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Bob Johnson Gets an NBA Team

Black Entertainment Television chairman and CEO Robert Johnson is set to own a professional sports franchise as the winner of a close bid for Charlotte, N.C.'s new basketball team.

Assuming his bid receives a final blessing from the National Basketball Association's Board of Governors, Johnson will become the first African-American majority owner of a team in the history of major professional sports.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but published reports put the franchise's price tag at $300 million.

Johnson said he would finance the franchise through "my marketable securities in Viacom [Inc.] stock," which he acquired in 2000, when he sold BET to the media conglomerate for $3 billion, along with other financial assets.

But Johnson will not yield his position at BET, which he founded in 1980. "Johnson is still the founder and CEO of BET, and still the head of the company. He has not relayed any plans to the contrary," network spokesman Michael Lewellen said.

In the past, Johnson has been linked to bids for such franchises as the NBA's Washington Wizards, as well as the minor-league Continental Basketball Association. He has also teamed with Daniel Snyder, owner of the National Football League's Washington Redskins, to try to buy 51 percent of Major League Baseball's Montreal Expos and relocate the franchise to the Washington, D.C., area.

Despite his basketball gambit, Johnson still wants to bring baseball to the nation's capital.

"I've already told the NBA that I would still pursue a baseball franchise," he said.

He wouldn't rule out the possibility of creating a regional sports network for the Charlotte team.

"I'm going to look at every business opportunity possible," he said. "If I can find a spin-off business opportunity to grow an asset, that's what I'm going to do."

Heady praise

Johnson's NBA play drew high praise from sports and cable figures.

"This is the biggest day in sports history," basketball hall of famer Magic Johnson said, comparing Johnson to baseball's Jackie Robinson, who broke that sport's color barrier in 1947.

Jenny Alonzo, president of NAMIC, the trade group for minorities in the cable industry, praised the NBA's decision to grant Johnson a franchise.

"I think that it's about time that we start to see influential minorities within this country have that kind of ownership opportunity," she said. "Hopefully many others will follow in his footsteps."

Johnson beat out a group headed up by basketball hall of famer Larry Bird. The NBA reportedly preferred Johnson as a single owner, rather than a group structure.

"I believe that the NBA made a decision based on the qualifications that I brought to the table that met their criteria," he said. "Diversity was important, but was in no way the determining factor in the selection."

Phoenix Suns chairman and CEO Jerry Colangelo, chairman of the NBA Board of Governors, echoed Johnson's sentiments.

"If you look at his background, in terms of businesses he's in and has been in, it fits in like a glove," Colangelo said. "The fact that he's an African-American was a plus. It was a by-product. He was not awarded this franchise because of that. It was because of who he is and the character that he represents."

The Charlotte franchise became available after the former Charlotte Hornets moved to New Orleans earlier this year. At the time, Johnson was involved with a group of local Charlotte businessmen who tried to keep the Hornets in the city.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.