Columns & Blogs

Shinn took Charlotte to stars with Hornets

Twenty five years ago Sunday, George Shinn sat inside his office on the 26th floor of the First Union building in downtown Charlotte, awaiting a call from the NBA.

The league's expansion committee was meeting in New York. Seven cities had applied for an expansion franchise, and by the end of the day the league was expected to decide which candidates would be sold a team.

Shinn, 45 then and 70 now, was confident when the day began that he and Charlotte would be selected. He was a natural salesman, a millionaire businessman, who could look you in the eye and tell you what you wanted to hear.

But as Wednesday wore on his confidence began to wear out. He remembered a column he'd read in a S.C. newspaper as he tried to sell the NBA there.

"They said I was a little guy with a big dream, and it was never going to happen," Shinn says Friday by telephone from his home just outside Nashville, Tenn.

In 1987 you could say the same thing about Charlotte. We'd never had a major league team. We were, a Phoenix columnist famously wrote, a city whose only franchise would include golden arches. When our name appeared in a newspaper outside the Carolinas, it invariably was followed by N.C.

It was a different time. A gallon of gas cost 89 cents. "The Simpsons" made its television debut on the Tracy Ullman Show. In Fort Mill, evangelist Jim Bakker resigned in disgrace from the PTL ministry.

Or maybe it wasn't a different time. One of the leading candidates for the team's first head-coaching job was Kansas' Larry Brown, who in 2008 would become coach of the Charlotte Bobcats.

Charlotte, Shinn thought, was not big enough. He says he never lied to the league about the size of the market. But when he drew circles on a chart to indicate the reach of the market, our suburbs suddenly included Columbia, Asheville, Greensboro and Spartanburg.

April 1 also was Shinn's anniversary, with his first wife, Carolyn . But he couldn't leave his office. This was before everyone had cell phones, and he waited to hear the voice of NBA Commissioner David Stern.

When by 8 p.m. the call had not come, Shinn gave up and drove home.

"The garage door opened and my son, Chris, who was about 11 years old, ran to the car," Shinn says. "I cut the engine and he said, 'Dad, call David Stern.'"

"OK, son," Shinn said.

Shinn, who owned a business school and had written optimistic books such as "The Miracle of Motivation," was not motivated.

"David (Stern) and I had become friends and he'd make it sound nice," says Shinn. "But I was just so convinced it was bad news."

The lack of urgency offended Chris.

"Dad, David Stern is the commissioner of the NBA," Shinn remembers Chris saying.

"I know that," Shinn said.

For 21 months, Shinn, who was assisted by some of the sharpest and most influential people in Charlotte, had pursued a team. So had Anaheim, Calif., Miami, Minneapolis, Orlando, Fla., St. Petersburg, Fla., and Toronto.

Shinn walked into the house and Carolyn told him Stern had called and she handed him the phone number. She did not tell him Stern was commissioner of the NBA.

Shinn says he didn't want to cry in front of his wife and three children, so he looked for a private room to make the call.

He went inside a bathroom, locked the door and called from there.

"Good evening, NBA," a woman said.

By now it was almost 9 p.m.

"Who works that late?" Shinn asks me.

He identified himself and soon deputy commissioner Russ Granik was on the line.

"Hold on George," Granik said, "David Stern wants to talk to you."

"Russ, what's up?" Shinn asked.

"Just hang on, George," Granik said.

The wait probably was three minutes, but it seemed like 30. Instead of Stern's voice, Shinn heard classical music interrupted by ads promoting the NBA.

"I had to listen until I got sick," Shinn says.

Put yourself in Shinn's situation. You grew up in Kannapolis, didn't graduate from college, worked as a janitor and in a car wash and never had been voted most likely to succeed. You succeeded anyway. You reached.

But this time it wasn't just you reaching. A city and a region desperate for big-time sports and national attention accompanied you. You knew you were going to fail. By the next day, everybody would.

Whenever you drove past a McDonald's you'd be reminded of your failure.

Then you heard Stern, then in his fourth year as commissioner.

"George today is April Fools' Day, but this is not an April Fools' joke," Shinn remembers Stern saying. "I'm calling you first because Charlotte was selected first. Congratulations."

Shinn tried to keep Stern on the phone because Shinn needed to know the words he thought he heard were real.

"It was the perfect place to get that call because I just broke down and cried," says Shinn.

April 1, 1987, changed Charlotte.

We were now in the same league with New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Eight times the Charlotte Hornets would lead the NBA in attendance.

The relationship between the town and the team, and between Charlotte and Shinn, ultimately failed.

A jury rejected a sexual assault claim against him in a highly publicized sex scandal in 1999, but he admitted adultery and later divorced.

In 2002 Shinn moved the Hornets to New Orleans. He sold the team to the NBA in 2010.

But in the late 1980s and early and mid-'90s the team was wildly successful at the gate. We proved we were big enough to support a major league team, and the perception of Charlotte was altered.

In 1993 the NFL awarded Jerry Richardson a team, and he put it in Charlotte.

"Jerry's done a great job, but I don't think the NFL would be here if the NBA wasn't," says Shinn.

Shinn lives outside Nashville with his wife, Denise, and they run the philanthropic TruLight Foundation.

"I think about April 1 a lot, and it always makes me feel good," says Shinn. "I felt like we were David. And we won. We beat Goliath."

Related stories from Charlotte Observer