Stan the Man
by Robert J. Nebel, Atlanta Jewish Life magazine, Fall, 2001 edition
It is Major League Baseball's trading day deadline and Stan Kasten's green eyes are intense. His brow is furrowed as he focuses on a 19-inch television screen, parked what seems likes miles from his desk, in a well-worn fourth floor suite full of sports and other paraphernalia inside CNN Center.
While some high ranking executives might have documents strewn about among magnificent furniture, Kasten's office is rather generic-a standard issue couch, a few chairs, a bookcase. It's a sign of how he runs his office, like tight, clean ship.
Today, his staff knows to keep all distractions at bay as the Atlanta Braves President hangs on every word uttered by CNNSI anchor Tom Stinar, who is unknowingly updating Kasten on the Cleveland Indians' latest player acquisition.
Suddenly, Kasten raises the remote, points it at the set, and quickly lowers the volume to almost mute.
"Sorry about that," he says to a visitor, and takes a sip from his Atlanta Braves coffee mug. It seems ironic to see Kasten, a 49-year-old New Jersey native, with a symbol that generates such disdain from his Yankee counterparts. But it's also Kasten's Northern upbringing that has helped build one of the most successful sports franchises in recent history.
Stan Kasten is a hard-working mensch who has become the embodiment of the New South. He was born in Lakewood, N.J., which he calls "a hotbed of immigrant Judaism" and the center of Orthodox Judaism in the area. Raised in Farmingdale, N.J., Kasten, grew up in a world of Holocaust survivors, including his Polish parents.
"My dad spent [World War II] in camps and my mother was on the run," he says matter-of-factly, adding that the couple met in a displaced person's camp in 1946, came to the United States in 1949 and got married in 1950, two years before Stan Kasten was born.
Kasten recounts his memories in a simple, direct manner, the murmur of the television in the background. Perhaps it is this approach that has earned him a potpourri of top-level sports administration experience unmatched by presidents in competing ball clubs throughout the country. His presidential duties extend to the Atlanta Hawks basketball and Atlanta Thrashers hockey clubs. The Sandy Springs resident also is chairman of Philips Arena and vice president for sports teams for Turner Broadcasting Systems (TBS). Kasten may have a full plate, but he relishes the regiment, likening it to his early Orthodox training.
"I grew up with [Jewish study] from grade school to high school," he recalls. "It was wall-to-wall, 24-7."
But it was purely Kasten's decision to commit to an Orthodox lifestyle while in high school and enter a yeshiva in New York, he insists. "My parents weren't Orthodox. They were Old World Jewish.
After years of rigorous study, including a psychology degree from New York University and a law degree from Columbia University, Kasten jumped onto Ted Turner's fledging ship in the late 1970s. The two met when Kasten was touring ball parks across the country after graduating from law school.
"While I was in St. Louis at a Braves-Cards game, I met Ted," Kasten recalls as he sits back in his office chair. "I liked him, he liked me and so he gave a job as legal counsel."
It was that chutzpah that sent Kasten up Turner's corporate ladder to become the Atlanta Hawks' assistant general manager at the age of 27 -- the youngest in NBA history. During his early successes in the secular world, Kasten continued studying Torah. "Even though I was evolving in those years as a professional, I always knew my identity," he says emphatically.
A solid Jewish identity is what Kasten retained in his early career in 1970s Atlanta. He was immediately taken with the city.
"My first impression of Atlanta was that it is a big city with a small-town feel," he remembers. "Even though it was deep south, it was still very cosmopolitan with a sizable Jewish community. You had all of the elements to make yourself comfortable."
But as a young Jewish professional, Kasten never put himself on the Atlanta Jewish singles "meet-market." Like so many Yankee transplants, Kasten "imported" his wife, Helen, from New York, to join him and start his family in Atlanta. Helen, too, immediately immersed herself in Atlanta's Jewish community, Kasten says. She began teaching at Epstein School, and the young couple became charter members of the traditional Congregation B'nai Torah.
Those institutions also have played a role in shaping the lives of Kasten's four children: Alana, 21, who attends the University of Georgia; Corey, 19, who goes to Tulane; Sherry, 15, a North Springs High School student; and Jay, 12, who attends Epstein School.
Stan Kasten's involvement with his children and the community is what keeps him grounded, especially since he is becoming more recognizable. Kasten's unannounced appearances at CNN Center, Philips Arena and Turner Field produce delayed double takes from spectators. More often, though, those spectators don't even realize that the man partly responsible for their entertainment just whisked by behind them to get a bite to eat.
"I like to be where everyone else is," Kasten says, as if to explain away all the fuss. "At games, I walk around. I don't sit in seats or boxes."
He's certainly entitled to. Things were not so easy for Kasten upon his arrival at Atlanta's front door. He says Ted Turner was something of a micromanager, especially with the Braves. It took the drive that Kasten grew up with to convince Turner that the Braves needed a development plan. But instead of throwing out big money to lure national talent, Kasten worked with players at home. The results have paid off handsomely over the past decade: The Braves have made it to countless championship series and won the World Series in 1995. He recalls that win as a pinnacle of his career.
"The moment we won the World Series was such a thrill," he says wistfully. "It is truly indescribable."
Since then, Kasten has made sure that Turner Field remains a top draw for fans. But it's not as easy with Philips Arena, which he manages daily.
"It's gratifying to see it turn out as successfully as it has, but every day is a
logistical nightmare. You have a million things to put together," says Kasten. He points to a collection of photographs of arena events in his office, including Hawks games and an Elton John concert, and indicates that it's worth the struggle. "There are many obstacles to overcome, but [managing Philips] is rewarding."
Kasten sees the same for Atlanta's Jewish community. Although he says its nowhere near New York or California's growth, there's a lot to be said for the staggering number of Jews calling this area home. And, "with events such as the Maccabi Games [in August], places like the Jewish Community Center and strong youth groups and such, I only see the community getting stronger," he adds.
The Jewish sports community is not so easy to call, according to Kasten. He points out that Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, and David Stern, the commissioner of basketball, are Jewish. But Kasten knows he's a minority in sports. That's why he makes it a point to visit local synagogues while on the road for his teams. He stopped into a few of Sydney's synagogues during the 2000 Olympics, and also attended services at a temple in San Diego. He recalls one poignant encounter in a Moscow synagogue while on a 1988 Atlanta Hawks trip to the former Soviet Union.
"We met a group of men in the temple who only knew Russian," Kasten remembers, adding that he does not know the language. "But we all knew Yiddish. I learned it while growing up and it finally came in handy."
It's hard to see, but Kasten's interests do extend beyond Judaism and sports to reading, watching shows such as "ER" and "NYPD Blue," and attending plays and concerts. And despite his high-profile neighbors, such as Home Depot president Bernie Marcus, Kasten insists that his is a normal suburban home life.
"My wife has been a stay-at-home-mother since the kids," he says, adding that the family hosted a major fundraiser recently for Atlanta YAD, the Jewish young adult agency.
But now it's back to the TV. Among the modest office furniture, Kasten fidgets in his seat and raises the remote to turn the volume up.
"Sorry, I gotta hear this," he says, instantly transfixed by the CNNSI newscast. "Wow, this time of year is hectic."
(C)Leader Publishing, 2001
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