The odds on Jordan's becoming an owner are growing shorter by the day. One sticking point will be Jordan's insistence that Shinn agree to remain deep in the background (i.e., at his Florida residence) and allow Jordan to be the primary decision maker.
This proposed marriage would leave everyone living happily ever after—except for Bob Johnson, the CEO and founder of Black Entertainment Television ( BET), who has been quietly putting together a possible bid for the Hornets. Johnson, who in recent weeks refused to comment on his company's interest in buying the team, broke his silence in an interview with SI last Thursday. "We have made a decision to bid aggressively for the Charlotte Hornets, given the chance," Johnson said. "If Mr. Shinn announces he's holding an auction and everyone should show up with their money, we'll be there in the front row.
"But if it's going to be a no-bid business, controlled by a network of insiders like David Falk and Michael Jordan, then we won't have much of a chance, and that's disappointing."
Stern's motives in encouraging the Shinn-Jordan partnership are self-evident. The NBA has not been pleased with Shinn's recent legal troubles and the bad publicity they have generated, nor have league officials been encouraged by the feeling among prominent Charlotte businessmen that a new arena could be built only if Shinn is out of the picture.
Johnson can only speculate on why Stem hasn't offered him the same helping hand he has offered Jordan. Two years ago BET televised games of the now defunct ABL—the direct competitor of the WNBA—but Johnson has another theory about why his company is getting no favors. "I've been told by other parties that commissioner Stern does not want BET involved in the NBA because one of our original investors and partners is John Malone," Johnson says.
Malone is a cable television maverick who is chairman of Tele-Communications Inc. In a partnership with News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch, he runs Fox Sports Net/Liberty Media, which has systematically bought the local rights to 26 NBA teams. League observers say that Fox/Liberty has irked NBA officials by giving the impression that, like NBC and Turner Sports, which have paid the league exorbitant fees for national broadcast rights, it is an official network of the NBA.
Reached last Friday, Stern said BET's connection to Malone would have "no bearing whatsoever" on its chances of landing a franchise, pointing out that Malone's network pays "enormous sums to our individual teams" for the right to broadcast games. "We have no problem at all with Mr. Malone," Stern said. "If anything, we're trying to increase the business we do with [him]. Let me make this clear: I would love for Bob Johnson to be an owner in the NBA."
What Stem left unsaid is that it will not happen in Charlotte. Sources close to the situation say that Shinn does not want to sell the team—he only wants a partner. At least six other groups besides Johnson's have contacted Shinn, but the sources say he has told them all he's not interested.
It appears, however, that Johnson is not prepared to take no for an answer. "We have the money to buy a team," said Johnson. "We have the brand name to promote it in the marketplace. Many of the young [ NBA] players enjoy BET and would most likely appreciate an association with it. We are a minority-owned company, and this is a league that says time and time again it would like to promote minority ownership. I find it a little strange there isn't a place for us."
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