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NBA Well on Its Way to Purchasing New Orleans Hornets

Dec 4, 2010 – 5:37 AM
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Sam Amick

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The NBA is in the advanced stages of a plan to purchase the New Orleans Hornets from George Shinn until a new owner can be secured, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.

The source told FanHouse on Friday that they were under the impression this unprecedented transfer would be "coming down soon" and that the NBA had already pegged individuals who would run the franchise temporarily. On Sunday, the source confirmed an SI.com report that Jac Sperling, a vice chariman of the NHL's Minnesota Wild and New Orleans native who is also a sports attorney, would run the organization.

And once again, the future of basketball down on the Bayou is in question.

Shinn, who moved the team from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2002 before another move was forced to Oklahoma City from 2005 to 2007 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, has been trying to walk away from his team for quite some time.

Reports first surfaced of his plans to sell his majority share to minority owner Gary Chouest in late April, and the eventual change of hands was expected to not only keep the team in its current locale but to improve the Hornets' chances of retaining Chris Paul.

The point guard told ESPN.com in late June that he was open to being traded after, according to sources close to him, his doubts about Shinn's commitment to winning had him looking for a way out. Chouest, a Louisiana native who owns 35 percent of the team currently, seemed to inspire hope from within.

He was not only a deep-pocketed oil man and reported billionaire, but his rapport with Paul was already solid and his vision seemed much more in line with that of his franchise player. The deal between Shinn and Chouest was so seemingly secure that team officials were telling reporters it was expected to be finalized by the end of April.

But just as the Hornets appeared headed for better days in a post-Shinn world, the late-April BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico hit Chouest's offshore service industry hard and led to a delay in the ownership transfer as he scrambled to gather more minority investors. NBA Commissioner David Stern was clearly anxious about the situation in mid-May, when he said at a news conference in regards to the transfer that "It's taking a long time for George and Gary Chouest to reach an agreement, and every time there's not an agreement it's possible there won't be an agreement. So we'll see how that goes. ... It's not a given at all (that the transfer would happen)."

Sure enough, an ESPN.com report regarding the league's possible pursuit of this purchase was followed by The New Orleans Times-Picayune reporting that Chouest is "withdrawing his potential offer to purchase the franchise" amid concerns over whether he "can devote the needed time to run an NBA franchise and operate his private business" and then followed Saturday morning with a story indicating Chouest's concerns about a lockout in the NBA also factored into his decision. This comes just days after the newspaper reported earlier this week that the team's recurring struggle to pack New Orleans Arena might lead to its departure.

The Hornets, according to the newspaper, can opt out of their current lease agreement with the state of Louisiana that runs through 2014 if they average less than 14,213 fans during a 13-game stretch of home dates between Dec. 1 and Jan. 17. That challenge has not gone well thus far, as they have had crowds of 10,866 (Wednesday against Charlotte) and 14,020 (Friday against New York) since then for an average of 12,443.

If the Hornets fall short of the mark and opt to leave New Orleans, they would have to pay a $10 million exit penalty and file a relocation notice with the state by March 1, 2011. While there would certainly be a concerted effort to find an owner and a viable business plan to keep the team in New Orleans, the source told FanHouse that scenarios have been discussed that involve moving the team to Kansas City as well. All of which is an unwelcome distraction for a Hornets team already enduring a downturn, as their 11-1 start under first-year general manager Dell Demps and first-year coach Monty Williams has been followed by five losses in their last seven games.

E-mail Sam at amick.sam@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @samickAOL.
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