The NBA is weighing whether to buy the New Orleans Hornets from longtime owner George Shinn to have greater control over the permanent sale of the franchise, according to sources with knowledge of the league's thinking.
Two sources likened the NBA's potential involvement to Major League Baseball's purchase of the Montreal Expos before the team was ultimately sold and moved to the nation's capital as the Washington Nationals in 2005.
It's believed, though, that the NBA's intent -- if it goes through with buying the Hornets -- would be to try to secure a buyer willing and able to keep the franchise in New Orleans now that Shinn's anticipated sale to minority partner Gary Chouest has apparently collapsed.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune, after ESPN.com's initial report about the possibility of the Hornets becoming the first franchise owned and operated by the league, quoted sources on its website Friday night saying that Chouest no longer thinks he can devote the time needed to run an NBA team as well as his private business.
The league office and the Hornets declined requests from comment Friday from ESPN.com.
Shinn controversially moved the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season and the team was later forced to make Oklahoma City its home for two seasons in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Times-Picayune reported earlier this week that the Hornets can opt out of their current lease with the state of Louisiana and might have the freedom to move yet again if they average less than 14,213 fans during a 13-game stretch of home dates between Dec. 1 and Jan. 17.
The Hornets averaged just 13,826 fans through their first nine home games despite the team's promising 13-5 start and attracted a crowd of 14,020 for Friday night's home loss to the New York Knicks.
The future of the Hornets has commanded strong interest throughout the league since Shinn's plans to sell the team to Chouest were revealed back in April, largely because Shinn's ongoing presence and limited financial resources are widely seen as factors that would prompt star guard Chris Paul to leave the only team he's ever played for when he's eligible to become a free agent in the summer of 2012.
Great local optimism initially greeted the news that Chouest would be taking over, but fears that his deal to buy out Shinn would collapse have been mounting for months because so much time has passed with almost nothing said publicly by either side about the state of the sale. Chouest's primary business interests, furthermore, are in the offshore service industry, which took a heavy hit after the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Times-Picayune reported on its website Friday night that Chouest has withdrawn his offer and that he did not attend Friday's game against New York.
Sports Illustrated reported that the prospect of the NBA assuming temporary control of the Hornets, much like MLB did with the Expos, was discussed at the league's Board of Governors meetings in October.
Amid the sale uncertainty, New Orleans has been trying for months to convince skeptics that Paul will not be made available to interested teams under any circumstances. Numerous clubs besieged the Hornets with trade calls about Paul throughout last season, but external interest only increased after a June interview with ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard in which Paul said he wants to remain in New Orleans but would be "open to a trade" if the Hornets aren't trying to compete financially with the league's elite.
Hornets team president Hugh Weber responded with a housecleaning that led to the hiring of general manager Dell Demps from San Antonio to team with rookie coach and former Spurs teammate Monty Williams. Through a series of aggressive trades, improved defense and with Williams and Paul bonding quickly, New Orleans followed up a painful preseason with a stunning 11-1 start. Team officials also pointed to the $15 million in additional salaries that the Hornets have absorbed as a sign that the team is on its most solid financial footing with Chouest more involved than Shinn.
Paul has generally revealed little in the way of firm declarations about how the Hornets' brightened outlook affects his future plans. But he has acknowledged in numerous interviews he's excited by the team's new direction under Demps and Williams and reiterated his fondness for New Orleans after establishing deep roots in the city.
"I'm excited about my teammates," Paul told ESPN.com on Nov. 15. "We've got a lot of guys on our team that are hungry. I think we're in a good spot right now."
Back in August, Weber expressed confidence majority control would eventually be transferred from Shinn to Chouest, telling ESPN.com: "We have two great partners that have a similar mission that they're trying to get accomplished. George does want to sell this team -- I think it's time for him to move on -- and Gary does want to run it."
It was widely reported in early May that Shinn and Chouest had struck an agreement in principle for Chouest -- who possesses a 25 percent stake in the franchise -- to become majority owner. Delays were initially attributed to haggles over the final purchase price and Chouest's reported search for new minority investors to reduce his overall investment.
Shinn founded the Hornets in 1988 and announced last season that -- now in remission after being diagnosed with prostate cancer a year ago -- he was prepared to sell his majority stake. It's been a controversial two-decade run from Shinn with a franchise that moved away from its fervent followers in Charlotte largely because of the locals' distaste for the owner.
The Times-Picayune reported Monday that the Hornets would be free to relocate if the 14,735-fan benchmark is not reached for the 13 games specified, but actually leaving New Orleans would require a $10 million exit penalty payable to the state and a formal notice to Louisiana no later than March 1, 2011.
Weber told the newspaper the franchise isn't looking to relocate again, saying: "We all know basketball can work in New Orleans. We've seen it work."
Marc Stein is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com.