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Friday, December 14, 2007
A Conversation with Bobcat Majority Owner Robert Johnson


This afternoon I sat down for a few minutes with Robert Johnson, the majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, and the first African-American to hold that position in NBA history.

The NBA's newest team is feeling growing pains -- they have never sold a ton of tickets, and have never been so great on the court. Johnson is undaunted.

OK, so let's say I'm saving my money to buy an NBA team. Do you recommend it? Is it a good investment?
I think for those who can afford to buy an NBA team and want the thrill of watching some of the best athletes in the world, and want to be involved in sports as a contributing member of a community, yes, I think an NBA franchise is a prized possession. And those of us -- the other 29 members and myself -- believe that we have made a great investment, and we expect that investment to be extremely valuable, both from a financial standpoint, and from the standpoint of what we can contribute to the greater community.

What is the job of an owner? What are your duties to the Bobcats?
The job of an owner, like an owner of any other business, is to set the goals for the business. To have a vision for the business. To find the people to manage and operate the business, and the resources as necessary to make that business a success. As the owner I see that's my job. My job is to make sure that we have every opportunity to be successful in our effort to be a winning franchise on the court and a winning franchise in our service to our community.

It seems to me that you could, and do, invest in a number of different ways. But this one is supposed to be kind of fun, right?
Well, absolutely. The one thing about sports -- there is nothing more emotionally engaging for a community, or for fans or an owner, than sports. Because people live emotionally and die emotionally by the way the team plays. Very few businesses create that kind of, what I call that universal cheering, and that universal tearing, that comes from sports teams.

You can be in a town like Charlotte where you've got huge banks like B of A and Wachovia, but you'll never get that collective cheer when the B of A or Wachovia earnings come out. I'm sure you get it from the people who work there, but to the community at large, sports is a unifier. It's a common idenity. It's common values, and people share in that.

The thing I love about it: very few places in the world, except sports arenas, can you bring people from diverse backgrounds, who for the time they are in the arena they have a commonality of interests, and a commonality of faith, and commonality of support for one organization. It's absolutely amazing. It's almost, in some ways, religious, and spiritual, if you will, the way that sports acts as a unifier.

Robert Johnson and Henry AbbottThat's my favorite thing about sports too. ... Let me ask you about race a little more. I was recently at a league event where they asked all the players to take off their jewelry before going on camera. There was the famous incident when the league airbrused out Allen Iverson's tattoos. There's the dress code. Some people see this as the league being ashamed of young black players, and trying to shoehorn them into what they think a white audience might like more. How do you feel about how the league presents its players?
First of all, I think the league is an organization that is committed to diversity all across the board, because we go after the best players, irrespective of race or ethnicity. So there's no way we could not be commited to diversity because we go after the best, and the best come in all colors and ethnic groups.

In terms of dress code, I think it's appropriate that people come to work dressed appropriately. I have it at the RLJ companies. I had it at BET when I was there. There's nothing wrong with having a dress code. It's an acceptable thing throughout society.

The third thing, in terms of personal imaging on somebody -- if they put a tattoo on their skin, I don't have any objection to it. It's a personal decision. It doesn't have anything to do with their play. It's not dangerous to anybody else. Obviously, jewelry could be dangerous -- those kinds of things impact the game and are a health issue.

But in terms of is the NBA ashamed of its black players: absolutely not. It can't be, because they're the dominant players in the league. Are the fans ashamed of the African-American players? Again, I don't think so, because those are the dominant players in the league and the fans cheer for those players like they cheer for everybody else.

Are our players young, and do they have different culture and lifestyles? Absolutely. But that's what we like about all young people. All young people are going to have different lifestyles than some older people in the stands.

But the question is: is it something that's harmful or negative to the fan base? I say absolutely not.

Have you ever felt less than welcome as the NBA's first black majority owner?
No, because the NBA has always had an approach that said that we don't go out looking for white owners or black owners. We go out looking for owners with money. So when I showed up with money, they didn't particularly care what my color was, as long as I paid the appropriate franchise fee, which I did.

So as far as the other 29 owners, as far as the league, and as far as the commissioner is concerned, they wanted to find an owner who would contribute as an owner, irrespective of his color. And if the owner had the ability to pay for the team, that was all that was necessary.

For you as a business man, working with Michael Jordan, one of the criticisms of him as a basketball executive, has been that he has a tendency to hire his friends. And sure enough, a number of people that he has known for a long time are now working for the Bobcats. The concern is that he doesn't cast a very wide net. Does that bother you at all?
I have overwhelming confidence in Michael to make the best decisions for the Bobcats. He's the second largest owner in the franchise. He's the world's greatest guy ever to play basketball, and he's probably the most competitive guy I have ever met. And he is a friend whom I trust.

When he makes decisions about who to hire, about who to put in a position, I'm assuming he's making it based on his fundamental belief that this is the best talent to work in the organization, and the best talent to work with me. I won't second guess that. There's nothing wrong with hiring somebody you know, or somebody who's a friend, if they can deliver on what you assign them to do.

A lot of that is not only just doing what you're supposed to do, but also fitting in the culture that I need to maximize the business results.

You have said that you are in this for the long haul. Is there a certain amount of time -- that if ticket sales haven't picked up and the like -- after which the plan changes?
As a businessman and an entrepreneur, I never look at the glass as being half empty. I always look at it as being half full. So it's almost impossible for me to sit back and look at this community in Charlotte that's growing faster than most communities, and you've got a whole downtown revitalization taking place with new apartment buildings and shops, and you've got an organization run by Michael Jordan and Fred Whitfield ... when I put all those ingredients together with our commitment to the team, and the local ownership support, I have every confidence in the world that this franchise is going to be, without question, one of premier teams in the NB
A. And I'm prepared to give it the time to be that, and I have no doubt in my mind that it will reach that result.

Everyone in sports is talking about steroids today. Are you worried about steroids in the NBA?
I would be worried about illegal, improper, unethical drug use in any place in our society. It just happens to be something that for whatever reason has become pervasive. People use it for reasons that only they know, because the society might tolerate it, or they think everybody else is doing it, or they are looking for the quick fix, or the quick results. Sometimes people lose the value of hard work and the work ethic to get where you want to be. Sometimes they lose the value of not taking drugs.

So, that's pervasive in the society, and it's not just a basketball player problem, or a football player or baseball player problem. It's a societal problem where people look for shortcuts with drugs or pharmaceutical products. To me, the issue is how do we change people's attitude, philosophy, and ethics about what is a proper way to achieve results, no matter what you do in life? My thing is we have got to focus more on their behavior and what's right and ethical.

The other thing we have got to focus on is having the kind of system that acts as the strong, almost total, deterrent. Can't have people thinking they can do it, or being susceptible to doing because a friend said I can so this without being detected, or I can help you beat the system. We have got to be vigilant and diligent to make sure that no one puts emphasis on trying to beat the system. We need to do away with any notion that you can get around the system.

I think it's a combination of making sure that we clearly explain the rules so that if you engage in this, this is the result. We talk to people about why you shouldn't do it ethically, morally, and philosophically. And then we have systems in place that act as strong deterrent, and take it away the incentive to do it because you know you're likely to get caught.

Do you think the NBA is vulnerable to that kind of thing right now? The story has been that maybe that kind of anabolic bulk doesn't help you in basketball ...
I think that any league that is made up of people, or any organization that is made up of people is vulnerable to people abusing certain products. The league certainly could be vulnerable. But the more we do to educate, and to deter, and the more we have absolutely clear consquences for bad behavior -- it's going to be in the best interests of the league.

(Photo: Jonathan Stotts for ESPN.com)