Eye on the Ball: Choosing partners in life, sports

BOB DeSTEFANO PHOTO Eye on the Ball assistant columnist Robby Neis with Jerry Cohen.
Eye on the Ball assistant columnist Robby Neis with Jerry Cohen.

This week my 10-year-old cub reporter, Robby Neis, and I traveled to the home of Jerry Cohen for an interview. Robby, who alleges he would like to write, wanted to see what interviewing and writing is all about.

For a first time in that situation, he could not have handled himself any better. He not only sat and listened for an hour and a half, but when he had a question for Jerry, he would always say, “Excuse me.” His questions impressed Jerry, who said that they were usually spot-on.

On the ride home, I explained that usually it’s more difficult to get a story. I told him that although I find most folks interesting, Jerry was easy because he was more exciting than most.

Robby then asked, “Bob, what do you think was the most interesting part of that interview?”

I said the part about Jerry’s involvement with the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Nets. Robby said he thought the part about how hard Jerry had to work to make the money and enjoy life the way he does, was the most interesting — a noteworthy observation from a 10-year-old boy.

Jerry was a Brooklyn boy, born in 1933 to parents who owned a retail dress shop. He had one younger brother. Despite growing up in Brooklyn and living just 15 minutes from Ebbet’s Field, he was not a Dodgers fan. Instead, he would make the 90-minute trip to the Bronx to watch his team, the New York Yankees.

This diehard Yankee fan went to James Madison High School with the legendary Torre brothers, Frank, Rocco and Joe. Although Jerry played sports in high school, he said he was consistently mediocre at all of them. An exceptional student, Jerry skipped two grades and graduated at 16. In retrospect, however, he believes he would have been better off remaining with kids his own age.

Nonetheless, he went on to New York University, where he became president of the student body and graduated at 20.

Two years later, Jerry married his wife, Adrianne. They have been married for 60 years and have three children and eight grandchildren. While serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, he had Adrianne fly out to Iceland where the two of them lived for 16 months.

As an enlisted man, he was proud of being a part of bringing Bob Hope to Iceland to entertain the troops.

After the service, Jerry and Adrianne’s business life started. Although he had an accounting degree, he loved real estate and always worked at least two jobs.

In 1957, he joined Brown, Harris and Stevens, where he remained for eight years.

During his tenure there, he met a Shelter Islander, Ian Brownlie. He and Ian became great friends and partners of W. A. White and Sons. They remained together for 27 years before selling the business.

In 1992, Jerry went to work for Cushman Wakefield, where he eventually became a board member and vice chairman. In 1998, he moved on to Tishman Speyer Properties, one of the largest and oldest real estate organizations in the United States. In 2004, Jerry was named “Real Estate Man of the Year.” He has received the real estate board’s most distinguished awards including twice winning “Most Ingenious Deal of the Year.”

What does all this have to do with sports? Well, all of this success led to something rather remarkable. He’s a partner in the Yankees and the Nets. In 2003, he was a partner in the New Jersey Devils when they won the Stanley Cup. For that, he has a champion’s ring and for the Yankees, he has four championship rings.

His involvement with the Nets started around 40 years ago when he heard they were for sale and at a reasonable price. Even though they knew nothing about running a sports team, he and six friends who love basketball decided this ownership would be great fun. The nickname given to them by the media was “the Secaucus Seven.”

In 1997, the partners thought basketball had become big business and it was time to get creative with their ownership. They got together with such renowned names as George Steinbrenner and Ray Chambers, to become partners in the other teams, and also created the YES network. They sold it just last year to Fox. It’s obvious Jerry likes being part of the Yankees family. I don’t think he ever stops thinking of that teenage boy and his long trips to Yankee Stadium.

He spoke proudly of Adrianne’s involvement with Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. She’s one of the founders of Bay Street and this year they’re celebrating 25 years. Jerry and Adrianne proved their love for theater life by investing in over 100 plays through the years.

So what brought them to Shelter Island? They partnered with Ian Brownlie and Dick Moser in purchasing the Dering Harbor Inn. After they purchased it, they successfully turned it into co-ops.

Jerry is a prostate cancer survivor and a huge supporter of all cancer-related charities. This week, at 82, Jerry just finished playing in another Prostate Cancer Tennis Pro-Am in Water Mill.

From a man who spent a lifetime choosing good partners, he offered some sound advice: One, partners must be 100 percent honest, not 99 percent. Two, they must have the financial strength to get through the bad times because sometimes, there might be plenty.

Oh, and so far, Robby still likes writing his thoughts as part of this story. He also said he would like to do it again next year but would like to get paid.