Slam Dunk!

How billionaire bob johnson is making history as the first african american to acquire an nba basketball franchise

the selection committee; James Dolan, the head of Cablevision, which owns the New York Knicks; and Larry Tannenbaum, co-owner of the Toronto Raptors. Johnson saw these men as individuals who would be able to vouch for his business acumen to the decision makers.

Far from finished, Johnson then sought out the members of the selection committee. “I found out that Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, knew a guy named Joe Maloof who was the owner of the Sacramento Kings [and a member of] the committee, so I called Terry to reach out to Maloof,” Johnson recalls. To woo Commissioner Stern, Johnson had a slew of business and political all-stars go to bat for him. Among them were AOL Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons; William H. Gray III, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund; and former President Bill Clinton. “I basically went to these individuals to say ‘Make my case to the NBA,'” Johnson recalls.

Johnson’s case was simple and consisted of three main points:

  • He was financially qualified. A billionaire, Johnson has access to capital the league expects from potential team owners.
  • He had a suitable demeanor and leadership skills. “I have, throughout my business career, developed some very good relationships with people based on my ability to be a team player in partnerships.”
  • He had credibility. “I also had them talk about my credibility, [as far as] creating value and being able to market a brand and attract talented people,” Johnson says.

By November 2002, Johnson shelled out his $1 million down payment and worked on his presentation to the selection committee, confident that would seal the deal. The presentation identified why Johnson wan
ted the team and how he’d make it successful. “I was always confident that the track record I exhibited in business, my financial capability, and the credibility I had from the people respected [the selection committee] would carry the day, and they’d grant me the franchise,” Johnson says. “In my presentation, the last point I made was that I wanted to assure them that I wasn’t asking for this franchise because I’m African American, but [that] any organization that had 80%-plus employees of a particular racial group must consider diversity.”

Johnson says he was not surprised when Colangelo and NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik visited his hotel room to break the good news to him. And while Johnson believes it was his business savvy and financial status that won the deal, being African American, he says, was icing on the cake. “The fact that I am African American was a plus, but at the end of the day, if I didn’t have the credibility or experience, there’s no way they would have said, ‘We’ll give it to you just because we want a black guy running an NBA team.'”

Johnson has always been one to break barriers. In 1980 he launched BET, the first black-owned cable network. He took the company public in 1991,

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