Slam Dunk! How Billionaire Bob Johnson Is Making History as the First African American to Acquire an NBA Basketball Franchise. (Special Report)

By Hughes, Alan | Black Enterprise, March 2003 | Go to article overview
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Slam Dunk! How Billionaire Bob Johnson Is Making History as the First African American to Acquire an NBA Basketball Franchise. (Special Report)


Hughes, Alan, Black Enterprise


SEVEN DAYS INTO THE NEW YEAR, ROBERT L. JOHNSON IS limping to his place at a table before a throng of reporters and photographers. Gingerly, he takes his seat to the clicking sound of dozens of camera shutters. As he positions himself behind a microphone, all eyes are on him and a large green banner that dominates the room. It reads: NBA Charlotte.

"I want to deal with the important issue that's on everyone's mind--why I'm limping," Johnson says to the crowd. "Since I'm in television. I'm going to borrow from David Letterman. There are three reasons why I'm limping: No. 1--Steve Belkin and Larry Bird are sore losers; they caught me in a corner and beat me up. No. 2--The NBA was not satisfied with a minority; they wanted a handicapped minority, And No. 3--I wanted to go one-on-one with one of the [WNBA's Charlotte] Sting players and tore my ACL."

Despite the pain from a torn Achilles tendon he suffered during a boating accident in the Caribbean, Johnson can't hide his joviality. And with good reason. Some three weeks and $300 million before, the founder and CEO of Black Entertainment Television, was awarded the Charlotte NBA expansion franchise, finally realizing his goal of becoming the majority owner of a sports franchise. He is the first African American to do so, despite a player base that's some 80% black.

The reason for the press conference is to announce the first appointee to the franchise, Ed Tapscott, a former New York Knicks executive, who will serve as executive vice president of the unnamed Charlotte team. The new franchise is scheduled to begin playing at the Charlotte Coliseum in 2004 and to move to its new arena in 2005 when construction is completed.

Since selling Black Entertainment Television (BET) to Viacom in 2000, Johnson has aggressively pursued becoming a majority owner of a sports franchise but could never close a deal. But in the waning months of 2002, Johnson, 56, used his business savvy and political connections--not to mention deep pockets--for a seat at the owners' table. Johnson closing the deal opens a new chapter in black history as African Americans take the next evolutionary step in their role in professional sports--a step that began with struggling to participate as players, progressing to coaching through joining front office and executive ranks, and finally culminating in team ownership.

But the road to ownership wasn't an easy journey for Johnson, who attempted to purchase the Charlotte Hornets in 1999 and was rejected by the team's owner George Shinn. Johnson's goal of owning a team picked up steam again in spring of 2002 when Shinn, unable to come to terms with the city of Charlotte on the construction of a new stadium, announced a proposal to move the Hornets to New Orleans, former home to the Utah Jazz. Shinn complained that the current Charlotte Coliseum lacked luxury boxes and other amenities used by teams to generate revenue. The bickering between Shinn and city officials, coupled with a Court TV appearance surrounding sexual harassment charges, created a rift with the fans. Attendance, which had been among the league's highest for years, lagged.

Enter Johnson, who was approached by a few Charlotte-area businessmen about buying the team. "I submitted a letter to buy the team, and [Shinn] turned that offer down," says Johnson. "I submitted a second letter raising the price, and he turned that down." The NBA ultimately granted Shinn and co-owner Ray Wooldridge's wishes, allowing the two men to move the team to a city with a new NBA-ready arena and government subsidies that nearly guarantee profitability.

Johnson was undeterred. The same drive that transformed BET from a fledgling cable operation into the leading African American multimedia entertainment company, piped into some 74 million households, was unwavering. "I called [NBA Commissioner] David Stem and said, `David, I'm interested in looking at an NBA team,'" says Johnson.

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