Robert Johnson made history yet again today. Already the first African American billionaire, Johnson this morning became the first African American to own a major sports team when the National Basketball Association awarded him the rights to its expansion franchise in Charlotte.
The deal is still pending formal approval in a vote next month, but Johnson, 56, plans to pay a record $300 million for the new, yet-to-be-named team, the first under majority black ownership in not just the NBA but also the National Football League, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball. The $300 million is more than double the previous NBA expansion fee, but Johnson stressed the cost will in no way squelch his desire to also bring a baseball team to Washington. He will also continue to live locally and commute to Charlotte, which lost its NBA team to New Orleans in June.
Some NBA owners had initially been more interested in awarding the Charlotte rights to a rival group that included former Boston Celtics star Larry Bird, but the Bird group's proposal fell about $50 million short of what the NBA was asking, sources said. The league was also particularly impressed with Johnson's business record founding Black Entertainment Television.
Johnson's being African American was not as much a determining factor, everyone involved stressed today, although, as Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo noted, it was "a plus" in a league where all other 29 teams have majority white ownership.
"What's really most meaningful to me is that 29 guys who are accomplished in their own right said, 'We want you in the club,' and they said that based on my personality, my track record in business," Johnson said. "I'm very proud of what African Americans have accomplished ever since we've been in this country, and we've been in this country under some obviously -- to say difficult conditions is an understatement. But through all that 200-plus-year history, we have always achieved by trying to be the best despite the odds."
He added that by breaking down the ownership barrier in the four major sports -- others have owned minority shares but never controlled teams -- he simply stands "on the shoulders of people like Jackie Robinson. I'm real proud to be an African American, be the first African American owner of an NBA franchise."
Johnson's selection comes as several other sports are grappling with their own diversity issues. Earlier this year, longtime college basketball coach Nolan Richardson said he believed his dismissal from the University of Arkansas had racial implications. The NFL has come under increased fire for a lack of African Americans at the head coach and general manager levels, as has baseball.
Golf is wrestling with Augusta National's right to keep an all-male membership, and the Bush administration has called for a review of Title IX, which requires equal access to athletics at the college level.
But while in light of those circumstances Johnson's selection may be a rosy step toward wider participation in sports, it also serves as a demonstration of the thorny issues that accompany such a move. In an introductory news conference this morning, Johnson was asked repeatedly how his race would affect his agenda, from selecting a general manager to pursuing free agents.
He was also pressed on the notion that his being African American might have given him an unfair advantage in the decision-making process of a diversity-focused NBA, an irony considering just how long African Americans were kept out of the upper ranks of professional sports.
"I've never heard someone describe being black as a plus; I guess one day it could be," he said, laughing. "That's the conundrum of race in America, that you can't talk about it, but you've got to talk about it. You can't say it should count, but you can't totally discount it. You just try to say, judge me as a man, based on my track record. But then again in a society where race is a factor, we would be foolish to not consider it.
"It'd be like living at the beach and not knowing there's an ocean."
Johnson certainly knows that navigating social issues while also trying to run a business is tricky. He has most recently been under fire for ordering the removal of many of the news shows on BET -- some of the only national public affairs shows produced exclusively by and generally for African Americans -- in favor of cheaper entertainment shows.
Yet he stressed "BET is different. We have about eight different demographics we talk to there about what they like. In basketball, when the buzzer sounds, and we're up by one point, no one is going to complain."
In Charlotte, that may be up for debate. The Hornets led the league in attendance for several seasons after entering the NBA in the expansion era of the late '80s, but acrimony spread as the team failed on the court, players tangled with the law and the relationship between the fans and owner George Shinn deteriorated.
In the time since Shinn left town, civic and government leaders won approval to build a $250 million arena, and under an agreement reached with the NBA, the new franchise owner will have naming and media rights for the building, as well as the right to operate other events there. The NBA itself has also agreed to give Johnson the No. 4 pick in the draft when the team starts play in the 2004-2005 season. But in return, Johnson will have to deliver a re-energized market back to the NBA. He will also own and run the city's WNBA franchise. No problem, he said.
"I have a lot of confidence in this, just like I have confidence in everything I do," said Johnson, whose personal wealth skyrocketed to an estimated $1.3 billion two years ago when he sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion. "You hire good people, you get involved in the community, you make it work."
Johnson's first hire is likely to be former American University coach Ed Tapscott, who is also a former New York Knicks vice president of player personnel. Last night, Tapscott and Johnson attended the Washington Wizards' game at MCI Center and Johnson said he hopes to name a general manager by Christmas. Wizards owner Abe Pollin and Johnson have been longtime rivals, but Pollin is not expected to block Johnson's ownership of the Charlotte franchise.
"I don't think there was a particular African American owner that came forward that had the means, the desire to be involved in the NBA," Pollin said. Johnson "is the first gentleman to have the means and desire. He's a successful businessman and has the means to produce a good franchise, but first he has to get that arena built. He's got a lot of work to do."
Johnson agrees, but he's ready."We're going to win," he said of his baseball bid, of his new Charlotte franchise -- of everything, seemingly. "I'm a very energetic guy."
Staff writers Mark Asher and Jon Gallo contributed to this report.