Mr. Cohen graduated from Columbia College in 1952 and Columbia Law School in 1954. After serving in the army, he joined Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Wharton and Garrison in 1957 and became a partner of the firm in 1964. In 1970 he joined the entertainment company then known as Warner Communications (now Time Warner, Inc.) as executive vice president. While at Warner Communications, he had particular oversight of the company's recorded music subsidiaries, including Atlantic Records, Electra and Warner Brothers records. During this time he and several partners, including Warner CEO Steve Ross, purchased the New York franchise of a newly formed professional soccer league. The team was known as the New York Cosmos. It was to be the start of Mr. Cohen's long and influential involvement in major sports ownership.
In 1974 he became chairman and CEO of Madison Square Garden Corporation, then a public corporation which owned the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers. In an interview with the New York Times, he was asked by a reporter if it were more important to win a championship or to earn profits for his shareholders. He replied that as a public company, his first priority was to his shareholders, "that's the bottom line." As a result of this candid answer, he was known for a time in the sports pages as "Bottom Line Cohen."
In 1978, Mr. Cohen and a group of investors purchased the New Jersey Nets NBA basketball franchise. He moved the team to its current facility in the Meadowlands. In 1983, he sold his interest in the Nets, and together with his partners Don Gaston and Paul Dupee purchased the Boston Celtics, one of the most heralded franchises in all of sports. Under the ownership of Mr. Cohen and his partners, the Celtics enjoyed a decade of great success. Led by star players Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish, the Celtics of that era made nearly perennial appearances in the NBA Finals, winning the NBA championship in 1984 and 1986.
As an NBA owner, Mr. Cohen played an active and influential role in the development of the league. He served as chairman of the NBA Board of Governors from 1985-1987. Along with Commissioner David Stern, Mr. Cohen was instrumental in the NBA's moving to adopt a salary cap structure for its teams. Now used in various forms by other professional sports leagues, the NBA pioneered the use of a salary cap. The NBA's salary cap guidelines have contributed to the prosperity and competitiveness of the league over the past 20 years.
In recent years Mr. Cohen has been active in a variety of businesses. At the time of his death he was Chairman of ANC Sports Enterprises, a leading provider of rotational and LED signage at sports facilities, and was Co-Chairman of Sportsco International which owns the SkyDome stadium in Toronto.
Mr. Cohen was involved in numerous charitable endeavors including service as a Trustee or director of Independence House, a facility designed to rehabilitate youthful offenders; Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre; International Center for Photography; Haifa University; American Friends of Hebrew University; Educational Alliance; Columbia College; Columbia Law School; and the Graduate School of Management of the New School. Most recently he served as Chairman of the Columbia Law School Annual Fund and as a director of the American Friends of Tel Aviv University. Among his honors are Columbia University's John Jay Award and election to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. In 2001, Mr. Cohen was elected to the Board of Directors of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County.
Mr. Cohen is survived by his wife, Carol Cohen, and their daughter Rebecca Cohen. He is also survived by his two children Laurie Cohen Fenster and Gordon Cohen, from his earlier marriage to Joan Fields Cohen, the well-known philanthropist who died in 1989, and by his sister, Beryl Zankel of Boca Raton, Florida.