Robert L. Johnson, founder of Washington-based Black Entertainment Television, today will be awarded an NBA expansion franchise to play in Charlotte, sources familiar with the process said last night. Johnson will become the first black majority owner in the four major U.S. professional sports leagues.
The NBA has called an 11 a.m. news conference at the NBA Store in New York to announce the decision of its eight-member expansion committee, chaired by Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, also the chairman of the league's board of governors. Johnson's group will pay nearly $300 million for a team to begin play in the 2004-05 season.
The bid of Johnson, 56, whose net worth reportedly is $1.3 billion, was selected over that of Boston business executive Steve Belkin, whose group included former Boston Celtics Larry Bird and M.L. Carr. Both groups' minority investors included leading Charlotte businessmen; Johnson's group also includes a consortium of two of the four leading U.S. banks.
"I'm heartbroken," Bird said in a statement released by his agent. "It's hard to realize that the dream I've had for so many years is not to be, and that an awesome opportunity . . . will not come to pass."
Although Johnson has said the NBA's decision will not affect his bid to bring Major League Baseball's Montreal Expos to the Washington area, a source close to Johnson said he likely will not continue that quest.
Johnson, Colangelo and NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre could not be reached to comment last night.
Michael Jordan, who held a small ownership interest in the Washington Wizards before returning to the court as a player, said he expects Johnson to succeed.
"Bob is going to do well," Jordan said. "He has the first thing you need in owning a basketball team and that's loving the game -- and the willingness to fork over the money to build a team solidly."
There have been several black investors previously in the NBA. Most prominent among them were Bertram Lee and Peter Bynoe, who held 32.5 percent of the Denver Nuggets when the franchise was controlled by Comsat Satellite Communications. Lee served as the team's president before the franchise was sold in 1991.
The NBA acted quickly in making its decision. Each of the two groups met Monday at a New York hotel with the expansion committee. Time was of the essence because a new owner had to be in place before an architect could begin designing the new arena in downtown Charlotte.
The city had declined to build an arena for the previous owner, George Shinn, leading to his decision to move the team to New Orleans. This time, the league negotiated an arena deal.
Johnson told The Washington Post last month that he planned to commute between Washington and Charlotte if he were awarded the franchise.
According to sources familiar with the situation, Washington native Ed Tapscott, former American University coach and interim general manager with the New York Knicks, is expected to have a front office role with the team.
Staff writer Steve Wyche contributed to this report from Atlanta.