David Stern chooses his words with the care of a U.N. envoy on a peacekeeping mission as he recounts a recent conversation with George Shinn about temporarily moving the NBA's nomadic Hornets franchise from New Orleans to Oklahoma City. "I don't think he knew much about the city," the basketball commissioner allows. Hornets owner Shinn is considerably less diplomatic: "My exact reaction was: 'Oklahoma where?' I'd never considered this market."
Yet two months later, Shinn sits in the makeshift headquarters of the Hornets on the 18th floor of one of Oklahoma City's tallest office buildings waxing on about the Sooner State. And why not? Oklahoma has rolled out the world's longest red carpet for a basketball team beset by a history of mutinous fans, strife in the front office, and legal woes, including a lurid court case starring Shinn himself.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in late August, Shinn's franchise was adrift, its arena in shambles, its fans scattered. The Hornets desperately needed a home away from home. Rejecting higher-profile options including Las Vegas, Nashville, and San Diego, Shinn settled on a city where the favorite local sport is drilling for oil. But with the NBA season barely beyond tip-off, Oklahoma City and the Hornets already have the makings of a match made in hoops heaven.
The scrappy state capital is still trying to shake off the pall cast by the Federal Building bombing 10 years ago, and lassoing the Hornets for even one season is a coup. City fathers have been angling for a big-league franchise for a decade and narrowly missed out on joining the National Hockey League during its last expansion in 1998. "There's a sense a city has arrived when it gets a major league franchise. Our CEOs here will tell you that when they recruit from the East or West Coasts, the opportunity to live in Oklahoma City has not stood out," says Mick Cornett, the city's first-term mayor and a former TV anchorman in town.
Shinn may be an even bigger winner. From the hero's welcome they've received, you'd never guess his lowly Hornets, who shifted from Charlotte, N.C., to New Orleans in 2002, posted the NBA's next-to-worst record last season, an abysmal 18 wins, 64 losses -- or that they trailed the 30-team league in attendance, with an average of 14,221 seats filled per game.
In Oklahoma City, the Hornets, improbably, are a hot ticket. Only five teams (Sacramento, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago) have sold more season passes. And on Nov. 1 a full house of fist-pumping fans crammed into the Ford Center, the city's four-year-old, 19,675-seat arena, to root the team on to a 26-point thrashing of the potent Sacramento Kings. Two victories in their first three games momentarily had the Hornets breathing the rarefied air of first place.
Even if attendance wanes, Shinn has a head start toward a winning financial season. In the deal that lured him, Oklahoma City offered an incentive-laden package, including a pledge to make up the difference if Hornets revenues from tickets, concessions, and sponsorships fall below $40 million this season. The money would come from city and state coffers as well as from a consortium of local business leaders. "We're a free-enterprise business. I didn't want to be in a position where I had to continue to borrow money to fund losses," says Shinn.
The Oklahoma City detour also allows Shinn to take a deep breath after a seemingly unbroken string of business setbacks, legal entanglements, and public-relations disasters. When Shinn, a self-made millionaire, joined the NBA as owner of the expansion Charlotte Hornets in 1988, he was a star as luminous as some of his players. As an inspirational speaker and author of motivational books including Good Morning, Lord!, Shinn could charge up a crowd.
His personal story was a charmer, too. Raised poor in North Carolina, with no hint that he'd escape his humble upbringing, he graduated dead last in his high school class. "I was the cutup, the guy who loved to clown," he says now. On a lark, he enrolled in a business school and discovered that he was a born salesman. Eventually he became the proprietor of a chain of business schools, selling them for $30 million shortly after buying the Hornets for $32.5 million.
The feel-good story doesn't feel as good these days. A failed and fractious bid for a new arena in Charlotte and, this year, a lawsuit brought by aggrieved employees who allege they were gypped out of overtime pay by the Hornets, have all chipped away at Shinn's reputation.
Most damaging, though, was an allegation of sexual impropriety. In 1999, Shinn was slapped with civil sexual assault charges after a 30-year-old woman claimed that he drove her from a drug rehab center, where she was receiving treatment, to his mansion. During the trial, he claimed the act for which he was charged was consensual. Shinn, who had been married for 28 years at the time, was found not liable after a trial that was a ratings bonanza for Court TV. Verdict aside, Shinn admitted on the stand to a two-year relationship with a Hornets cheerleader. He was divorced soon after the indiscretions became public. "I lost my wife. I didn't lose my life," says Shinn, now wed to a nurse he met at a Hornets game.
"WE'VE ANSWERED THE CALL"
Shinn rarely speaks about the debacle, but looking back, he says: "I have to face the fact that things are going to be on my tombstone. I can't change that." Shinn could not shake the stigma of the allegations in Charlotte. But most Oklahoma City officials are content to let the owner start with a blank slate. "I don't think we're judgmental," says Mayor Cornett.
Besides, what interests most Oklahomans is Shinn's basketball team. For now it's unclear whether the Hornets will play in the city after this season. The New Orleans Saints of the NFL may be headed for San Antonio. But Shinn professes loyalty to his team's home city and leaves the impression that he'll take the Hornets back to New Orleans as early as next season.
If that happens, Oklahoma leaders say their gambit still will have paid off. A year from now they will have demonstrated to the NBA or NHL that Oklahoma City is ready and able to support a major league franchise. "We know this is New Orleans' team. We hope and expect they can go back. At the same time, we've answered the call and proven ourselves," says Clay Bennett, president of private investment firm Dorchester Capital, who is himself one of the guarantors of the Hornets' deal.
Shinn agrees. Sitting on a bench outside his office building watching workers stroll by, the owner says: "Oklahoma City has been a well-kept secret, but it's out now."
By Mark Hyman