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 Stern and said, ‘David, I’m interested in looking at an NBA team,’” says Johnson. “And he said one of the things they were planning to do is bring a new franchise back to Charlotte, but the [purchase price] is going to have a three in front of it. So I said, ‘OK, if the economics work.’”
As spring gave way to summer, Johnson worked on his game plan for acquiring a franchise. NBA executives met with city officials and Charlotte’s business community to hammer out an agreement to construct a new arena that the league could then use to justify the asking price. “They worked with the city to get the best arena package they could negotiate, with the idea that they would then attract applicants [for the team],” Johnson says.
That process continued through the summer of 2002, and by autumn, Johnson says he was ready to build the infrastructure needed to create a winning, profitable franchise. In October, the number of applicants qualified to purchase the Charlotte franchise was narrowed down to Johnson and a group headed by Boston-area businessman Steve Belkin and former Boston Celtics star and Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird.
PLAYING WITH A BIG ROLODEX
While the Belkin-Bird group took a grassroots approach to landing a franchise, Johnson opened his Rolodex and went right to the top. “They took the strategy of being aggressively involved in the Charlotte community, making visits down there, talking to the local community, and holding basketball seminars with Larry Bird.” Johnson’s competitors even brought aboard M.L. Carr, a former NBA player and current president of the WNBA’s Charlotte Sting, to reach out to the African American community on their behalf. (Belkin and Bird refused to comment on the selection process.)
But Johnson knew that the NBA brass, not the Charlotte community, would make the final decision on who would land the team. “I had the position that I was going to make my case to the NBA, particularly to the NBA individuals I knew personally,” Johnson says.
He made a whirlwind of phone calls to a list of friends and associates that read like a “who’s who” of professional sports. Among them were Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Phoenix Suns and chair of