Johnson remains committed to struggling Bobcats

Updated: October 21, 2008, 12:10 AM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first black majority owner of a major professional sports team is not interested in selling, even as he loses millions in a bad economy.

Bob Johnson said Monday he remains committed to the Charlotte Bobcats, who have struggled to win and attract fans since he paid $300 million for the expansion franchise four years ago.

Johnson laid off nearly 40 employees in the past month to save money, and three top executives have left the organization. But in an interview with The Associated Press, Johnson said he has no intention of unloading the team, and will spend what it takes to get the Bobcats to the playoffs for the first time.

"I'm not selling the team," Johnson said. "We have had calls from people wanting to know if they would want additional investors in the team. But there have been no discussions and I'm not interested in selling the team."

At the recommendation of a consulting firm, Johnson gutted the business and marketing departments, leaving just a skeleton crew and plenty of empty cubicles. But he insisted the basketball operations will not be affected by the cost-cutting.

The team re-signed forward Emeka Okafor to a six-year, $72 million deal this summer and hired Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown to replace Sam Vincent. Charlotte's payroll of about $63 million this season is above the NBA's $58.7 million salary cap.

"Part of that study was focused on if you're able to put together a winning combination on the court, it's going to have an impact on your ability to sell tickets, attract sponsorships and advertisers," Johnson said. "So we're doing the things we believe are most critical to drive the value of this team and to demonstrate to the community that we are committed to winning with our basketball product."

Johnson still believes Michael Jordan is the right man to make that happen. The North Carolina icon bought a stake in the team in 2006, and Johnson awarded him complete control of all personnel decisions, despite Jordan's struggles earlier this decade running the Washington Wizards.

Jordan has been criticized for drafting Adam Morrison in 2006 and for hiring and firing Vincent after one season. Brown questioned his team's depth at power forward before training camp began, and Jordan is rarely seen or heard from in Charlotte.

"He's going to be more involved, I think, this year than he has been in the past because he's got the coach here that he wants," Johnson said. "And he recognizes that he now has had two years of putting the Michael Jordan stamp on the team. So it's sort of his team that he has to now prove can do what he expects it to do. He's very much focused on his basketball obligations here in Charlotte."

With a .332 winning percentage in four seasons, the Bobcats haven't been close to reaching the playoffs, something that might be necessary to win over a skeptical fan base.

Johnson, who founded and later sold Black Entertainment Television for $3 billion, has made several missteps since he was awarded the team, ranging from high ticket prices, a failed venture to start a regional sports network, and moves and statements that angered the business community.

Fans hardly rushed back to the NBA after the Hornets moved to New Orleans in 2002. The Bobcats ranked 24th out of 30 teams in attendance last season. Johnson has acknowledged huge losses and folded the WNBA's Charlotte Sting two years ago.

Now Charlotte, the nation's No. 2 banking city behind New York, is on edge after Wells Fargo's takeover of Charlotte-based Wachovia, the city's second-largest employer and a major Bobcats' sponsor. Charlotte-based Bank of America has also struggled in the financial crisis.

"I feel good about Wachovia," Johnson insisted. "The good part about it is I'm very close to the chairman at Wells Fargo, Dick Kovacevich. ... They are one of the largest lenders to my hotel real estate fund. We've got a great relationship with Wells, so that's going to be a big plus."

Johnson was upbeat Monday, insisting he's not ready to give up on the NBA or Charlotte, while refusing to say when he expects to stop losing money.

"If you win, the rest will take care of itself," Johnson said. "I think the long-term process is on, what do we need to do to win."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press