Will they or won't they?
By Richard Walker, AP photos
Gazette Sports Reporter
It’s perhaps the best soap opera to hit Charlotte since Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and their ministry crumbled before our eyes in the 1980s.
It also has the prospect of setting history in professional sports, as no group of fans has ever succeeded in forcing an ownership group out while keeping its team.
Yet, no matter whether the Charlotte Hornets stay in town or leave for New Orleans after this season, the storyline will be one that has tongues wagging for years to come.
Who doesn’t have an opinion on the ongoing saga of the George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge Hornets?
Shinn is the main character of the story.
A winner of the Horatio Alger Award in the 1970s for his "rags-to-riches" success at turning business colleges into enough wealth to bring the first major professional sports team to the Carolinas, Shinn has seen his star virtually disappear in recent years.
Only a few years after buying out three wealthy Charlotte businessmen as his partners following the team’s first year in 1988, Shinn threatened to move the team if the city didn’t give him a new uptown arena.
Starting in 1995, a roster shuffle that has continued to this day began with an eye on keeping player salaries low.
It led to popular players like Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Glen Rice and Eddie Jones being traded away. Or, in the case of others like Vlade Divac, Dell Curry, Matt Geiger, Brad Miller and Eddie Robinson, popular and talented players left without compensation via free agency.
Off the court, Shinn’s image took a worse beating.
The author of religious-oriented books and an owner whose team remains the only in all of professional sports with a pregame prayer, Shinn was accused of sexual assault in 1998. The subsequent broadcast of the trial on CourtTV brought to light several unsavory truths about Shinn’s now-broken marriage.
Then, in the spring of 1999 — or after team officials contended new arena talks were imperative for the team’s future — Shinn began and then broke off talks with Michael Jordan to become his partner.
Instead of Jordan, Shinn chose Wooldridge, an Atlanta businessman.
With majority owner Shinn now living in Jupiter, Fla., Wooldridge was entrusted to get the team a new arena.
However, Wooldridge was caught — and continues to be caught — in misinformation or out-and-out lies that led to an overwhelming defeat last June in the city’s referendum to designate funds for a new arena.
Since the Hornets’ relocation application to New Orleans in January, Shinn and Wooldridge have made disparaging remarks about city leaders and Hornets fans. They’ve even started a Web site called "neworleanshornets.com" that gleefully tells of Charlotte’s shortcomings while offering one-sided accounts of the team’s personnel decisions and negotiations with Charlotte leaders.
Gastonia’s Marshall Rauch, a 12-term state senator, has bought Hornets’ season tickets since the team’s first season in 1988.
Rauch, a former business owner himself, is remorseful about the prospect of the team leaving. NBA owners have until May 17 to vote on the issue.
"Sometimes, a fella builds a real wonderful business and he doesn’t take care of it," Rauch said. "It can be in any field. Unfortunately, Shinn had a great thing going here — then he made a number of mistakes.
"We’re all human, which is why I don’t condemn him. But, in the end, it’s going to be our loss in Charlotte if they leave. And it’s sad."
There is reason to believe the team won’t be leaving.
At least 15 NBA owners must vote to approve or block the Hornets’ request to move to New Orleans.
Given this franchise has eight of the top 12 attendance seasons in league history, many around the league wonder how any ownership group could have its fan base sabotaged to this point.
Also, Charlotte-based banks Wachovia and Bank of America have underwritten many loans to NBA owners and are two-thirds of the businesses to have put up $100 million for a new uptown arena; Duke Energy is the other.
Charlotte venture capitalist Nelson Schwab has spent much of the past two years trying to organize an ownership group that could buy the team from Shinn and Wooldridge and keep it in Charlotte.
Two months ago, Schwab and his investors set up billionaire Robert Johnson, the founder of the BET network, as a majority ownership candidate.
However, Johnson’s offer of $250 million was declined by Shinn. And Shinn and Wooldridge have repeatedly said the team is not for sale.
Last week, Schwab, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory and Charlotte City Manager Pam Syfert flew to New York City to make an hour-long presentation to the NBA Board of Governors’ relocation committee.
Schwab told Charlotte radio station WFNZ-AM 610 the owners in the meeting wanted to know the viability of the proposed new arena.
So bad are the relations between the city and the Shinn-Wooldridge Hornets’ ownership, both they and the NBA’s relocation committee understand any new arena would be for a new ownership group.
"Well, it was a good meeting and it was actually with the entire relocation committee," Schwab told WFNZ’s "Prime Time with the Packman" syndicated afternoon talk show audience on Tuesday. "Basically, there was a short presentation made by the mayor and the city manager, and then we answered questions. It was just a good give-and-take. There were some issues that needed to clarified and some various questions from the owners."
Schwab also thinks the NBA’s decision to continue extending deadlines for Shinn and Wooldridge to sell season tickets in New Orleans isn’t as bad as some may think it appears.
After all, Schwab and others understand the NBA would go ahead and grant the relocation if it was truly the league’s choice.
"I think that’s probably the best thing we have going for us," Schwab said. "This is a very tough decision for them, and they’re taking their time on it. They are really struggling with it. It is not an easy one where they say, ‘Oh, well, this is such a great market that we’re going to fire on down there.’ They are really weighing a lot of factors back and forth. It’s a close call."
Rauch and Dr. Edward Silvoy, another Gastonian who has held season tickets from the beginning, think a change in ownership would make Charlotte one of the league’s top markets again.
"If somebody bought the Hornets and they stayed, I think it would be received wonderfully and I think we’d go back to where it was packed every night," said Rauch, in reference to a 364-game regular-season sellout streak that lasted nearly nine years.
Added Silvoy, an ear, throat and nose surgeon in Gastonia the past 24 years: "I think if new owners came in, the fans would come back. They’d fill the house again."
The team, which will make the playoffs for the third straight year, has been adversely affected by the talk of relocation all season long, said head coach Paul Silas.
"As much as you say it doesn’t matter, it matters," Silas said. "Every day, it seems, there’s something different going on, and it’s just hard to ignore. You talk about it or hear about it every day. The thing we all need is some closure, just so we’ll know what’s going to happen.
"This is sort of like being the child in a divorce. If affects you even if you have nothing to do with it."
You can reach Richard Walker at email@example.com