For weeks, NBA ownership and front office sources insisted that it was just a matter of time until Charlotte Bobcats owner Bob Johnson made official what had been privately held: He was selling his failing franchise.
"He's been quietly feeling the market out for buyers," one league executive said.
Yet, the economy crashed, a recovery appears a long way off, and finally Johnson told the Associated Press on Monday, "I'm not selling the team."
In these tumultuous times, Johnson probably felt he didn't have a choice. This isn't the economic climate to get maximum return on your investment. He's lost tens of millions of dollars with the Bobcats, and truth be told, little suggests that'll subside soon.
With so much mismanagement and miscalculation under Johnson, Charlotte's return to the NBA has thus far been a disaster. In the past several weeks, he's cleared some 40 employees out of his marketing and business departments, leaving little infrastructure beyond his suspect basketball operations.
So far, Johnson, pro sports' first African-American majority owner, has done little to validate the enthusiasm that met his $300 million purchase of the expansion Bobcats in 2003. He's the self-made man who built the Black Entertainment Television empire that made him $3 billion in a sale to Viacom. Two years ago, he turned his basketball decisions over to an absentee partial owner, Michael Jordan, who appears to be following the same sloppy script that doomed him with the Washington Wizards.
Several Bobcats employees are so skeptical of Jordan's priorities, a source says there's a running joke that the greatest player ever had something to do with the league office scheduling the Bobcats in the Super Bowl cities of Miami and Phoenix the day after the 2007 and 2008 games. No one is ever sure when and where they'll find Jordan around the team – never mind scouting the colleges or overseas – but they know Jordan never misses that Super Bowl week party.
"He's going to be more involved, I think, this year than he has been in the past because he's got the coach here that he wants," Johnson said in the interview with AP.
Jordan needed Larry Brown, and Brown needed Jordan. One was an absentee executive, and the other, an obstinate, self-destructive coach. After a winless preseason, Brown has already undertaken his usual routine of privately disparaging the roster and demanding upheaval.
"Like always with Larry, he hates the players he has and covets ones he doesn't and then once he acquires them, hates them equally," said one longtime league official.
For someone to suggest that Brown hasn't gotten his way already, though, would be erroneous. On draft night in June, sources said, Jordan and general manager Rod Higgins had decided to take Stanford 7-footer Brook Lopez with the ninth pick. There was even a call made out of the Charlotte war room to send word to Lopez's representatives that commissioner David Stern would soon be calling his name at Madison Square Garden.
Despite the fact that Texas point guard D.J. Augustin never worked out for the Bobcats, Brown still wanted to pick him. He was down on Raymond Felton, the ex-Tar Heel guard, and used the final moments until the pick was due to lobby his bosses for Augustin.
So, Augustin turned out to be the choice, and Lopez would go 10th to the New Jersey Nets. If Brown hated having Isiah Thomas as his talent evaluator with the Knicks, he's sure to loathe MJ. Jordan is responsible for drafting Kwame Brown with the No. 1 pick, Adam Morrison with No. 3 and trading Richard Hamilton for a Carolina crony, Jerry Stackhouse.
"[Jordan] recognizes that he now has had two years of putting the Michael Jordan stamp on the team," Johnson told the AP. "So it's sort of his team that he has to now prove can do what he expects it to do. He's very much focused on his basketball obligations here in Charlotte."
It's never good when the owner feels the need to convince people that the executive running his franchise is serious about the job. You'd kind of want to assume that. Welcome to the Bobcats' dysfunctional world.
The way Johnson has run the Bobcats, there's as much uncertainty about his commitment to the product. "He thought it was enough to just plop down his $300 million for the expansion fee, and he never realized the kind of resources beyond that it took to be a viable NBA franchise," one ex-Bobcats official said. "He didn't understand the market place, that Charlotte is really a small town where people want to believe you're a part of the fabric of the place. He's miscalculated a lot of things."
Just a week ago, Johnson had an embarrassing interview on CNBC, where he sounded far too flippant about his franchise – even disconnected. He called his former No. 1 pick, Sean May by his father's name, "Scott," called the basketball court a "field," and only half-jokingly mocked Jordan, saying, "I gave Michael Jordan a blank check and he exceeded it."
Before the segment was over, the host asked his advice to wealthy investors in America. He sure didn't sound like someone who wanted to keep his basketball team. "Here's what you do: You buy beachfront assets like the NBA. There's only 30 NBA teams. Buy an NBA team."
Whatever Bob Johnson is saying now, there are still plenty of people in the NBA who believe it'll be his failing franchise on the market.