CHARLOTTE HITS THE BIG TIME : A Dream Comes True When City Is Awarded NBA Franchise

Times Staff Writer

It was suggested early on that Spirit was an appropriate nickname for a proposed National Basketball Assn. franchise in this city because those proposing it didn't stand a ghost of a chance.

Charlotte, the city in a forest, was considered too small, too rural, too backward.

It is the nation's 32nd-largest television market, but that ranking falls, some would have you believe, when the TV is turned off in the department store window, or when Andy, Opie, Barney and Goober aren't gathered in front of the TV in Floyd's barber shop.

For years, denizens of the South's richest financial center have decried the so-called "CH factor," complaining that Charlotte is often mistaken for Charleston, S.C., or Charlottesville, Va.

But the image of Charlotte as a sleepy little town might have been forever changed on April 22, when the NBA awarded it an expansion franchise.

The city rejoiced, reveling in its new major league status.

George Shinn, a millionaire businessman whose stick-to-itiveness forced the NBA to look seriously at his hometown as a viable market, was hailed as a demigod.

At a downtown parade April 27, an adoring crowd of about 50,000 showered Shinn and his partners with $32.5 million in shredded bills from the Federal Reserve bank in Charlotte.

"People with tears in their eyes were telling us, 'Thank you for bringing a team here,' " said Rick Hendrick, one of Shinn's partners. "The pride was overflowing. People just wanted to hug somebody."

The crowd lined up to sign a billboard-sized card that read: "Nothing can stop us now! Thank you, George."

The card actually did become a billboard and now towers above Tyvola Road, about three miles from Shinn's home in the southeastern part of the city.

All the while, season tickets continued to sell at a staggering rate, especially considering that the fledgling team has no coach, no players and won't play its first game for another 18 months.

On April 2, when the NBA expansion committee recommended that Charlotte be awarded a franchise, the team had sold 8,508 season tickets. In the next nine days, it sold another 4,655 and, as of Friday, it had sold 15,652, an NBA record.

"You'd have to go back to the Civil War or when North Carolina became a state to find something that will have the kind of impact that this inevitably will," said Max Muhleman, a marketing consultant and Shinn's right-hand man.

"This will change the way North Carolina and its people are perceived by the rest of the nation."

Welcome to Mayberry, NBA.

In their presentations to the NBA, Shinn and Muhleman never once mentioned the population of Charlotte, which is only 340,000, making it smaller than Omaha.

Instead, they billed the city as the heart of basketball country.

Indeed, Charlotte sits smack-dab in the middle of the Carolinas, heart of the basketball-rich Atlantic Coast Conference, which is represented in the Carolinas by North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, Wake Forest and Clemson.

None of those schools, however, is within a 100-minute drive of Charlotte, leaving the town's basketball junkies, many of whom attended ACC schools, craving more than an occasional fix of their beloved hoops.

In fact, about a year before an NBA expansion franchise had even been rumored for Charlotte, the taxpayers voted in 1984 to build a 23,500-seat arena near the airport in hopes of attracting the NCAA Final Four, an NCAA regional, an ACC tournament or even a regular-season North Carolina game.

The $47.4-million facility will be completed sometime next year.

"That just shows you how crazy this area is for basketball," Shinn said.

But Shinn, of course, had more than just zealous fans to sell to the NBA.

This is a city on the move.

Charlotte's downtown area may be small, and its residential areas may be mostly rural, nestled as they are among countless oak trees, but 5.5 million people live within a 100-mile radius of the city, making it the nation's fifth-largest urban center.

That total is expected to exceed 7 million by the turn of the century, at which time Charlotte will be well on its way to having the worst traffic problems in the United States, according to a study by the Federal Highway Administration.

And Shinn, as the expansion committee discovered, would like to be at the forefront as Charlotte moves to another plateau.

So determined was he to bring a team here that he even talked to owners of the Clippers, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs about buying one of their teams and moving it to Charlotte.

NBA Commissioner David Stern described the 5-foot-6 Shinn as a "determined little cuss," and it's not difficult to see why.

A self-made millionaire who made his fortune through a string of business colleges, Shinn is the author of two motivational books, "The American Dream Still Works" and "The Miracle of Motivation."

At A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, N.C.--about 20 miles northeast of Charlotte--Shinn finished last in his graduating class of 224 in 1959, so it's easy to believe him when he says, "My whole life has proven that average people can achieve above-average things if they work at it."

And work at it he did in setting aside his dream of owning a major league baseball team to court the NBA, a pursuit many told him was crazy, nothing more than a pipe dream.

Sportswriter Leonard Laye, who has chronicled Shinn's wooing of the NBA for the Charlotte Observer, believes that Shinn "opened some doors with his personality and his unlimited drive." And Shinn, 45, is an immensely likable man.

But Shinn, who learned his financial acumen at a business college long before he started buying them, knew that charm and determination would get him only so far with the NBA owners.

Aware of his role as an underdog, he believed that it would be critical for him to come up with something spectacular to catch the attention of the expansion committee, which also entertained bids from Miami, Orlando, Minneapolis, Toronto, St. Petersburg and Orange County.

"I was told that the only way Charlotte would get a franchise would be to be better than everybody else," Shinn said.

And so, enlisting the aid of Mayor Harvey Gantt, who bought the first pair of season tickets, he set about obtaining from the Auditorium, Coliseum, Convention Center Authority an eye-opening lease agreement for use of the new Charlotte Coliseum. In its first five seasons in the Coliseum, the team will pay rent of only $1 a game.

When Shinn presented the agreement to the expansion committee last October at Phoenix, owner Abe Pollin of the Washington Bullets blurted: "By God, I'm moving my team to Charlotte."

In the Arizona Republic that morning, columnist Norm Frauenheim wrote that the only franchise Charlotte would be awarded would have golden arches, but Muhleman said he could feel the momentum shift during Shinn's presentation.

The lease agreement, coupled with an eight-minute video that stressed Charlotte's standing as a major financial center, forced the NBA owners to take notice.

Also, Shinn told the owners that, unlike the other expansion candidates, he had taken non-refundable orders on specified season seats--rather than reservations--and had almost $1 million on deposit in a Charlotte bank.

"You could see that they almost enjoyed discovering Charlotte," Muhleman said. "They even applauded a few times."

Said Norm Sonju, owner of the Dallas Mavericks: "That was a day of awakening. All of a sudden, people were aware of Charlotte. No one was really thinking about them before that day."

Six months later, Shinn returned a call from Stern, who told him that Charlotte was the expansion committee's No. 1 choice.

"I lost control," Shinn said. "I started crying like a baby. It just tore me up."

Another three weeks later, on April 22, it became official: The NBA Board of Governors voted unanimously to award expansion franchises to Charlotte, Minneapolis, Orlando and Miami.

Entry fee: $32.5 million.

According to John Connaughton, a University of North Carolina Charlotte economist who prepared an economic-impact study for Shinn, the team could be worth as much as $30 million a year to the local economy.

"I don't want to sound like a cheerleader for George Shinn but this is big time," Connaughton told the Charlotte Observer.

The impact on the region's psyche could be almost as profound.

Charlotte has been home to other professional sports but, other than the annual Coca-Cola 600 and Oakwood Homes 500 stock car races at Charlotte Motor Speedway, they were strictly minor league.

The Carolina Cougars of the old American Basketball Assn. were the closest this city has come to the big time, but the Cougars were based in Greensboro, played some games in Chapel Hill and had a 1 1/2-hour bus ride to "home" games in Charlotte.

Beginning in the 1988-89 season, Charlotte will play host to, among others, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and at least three local favorites, former Tar Heels Michael Jordan, Brad Daugherty and James Worthy, who grew up about 20 miles west of Charlotte in Gastonia, N.C.

The New York-based public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, hired by the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce to attract business and upgrade the city's image, said the NBA expansion committee provided a valuable assist.

Landing an NBA team, said Hill and Knowlton spokesman David Allan, "raises awareness of Charlotte as a major league city. To be listed among the San Antonios and Atlantas of the world puts the city on another footing."

Perhaps that explains the city's tremendous feeling of pride.

"A number of people in Charlotte have felt that the city has been on the verge of being major league for quite some time," said Gary Schwab, sports editor of the Observer. "They see what's happened in Atlanta and they want some of that."

Of course, the honeymoon may end once the team steps onto the court out at the new arena on Billy Graham Parkway.

Having followed ACC basketball all these years, Charlotteans are used to a certain quality of basketball, and not even a few heartfelt prayers from Billy Graham, who grew up in Charlotte, are expected to produce the miracle that would give Charlotte even a decent team right away.

Charlotte will enter the league with the Miami Heat, and the two teams will pick eighth and ninth--behind the teams in the lottery--in next year's draft of college players.

Most of the expansion teams' players will come from the benches of the existing NBA teams, each of which will protect their top eight players and lose one in the expansion drafts of 1988 and 1989.

Charlotte will begin playing in the Atlantic Division in 1988-89, move to the Midwest in 1989-90 before settling into the Central in 1990-91.

It may be a while before Charlotte is even a contender for the playoffs.

Shinn, who owns 51% of the team, is optimistic, of course.

"Nobody believed I'd get to this point," he said. "People are asking now how long the people will put up with losers. They put up with the Mets. My feeling is, the fans will abandon me if I do a lousy job. If I ignore the principles of good management and common sense, I'm going to lose the fans.

"But I'm not going to let that happen. I'm not going to sell my draft choices. I'm going to take one step at a time and build this just like I've built all my other businesses."

For the time being, Shinn doesn't have much of anything to worry about.

The town is crazy for his team.

Ticket manager Jean Bradley believes that no ticket will go unsold the first season. "I guarantee that," she said.

This is a big time in Charlotte. Magic, Bird and Air Jordan are on their way.

Shinn is king of the Queen City.

"I think there's a sense of innocence going into this," said Schwab, the Observer sports editor. "It's a nice success story. With sports being the way they are, it's nice to see someone pull off an upset like this."

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