizer's life came in 1972, when he was 30 years old. He was restless with his place in his work, concerned that partnership might pass him by. So when an opportunity arose, he took a job with another law firm, Katten Muchin & Zavis, where he met Reinsdorf, then a 36-year-old tax specialist.

In Reinsdorf, Pizer says, he saw "a very smart man willing to take a risk."

And in Pizer, Reinsdorf says, he found a hard worker with a sharp eye for detail and a nimbleness with numbers--a lawyer's lawyer who could get things done and get them done fast. "If you give Howard a project he can finish it," says Reinsdorf. "He has an amazing ability to juggle a million different things in his head at once. He can handle more things than anyone I know."

Reinsdorf was in the business of finding tax shelters. He realized there was money to be made by combining his clients' assets and putting the cash in real estate and out of the hands of the IRS. In 1973 Reinsdorf formed Balcor, a real estate syndication company. Pizer went with him. "At Balcor we put together, through public offerings and private placements, money to buy real estate all over the country," says Pizer. "I was the general counsel, which means I was the one who coordinated all the securities offerings."

It was at Balcor that Reinsdorf earned his reputation as a shrewd operator. His timing was perfect: he anticipated the real estate boom and unloaded the company before the bust. He also got out of the business before changes in the tax code made such investments a harder sell. At Balcor Reinsdorf and Pizer honed a working relationship that remains: Reinsdorf initiates the deals and Pizer takes it from there. "People don't try to get to me by going over Howard's head--it won't work," says Reinsdorf. "I don't second-guess Howard. I let Howard be the bad guy--he's the guy who says no for me. Don't come to me if you have a problem with Howard--I'm afraid of him."

The range of matters and minutiae Pizer attends to is remarkable for a man of his rank: in a matter of minutes he will, for instance, field calls from caterers, lawyers, political operatives, and security guards dealing with everything from lunches to leases to the Democratic convention. He will handle each matter with rapid-fire certainty, allowing the callers a moment of chitchat before zipping to the point, cutting them off if they start to wander. Within an hour he will have made decisions on a dozen little matters, none of which will ever cross Reinsdorf's desk.

"These details are drops in the bucket," he says. "Jerry doesn't know about them. Why would he? If I called him up about any of them he'd say, "Howard, why are you bothering me with this?"'

The relationship works well for Pizer. He--like other long-term employees of Reinsdorf (most notably Bulls general manager Jerry Krause)--vigorously praises his boss. Through Reinsdorf he gets to strut his stuff, achieving an unimaginable prominence as a backroom strategist and negotiator and emerging on a first-name basis with business and political power brokers.

"I was recently vacationing in Hawaii with my family and I had some business that kept me on the phone, and my wife and daughter wanted to know why I couldn't be with them," Pizer says. "I sat them down and said, "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for this business.' That's how I feel in general. Sure, it's nice to dial a number and tell the secretary "It's Howard Pizer' and have the governor or the mayor take my call. But I know why they take my call. I understand that if I wasn't seen as Jerry Reinsdorf's right-hand man they wouldn't give me the time of day. I recognize the reality. It's because I'm with the White Sox or the United Center. I owe that to Jerry Reinsdorf and I don't forget it."

Unlike Krause, who says he can't imagine working for anyone else, Pizer once broke away from Reinsdorf--or tried to. "By the end of 1980 I was going to do something on my own in real estate development, when Jerry called to ask if I would assist him in the acquisition of the White Sox," says Pizer. "It wasn't supposed to be a permanent job--I was the information gatherer. I went to the old White Sox park and interviewed employees about their jobs to learn how a baseball team operates. After the closing Jerry said, "Can you stick around a little longer and help me through this?' That was the end of my real estate business. I stayed on with the White Sox, the longest temporary job in history."

When the White Sox were taken over by a consortium of investors led by Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, the team was tottering near bankruptcy. It didn't have the money to pay star players. The new owners started strong. In their first few seasons they signed free agents, spruced up the park, rebuilt the lower deck, negotiated a more lucrative concession deal, ringed the outfield with revenue-raising billboards and ads, and (to bring in a new generation of fans) installed a video scoreboard and piped in rock music between innings. They also began aggressively hawking season-ticket packages. Much of the work, says Reinsdorf, was overseen by Pizer and a young assistant, Terry Savarise (now vice president of operations for the United Center and the White Sox). "Howard did it all for us," says Reinsdorf. "I'd say, Howard, we need a new parking lot deal or a concession deal or whatever, and he did it. What he didn't know, he learned."

According to Pizer, they were trying to transform the team's image and broaden the team's fan base. "There was an image problem. The park was known as the world's largest saloon and people felt uncomfortable coming with their families. One of my jobs was to crack down on it. We posted a code of conduct. We told people they could cheer, but no profanity, and if they bothered their neighbors we'd throw them out. We beefed up security and we did throw out the abusive fans. We turned around the atmosphere in the park. Like Jerry said, "When you're training dogs to go outside, you rub their nose in it and eventually they get it."'

In 1983 the Sox won the Western Division title and were poised to grab the city's first sporting crown since the '63 Bears. But they lost the American League championship to the Orioles, and within a year the team had collapsed and attendance dropped. It wasn't long before Reinsdorf began campaigning for a new stadium. "Old Comiskey was falling apart," says Pizer. "We had an engineering study that showed it was in horrible shape."

What followed was four bitter years of negotiations during which the White Sox probably lost as much as they gained. Yes, they got the state to build them a new ballpark. But only after alienating many longtime fans by threatening to leave town. The struggle cast a shadow across the team's reputation that still has not receded. Some fans aren't convinced the Sox even needed a new park, and many still don't believe the owners' original engineering report.

Reinsdorf kept saying that he wanted the team to remain in Chicago, but in fact Pizer was in Saint Petersburg negotiating a stadium deal the very night that Governor James Thompson finally begged and bullied enough legislators into approving financing for a new ballpark across from the old one on 35th Street.

On the day the stadium opened in 1991, Reinsdorf's private box was packed with power brokers and politicians from both parties, most of whom still toast Pizer as a consummate bargainer. "You can say that Howard helped save the White Sox for Chicago, that ballpark wouldn't have been built without him," says John Glennon, an investment banker who was Thompson's chief adviser on the stadium project. "He was open-minded to our needs. He was pragmatic and he consistently told the truth--that's a hallmark of the way he does business. I think the park was great for Chicago--it would have been awful had the White Sox left."

But to many, the new stadium--financed by a tax on hotels and motels--was an unwarranted windfall for the owners. The common fans felt betrayed by the threats to move the White Sox, and their anger may explain why the team still has trouble selling tickets, even when it's winning. "I've been a Sox fan all my life, and to me Reinsdorf committed the unforgivable sin," says John Mathias, a Loop lawyer and season-ticket holder. "As far as I was concerned they were not his team to move. The Sox belong to the city. He just happens to be the latest owner."

The new deal revealed that many Sox fans still didn't accept Reinsdorf, even after the glory of 1983. The changes he'd instituted--the video screen, the rock music--seemed too calculated, too slick, too much of a distraction from the game. He was too powerful, too influential for his own good. The City Council passed a law outlawing vendors within a thousand feet of the park, and police cleared the sidewalks of ma-and-pa peanut vendors. It wasn't fair. It didn't look right. Bill Veeck, it was said, would never treat the little guy so poorly.

As for the new stadium itself, some call it an impersonal slab of concrete that inspires no civic pride--unlike its younger counterparts in Cleveland and Baltimore. An entire neighborhood had been uprooted, and new taxes raised, just so Reinsdorf could build three decks of skyboxes, a members-only banquet room, and a center-field promenade bursting with commerce. The upper deck is so steep and high the team can barely give the seats away.

"It's more about selling hats, T-shirts, and food and making money than playing baseball," says Phillip Bess, an architect who's been particularly critical. "I call it a mall park."

Fairly or not, Reinsdorf found himself dumped alongside Michael McCaskey of the Bears and Wirtz of the Blackhawks in the gallery of owners fans love to hate.

From Pizer's point of view the criticism was unfair and misguided. Did critics expect Reinsdorf to keep the team in old Comiskey until the upper deck crumbled? Did he do anything worse than the Tribune Company, which threatened to demolish Wrigley Field and move to Schaumburg if the Cubs didn't get lights? Yes, Reinsdorf was shrewd, and yes, he looked out for the interests of his investors, but he was no monster. Pizer would not devote two decades to serving a monster.

"Jerry could have made more money taking the team to Florida," says Pizer. "Do you know how much we had to put up with to get this stadium built? The delays, the stops and starts, the political wrangling. Jerry was very committed to Chicago, but people don't want to listen to that. Today the style is knock, knock, knock the owner. You open up a newspaper and some columnist's ripping Jerry. You turn on the radio and a caller's ripping Jerry. The Tribune Company doesn't get this much abuse because there's no face behind their decisions. But Jerry doesn't hide. He's very open so he gets ripped. People talk about Bill Veeck. I don't knock Veeck. He was a legend. But let's face it, the park was a mess when we bought it. It wasn't his fault. It's not like he wanted to let things run down. He didn't have the money to do the things that should have been done.

"Now, the big thing's to criticize the seats in the upper deck. "They're too far,' people say. "There's too much of a slant.' Funny, when we won the division [in 1993] I didn't hear anybody complaining about those seats. It didn't suddenly get worse. It didn't suddenly get bad. It didn't change. People changed. Our upper deck is not much different than the upper decks in 80 percent of the other parks. People only sit there if no other seats are available. The media, they do the bashing and they don't even sit up there. For most people it's a nonissue.

"I'm very proud of this stadium. The old look like Camden Yards [in Baltimore], yes, there's something nostalgic about it. But we had certain things we wanted to do for the fans. If you're sitting in left field in Cleveland you can't see part of the outfield. You sacrifice that for the old look. Maybe we should have been more like Camden Yards. Maybe we should have been willing to sacrifice our fans' ability to see the whole field. Maybe we made mistakes. If we did, I'd like to think we learned from them. Any mistakes we made with this stadium we didn't make with the United Center."

The United Center had a much more promising birth than the new Comiskey Park.

For starters, it was a joint venture between the Bulls and the Blackhawks, so Reinsdorf didn't have to go it alone. Secondly, it required no public funding, so there was little political resistance. Reinsdorf and Wirtz didn't have to threaten to leave town to get it built; it was paid for by leasing skyboxes.

However, there was stronger, better organized local opposition than Reinsdorf and Pizer had faced on the south side. Ironically, this opposition--led by the Interfaith Organizing Project--wound up benefiting Reinsdorf (much to his surprise) while changing Pizer's life.

The main dispute was over the 60 low-income residents, many of them senior citizens, who would be forced to move to make way for the proposed stadium. From the start they made it clear they weren't moving without compensation.

Residents had good reason to be wary: the city had allowed their community to fall apart since the riots of 1968. The only serious talk of development came at the community's expense: in the 1980s the Bears floated a scheme to move residents out to build a new stadium. "We were not going to let our neighborhood be moved so anyone could have a place to play," says Wilma Ward, a community activist. "We were suspicious. I remember one sweet little old lady telling me, "Wilma, be careful. You can't trust white people.' We were determined to get something out of this deal, and get it in writing."

One of Pizer's first contacts with residents came at a public meeting in the fall of 1989 at Malcolm X College. The first person Pizer confronted as he entered the building was Earnest Gates, a tall, thick-chested businessman, standing in the doorway, arms folded, scowling, with a chip of wood strapped to his right shoulder. The meeting ended with a prayer by the Reverend Albert Tyson, who referred to the Philistines stealing land from the Israelites.

"I wasn't intimidated by Howard, Jerry, or Wirtz," says Gates, who operates a west-side trucking company. "I went to Roosevelt High School in the late 1960s as part of an integration program. There were white kids there, and I learned I was as smart as most of them and that there wasn't any reason for a black kid to doubt he could compete with a white kid. I carried that confidence with me when I sat across the table from them."

Gates was also a handball-playing friend of Tom Rosenberg, a politically well connected developer and movie producer. "Tom said he'd be willing to help us, and so he took a seat on our side of the table," says Gates. "I know Howard, Jerry, and Wirtz were looking at him and wondering, "What the hell is he doing here?' At that first meeting, Jerry started right off by saying he wasn't here to rebuild the west side. Then Howard started in on all the things they weren't going to do--"We're not going to do this. We're not going to do that. No, no, no, no, no.' This went on for a meeting or two and finally Rosenberg said, "If you have that attitude, you won't get a stadium.' And Jerry said "I don't need this' and he walked out. I thought they were the biggest jerks in the world. They thought they could just walk in here, throw a few dollars on the table, and take our land."

The sticking point was the replacement cost of housing. "The average two-flat that would be knocked down was appraised at $85,000 and Howard's position was, why should we pay more than the appraised value?" says Gates. "Our point was that we're not talking about the value of the property as it was but the land beneath it. It wasn't a question of what the houses were worth. We were sitting on land that they needed. That made it worth more than before they had wanted it."

After Reinsdorf walked out negotiations stopped, and the United Center consortium sent letters to local property owners, offering to make separate deals for their land.

"They wouldn't return our calls," says Gates. "Reinsdorf later told me that someone suggested to him that if they broke off negotiations, we'd get hungry and come to the back door looking to make separate deals. Maybe some people did come to the back door. But most of the seniors weren't going anywhere. Their attitude was "Hey, we don't need this stadium. Our lives were fine without it."'

A full year passed without negotiations. "I knew they were getting nervous because they started calling City Hall, asking the mayor to get us out through eminent domain," says Gates. "But there was an election coming up, and Mayor Daley wasn't about to take the heat for tossing a bunch of seniors out of their homes so Reinsdorf and Wirtz could build a stadium. Daley basically said, "Don't bother me, negotiate with the community.' So one day the phone rang, and guess what? It's Jerry. He said, "I want to talk about your favorite project.' I said, "Oh, what's that?' He said, "Don't be stupid.' Eventually they agreed to almost everything we had been asking for from the start of the negotiations, including replacement housing for those seniors for about $220,000 each.

"The call may have been difficult to make, but Jerry had no choice if he wanted the stadium. It would have cost him more in lawyers' fees to fight us in court than to build us new houses, but he'd have done it if the mayor had been on his side. If Jerry thinks he's getting strong-armed he's going to fight you--he'll take you to the end waiting for you to crack. Howard's the same way. They talk about Jerry being tough, but Howard's cut from the same cloth. Jerry sets the parameters and Howard takes it from there. I don't even think he has to talk to Jerry much about it--the two have worked together so long one knows how the other thinks. Jerry will live a lot longer because he's not trying to do it all by himself."

Pizer mostly agrees with Gates's account, though he applies a slightly different spin. "Those negotiations were very tough," says Pizer. "The residents saw this as their chance to do something for their community, and they were going to take advantage of that. The fact that it was at our expense, they didn't care.

"After we sent out that letter to all the property owners in the area, some people wanted to make a deal. There were some who said, "Earnest Gates doesn't represent me.' But after a while a light bulb went off in our heads and we realized we weren't going to get the land without dealing with Earnest and Wilma and the seniors. And without the land the deal's dead and there is no United Center. It's tough to pay $225,000 for land that's only worth $50,000 or so. But you have to ask yourself, "Even if we're going to get ripped off, do you want to go ahead with the deal?' We decided yes. We ended up giving them almost everything they wanted."

By 1993 the United Center was completed and 32 new units of housing for the seniors were constructed in the area. Then a curious thing happened--Reinsdorf and Pizer didn't pull away. The United Center operators committed $600,000 to the Near West Side Development Corporation, on whose board Ward and Gates sit, to help construct 75 moderate-income two-flats. They also used their influence to help convince the city to plow more money into the area, rebuilding a park and building a new library. The James Jordan Boys & Girls Club is being constructed with $4 million provided by the Bulls charity; a bank has been recruited to the area; and Pizer's working with the city to place a grocery store and drugstore at Madison and Western. The dilapidated portions of the CHA's Henry Horner housing west of Damen have been demolished; on that site will be 244 units of rental housing. And 14 two-story walkups of low-to-moderate rental housing will be constructed in the area. Most of the vacant buildings have been destroyed and the lots resodded--the area's become ripe for major development. Wirtz and Reinsdorf even committed $1 million between them to start an economic development fund that would provide start-up loans of up to $50,000 for west-side businesses (at least six loans have already been made, financing, among other things, a landscaping and snow-removal business, a snack shop, a children's books publisher, and a cookie distributor).

Furthermore, Pizer now sits on Near West's board and has become a cheerleader for the community. "My relation with Wilma and Earnest now goes way past business," says Pizer. "And why shouldn't it? I was talking to Earnest and Wilma two or three times a day, working out the terms of our various agreements, and I discovered--hey, I like them. I'd kid Earnest or he'd kid me--I'm easy to make fun of, I have foibles. Next thing you know, Earnest and Wilma are at my daughter's wedding. Someone said, "Why are they here?' I said, "Why shouldn't they be here? These are my friends!' What more appropriate people to have at your daughter's wedding."

The sudden change of heart has left many flabbergasted and searching for a motive. Some say the United Center crew shouldn't be trusted no matter what they say or do. "Don't be naive--they aren't doing this from the goodness of their hearts," says Mark Weinberg, who publishes the Blue Line, an alternative hockey program for Blackhawk games. "Men like Reinsdorf and Pizer are smart to a fault. They know how to manipulate the system to their advantage. They don't have relationships with people outside the money people can make for them. Sure, some people on the west side may benefit from their investment. But who benefits the most? The United Center."

(Last year Weinberg sued Wirtz and Reinsdorf, arguing that they violated federal antitrust law by preventing fans from bringing peanuts into the United Center and prohibiting vendors from selling them within a thousand feet of its doors. The case is pending.)

But Gates says the community's alliance with the United Center honchos is strong because it's based on compromise and mutual respect. Reinsdorf and Pizer might be better off in this case because they didn't get everything they wanted, unlike with the new Comiskey Park. They had to compromise and yield to a force greater than themselves--the community.

"I consider Howard a friend, and I don't use that word lightly," says Gates. "But I'm not naive. I'd never say Jerry and Howard got in this from the goodness of their hearts. We never talked about the morality of the matter to them. We never said, "It's sinful the way society let this community fall apart.' These are businessmen, not social workers--and we appealed to them as businessmen. We told them it only makes sense to protect your investment by investing in the neighborhood and by working with the residents. They went along with us and then something happened. They saw how their money made a difference and they wanted to do more."

Whatever motivates them, Pizer makes it clear that he and Reinsdorf and Wirtz are committed for the long haul. "I understand what got me here. I'll tell you a story. I recently went to a meeting at the Henry Horner annex about demolishing the building, and one of the first questions was, "You want to get rid of us. How can we trust you?' I said, "If you ask me now would I rather have you here, of course I wouldn't. But you are here, so we have to deal with one another.'

"I got dragged into this kicking and screaming, but now I can't stay away. The west side consumes hours of my time. In some ways it's the greatest challenge of my life. I've been given an opportunity to make a difference, and not many people get that chance."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Jon Randolph.

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