Oblivious to the thumps, squeaks and hollering on the basketball court near them, two men huddled in a corner of a Chicago gymnasium last June and quietly exchanged company secrets. Their conversation was historic.
Ed Tapscott and Bernie Bickerstaff were at the NBA's predraft camp scouting players. They were discussing whom they would choose to become part of the Charlotte Bobcats' first roster. Tapscott, the club's president, and Bickerstaff, the Bobcats' general manager and coach, both are black. They were given the opportunity to form a franchise from scratch by Robert Johnson, the first African American majority owner of a pro team.
Charlotte owner and billionaire Robert Johnson, left, provides financial backing for club president Ed Tapscott, right, and GM-coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who help run the team.
(Chuck Burton -- AP)
Never before in this country have blacks held so much control over a single sports franchise. In a game that has largely been dominated by blacks on the court for decades, not until now have they reached the league's highest rungs.
Johnson's ownership of the Bobcats is not "part of some NBA affirmative-action program," he is quick to point out. He paid $350 million for the club, mostly with his own money. His goals are for the Bobcats to flourish in the standings and at the cash register. The three men have no intention of following anyone else's social agenda. They want to win.
At 12-44, the Bobcats enter tonight's game against the Wizards in Charlotte with the league's second-worst record but a reputation for being a gritty team. Charlotte can boast of upset victories over Sacramento, Houston and Minnesota. Rookie center-forward Emeka Okafor is favored to be the NBA rookie of the year; he is averaging 14.8 points and 10.9 rebounds this season.
"I think [the Bobcats' management] has done a great job of building a club from the ground up," said Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards' general manager and a close friend of Tapscott. "For an expansion team, they are extremely competitive."
The trio has received mostly favorable reviews from around the league for their building efforts, especially for trading up in last summer's draft to obtain Okafor. Bickerstaff is credited with reviving the career of Brevin Knight, the former Wizards guard who has doubled his production from last season, with 8.8 points per game and the NBA's second-highest assist average (8.3).
Nonetheless, one Western Conference executive, who requested anonymity, said the club was too conservative in selecting players during the expansion draft. To fill out their roster with veterans, expansion franchises are allowed to pick players left unprotected by other teams. Some of the players available to the Bobcats were Antoine Walker (Dallas), Jerry Stackhouse (Wizards) and Danny Fortson (Dallas).
"They were utterly unimaginative in the way they handled the expansion draft," the executive said.
The Bobcats selected a group that was young, inexpensive and undistinguished, the cream of which were Jamal Sampson and Jason Kapono -- not exactly highlight-reel players.
Bickerstaff said the club got what it wanted, players who would perform at a high level for less money. The Bobcats plan to use the cash they saved to sign relatively expensive free agents in the future.
To his credit, Bickerstaff obtained Primoz Brezec from the Indiana Pacers, and the 7-foot-1 center is averaging 12.5 points and 7.1 rebounds this season. NBA insiders have said the club receives offers for Brezec all the time.
"Why should I be influenced by what other people think?" said Bickerstaff, a former head coach for the Wizards, Seattle and Denver. "You have to go with your gut sometimes and not be afraid of failing. That's our philosophy. We're not afraid of failing or what anyone thinks of us if we do."
Johnson, the 58-year-old cable-TV mogul, wants his decision-makers to be bold, to embrace the unorthodox. That is how he turned a $15,000 investment in a tiny cable station, Black Entertainment Television, into a company that he sold to Viacom for $3 billion in 2000, becoming the country's first black billionaire.