Should the NBA Bail Out George Shinn?
When the league purchases the New Orleans Hornets outright, it will put them -- however temporarily -- in charge of a franchise that's made a habit of tempting fate. For one, there's the ongoing dance with Chris Paul. Now that LeBron James is gone from Cleveland, Paul holds the dubious honor of "player who can single-handedly make or break a franchise." If you want to be more sanguine about it, the 25 year-old point guard is a constant kick in the ass for the Hornets. Other players, coaches and the front office know that, if they falter, and Paul wants out, they'll have forfeited the chance of a lifetime.
On top of that, there's the small matter of where the Hornets will play. Post-Katrina, New Orleans simply might not be big enough to support both the Saints and another team. George Shinn, as of today still the majority owner, is hardly the most predictable figure in sports, and is also supposedly quite cash-poor these days. If Chris Paul isn't on the verge of skipping town, then the Hornets are. And if the Hornets are, what exactly does it mean for Paul's future? This is, to say the least, a volatile situation, and to a certain extent, it makes sense that the league would step in and try to facilitate the most sane, orderly resolution possible.
However, there are two things about this quasi-sale that just don't sit right with me.
1. Is Shinn being punished or bailed out?
Who among us has not fantasized about [insert incompetent, evil owner here] being deposed by the league, in the best interest of the game? It has happened before -- in 1983, Ted Stepien was forced to sell the Cavaliers after he made a habit of giving away first-rounders. But on the other hand, arch-fiend Donald Sterling has managed to hold his ground forever.
Shinn's claim to fame is alienating the city of Charlotte and scuttling a once-promising team with national appeal. The Queen City didn't much care that the Hornets left, seeing as by 2002, they were pretty much just the public face of the reviled Shinn. But yeah, there is that. He has been trying to sell the team for some time; Shinn came to realize, though, that he couldn't be the one to pull the trigger on relocation. Certainly, likely partner OKC -- who had hosted the team during Katrina -- wanted no part of this one-sided break-up. If he was shown the door, then, great. Otherwise, the most basic human decency demanded that he stand by NOLA.
Before we rush to canonize Shinn, let's remember that no city wanted to be behind the theft of the Hornets as long as New Orleans wanted them. Shinn was forced to be sympathetic, saddled with a team he (and the city) might not be able to afford, and unable to sell it without a guarantee that the Hornets were staying put. The Hornets are, for want of a better phrase, the NBA's version of toxic assets. It looked as if George Shinn would be stuck in this bind forever, a combination of Prometheus and Sisyphus masquerading as a decent human being.
Thank god for the NBA that, with this sale, is delivering its very own version of the bailouts that have nearly destroyed America as we know it. Shinn never reformed, he was forced into penance. And now, either redeemed, or just too impatient to count on any further, he's being relieved of his burden. Meanwhile, the NBA will never lift a finger to remove Donald Sterling. They never did when Shinn was in Charlotte. The message here: the league can take over teams, but only when the owner is in a pickle, not when he's actively defiling the product.
2. Stern is flaunting his very own double-standard
According to the NBA, the reason it's taking over the Hornets is to ensure that the team stays in New Orleans. Again, the Hornets simply can't leave out of their own accord. It would look terrible -- not just for the new owners, but for the entire league. But there's something blatantly hypocritical about the NBA trying to keep a franchise out of the hands of anyone whose express plan is to relocate. Why? Because of what happened in Seattle, silly.
Whether or not Stern was in on the plan to move the Sonics from the beginning, Thunder partner Aubrey McClendon has stated publicly that the new ownership wanted a team for OKC. Not that the Sonics' move was ever going to pretty, but McClendon made his side into villains, Stern a conniving puppet-master, and former Seattle owner Howard Schultz into a hopeless dupe, maybe even the new Benedict Arnold. Did Stern care? Probably not, but it was the kind of black eye the league can ill afford.
Meanwhile, it's absolutely paramount that the Hornets stick around. The league is now protecting a team from the very same forces that it once enabled. The situations are not the same; Seattle is a prosperous city that had already seen fit to build new arenas for two other professional sports teams, and has no problem keeping them, and Major League Soccer's biggest success story, afloat. New Orleans was gutted by one of the worst national disasters in U.S. history, one made worse by government incompetence and neglect (which continues, in various forms, to this day). And yet you're left wondering: why exactly does it take Katrina for the league to protect hometown fans?
Here's where we argue over whether Seattle, or Washington state, would ever have agreed to a new arena, or if Clay Bennett and McClendon really ever cared to listen. The point, though, is that the league is stepping in to keep the Hornets from moving. Or, if they are going to, ensuring that the process play out fairly and transparently -- and with a minimum of hurt feelings on all sides.
Yes, it's about Katrina, but it's also about Stern realizing how much Sonics-gate hurt him and the league. Still, it's too little, too late. It doesn't come off as regret -- it's damage control. Too bad it reads as hypocrisy, the kind of policy that makes the Battle in Seattle sting even more. I wonder if the league realizes that this also keeps us from seeing whatever actual compassion for New Orleans figures into this.
3. Owner revolt!
Some dude named Ziller raised this possibility over the weekend. Owner solidarity is a weird thing. They love each other, because they are more like each other than they are anyone else on the planet, except for when they realize that some are very rich and some, not so flush. Shinn is one of the have-nots, at least from a business standpoint (he is not begging for money on the street), and for Stern to come in with his crazy socialism and buy a team ... it's an outrage! Actually, as I said, this is a pro-owner move; it provides a safety net for owners if they want to sell but can't, while never suggesting that the league would actually take their teams away without their consent.
The problem, though, is that the stipulation that the team stay in New Orleans means that any number of more lucrative markets won't be in the mix -- at least initially. For the individual, small market owner, this sale would be comforting. But for the big boys, secure in their teams and looking for growth, it stinks. Can they freak out over this without anyone bringing the very specific, thorny situation in New Orleans? Who knows. Certainly, their concerns are abstract enough that they've got some insulation.