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Tuesday, December 17
Updated: December 18, 6:39 PM ET
Johnson will be NBA's first black majority owner news services

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Robert Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, has been chosen as owner of the NBA's new Charlotte expansion franchise.

The league scheduled a news conference Wednesday in New York.

Johnson, 56, will become the league's first black majority owner. Bertram Lee and Peter Bynoe were thought to be the league's first black ownership in 1989 when they purchased the Denver Nuggets, but it was later learned that Comsat Video actually owns 62.5 percent of the team.

Johnson and the other group seeking the team, headed by Boston businessman Steve Belkin and Celtics great Larry Bird, made presentations to the league's expansion committee Monday.

"It is hard to realize that the dream I have had for so many years is not to be, and that an awesome opportunity -- which would have been the greatest and most exciting challenge in my life -- will not come to pass," Bird said in a statement after learning about the decision.

"I would like to thank the members of my ownership group for their tireless efforts. I feel we had an outstanding presentation that was extremely organized and included many years of experience in running a successful professional basketball organization and we were ready to go to work immediately to bring the best team possible to Charlotte as quickly as possible.

"I wish to sincerely thank all of the people in Charlotte for their encouragement and support throughout this long process. I really wanted to be there with you, as I felt a great commitment to you and your city. Thank you always for your support and good will and I wish you the greatest of success in this important, new endeavor."

Johnson could not immediately be reached for comment, nor could Belkin.

Forbes magazine estimated Johnson's wealth at $1.3 billion earlier this year, making him No. 149 on the magazine's list of richest Americans.

The franchise is to begin play in the 2004-05 season and replaces the Hornets, who moved to New Orleans earlier this year. After one year at the Charlotte Coliseum, the team will move into a new $260 million downtown arena. The franchise fee is expected to be $300 million.

The NBA's full Board of Governors, with a representative from each of the 29 teams, is expected to vote on Johnson in early January.

The Hornets left Charlotte after years of declining attendance and failed attempts to get a new arena built. The league approved the move, but Charlotte leaders successfully argued that the city, which led the NBA in attendance for eight seasons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, should get a new team.

Belkin soon emerged as one contender for the team. Johnson, who had tried twice without success to buy the Hornets from owner George Shinn, also said he would like the franchise.

Johnson, who is based in Washington, D.C., insisted all along that his chances would not be hurt by not having a marquee name like Bird in his camp.

"What's going to give the edge in marketing is your players and what your team does on the court, no matter who is the head of basketball operations -- even if you have Michael Jordan as the head of basketball operations," he said last week.

Jordan and Johnson are friends, raising the possibility that Johnson might be tempted to lure Jordan to the new team if Jordan chooses not to buy back his ownership stake in the Washington Wizards. Jordan has said he won't play after this season, his second with the Wizards.

"I think Bob's going to do well. He has the first thing that you need in owning a basketball team, ... which is loving the game. And he's willing to fork over the money to make sure he builds a team solid," Jordan told The Associated Press. "He has a great fan base. It's been proven that you can survive in Charlotte when you're winning. He's going to do a great job."

NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said Johnson did not mention Jordan in his presentation to the expansion committee.

Johnson would be the first black person to hold controlling interest in an NBA team. Bertram Lee and Peter Bynoe both held minority interests in the Denver Nuggets starting in 1989.

Belkin argued that his group of investors would be able to move quickly to get a team ready to play in 2004 and that Bird's fame and popularity would help sell the team to Charlotteans, who were soured on the NBA by the Hornets' departure.

The Charlotte team will fill its roster through a dispersal draft in which every other NBA team could protect eight players.

Granik has said the new team will not be saddled with the same type of draft restrictions as those imposed on Toronto and Vancouver when the league last expanded in 1995. The Raptors and Grizzlies were ineligible to select first in the draft until they had completed four seasons.

One of the owners on the expansion committee is Shinn. Also on the committee are Jerry Colangelo of Phoenix, Larry Tanenbaum of Toronto, Joe Maloof of Sacramento, Lewis Katz of New Jersey, Stan Kroenke of Denver, Peter Holt of San Antonio and Bob Vander Weide of Orlando.

Johnson said last week that if he won the team he would sell up to 49 percent of the team to Charlotte investors.

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