CHANGING THE GAME
Thirty-five years after SI published "the black athlete," a groundbreaking series on the brewing issue of race and sports, a new generation of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans has risen to positions of power on and off the field. In this special report SI names the 101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports, a list that could not have existed just a few years ago. These men and women are reshaping the sports industry and opening doors through which others will follow.
1. ROBERT JOHNSON
Owner, Charlotte NBA team
The man who has been opening doors to the media and business worlds over the last two decades cannot, on this February day, open one for himself. "Would you mind getting that for me?" Robert Johnson says, nodding toward a doorknob at the corporate offices of Washington, D.C.-based Black Entertainment Television (BET), the groundbreaking media conglomerate he founded and turned into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Both of Johnson's hands are occupied with crutches, the result of a ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered while getting off a boat near his beachfront home on the island of Anguilla. A wave rolled under the boat just as Johnson was stepping down, causing him to fall awkwardly. "I haven't been in the sports business very long," he says, propping his casted right foot on a chair, "but at least I have an injury that athletes can relate to." � A lifelong sports fan, Johnson, 57, the first African-American billionaire, was awarded the NBA's newest expansion franchise, in Charlotte, for $300 million in December. The team, which doesn't yet have a nickname, will begin play in the 2004-05 season.
Johnson has pursued membership in the ultraexclusive club of professional sports owners since at least 1994, when he offered (to no avail) to buy what was then the Washington Bullets from Abe Pollin. This time he succeeded, beating out a group that included Hall of Famer Larry Bird. The deal made Johnson the first majority African-American franchise owner in any major sport and gave him the kind of clout in team and league boardrooms that no African-American has ever had. That's why SI has chosen him as the most influential minority in sports. His impact is expected to reach far beyond pro basketball, not only because of his unique status but also because he apparently has some cash burning a hole in his pocket. In partnership with Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, Johnson is trying to buy the Montreal Expos and move them to D.C.
Even if Johnson's baseball efforts fail (and he hasn't failed at much), he has already had a significant effect on sports at the executive level. For instance, he hired Ed Tapscott (No. 56 on SI's list), an African-American, as the Charlotte franchise's executive vice president, making Tapscott one of the few minorities running a major sports team. And Johnson intends to do more. "I'm going to create an experienced pool of people who work in sports—many of them black, many of them other minorities—for all those employers who say, 'We'd love to hire you if you had more experience,' " Johnson says. "It will be similar to the way it happened at BET, which eventually became the place that other companies in the entertainment business came to when they were looking for talented, capable black people. We will have no shortage of those people in our franchise." Johnson has the platform to create opportunities for people of color in areas of sports in which they have long been underrepresented. "How much influence I really have remains to be seen," he says. "After all, I am new at this. But for $300 million, you ought to get more than just the right to pick the name of the team."
What the NBA has gotten in Johnson is a calm, relatively soft-spoken but no-nonsense man who nonetheless had the drive to build his fortune from scratch and has the toughness to brush off the inevitable racism and criticism he encountered on the way. Some 10 years ago, as he sat behind the wheel of his Jaguar in front of a hotel, a white woman climbed in the backseat, thinking he was her driver. About five years later a worker on Johnson's 163-acre estate in Middleburg, Va., mistook him for a stable hand. ( Johnson owns 16 horses, and his 17-year-old daughter, Paige, is a champion show jumper.) "There are stereotypes and ugly racial moments that every black person in this country has to deal with regardless of what's in his bank account," he says. "But you can't let it deter you. It's like playing in the NFL. You know you're going to get hit, so you prepare for it, take the hit and keep going."
For such a well-connected businessman—while Bill Clinton, whom Johnson considers a friend, was president, Johnson persuaded him to appear in a video promoting BET to potential investors—Johnson works out of headquarters that are far from D.C.'s usual corridors of power. The BET building, a six-story, black-glass structure, is in a low-income section of northeast D.C., hard by a maintenance yard for Amtrak trains. (The land was cheap.) On this February day Johnson appears for a meeting dressed business casual, a silk shirt buttoned to the collar, no tie, and he exudes none of the bluster or outsized personality of some of his peers in the ownership ranks. (Though they'll certainly discover that behind closed doors, he's no pushover.) It's a safe bet that Johnson won't be heckling referees from behind the team bench like Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban or regularly grabbing headlines like New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. "Bob is not a person who feels the need to always be the center of attention," says Tapscott, a former American University coach and a New York Knicks executive. "The only time I remember him really calling attention to himself was when he insisted on wearing his Dallas Cowboys jacket to a Washington Redskins game."
Johnson admits to being more of an NFL than an NBA fan, but he didn't buy into pro sports for the chance to rub elbows with athletes. In fact, when he discusses his reasons for owning a team, he sounds much more like the media titan he is than a season-ticket holder. He refers to the NBA as a "high-profile brand" and to his new team as "a sports entertainment product." The franchise is not a toy he bought to amuse himself—it is a piece of a larger business strategy, another building block in an empire. He has talked of using his new team, and his new ownership colleagues, to launch, for instance, a regional sports TV network in the future. "It's not the sports side of me that drives ownership, it's the business side," he says. "Owning an asset like this creates the potential for opportunities beyond the business itself. There are opportunities to develop relationships with other team owners. These are entrepreneurs who like to do things outside of the box. There may be other things I can do with Mark Cuban or [ Denver Nuggets owner] Stan Kroenke. It's just a good club to belong to."
It's not surprising that Johnson believes in such a classically American approach to business, because he followed a classically American path to success. He was born the ninth of Archie and Edna Johnson's 10 children in Hickory, Miss., a small town where his family owned land purchased by his great-grandfather Filmore, a freed slave. His father chopped and sold timber, and his mother was a teacher. When Bob was in grade school, the family moved north to Freeport, Ill., where his parents found work in the town's dairy farms and factories. Bob was an excellent student and became the first of the Johnson children to attend college. He was awarded an academic scholarship to Illinois, at which he earned his bachelor's degree in history and met his future wife, Sheila (now divorced, they have two children, Paige and Brett, 14), before getting a master's in international affairs from Princeton.