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Johnson wins NBA franchise

Billionaire founder of BET will be NBA's 1st majority black owner

Associated Press

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 Associated Press learned Tuesday night.

The 56-year-old Johnson will become the league's first black majority owner, according to two sources familiar with the decision.

The league scheduled a news conference Wednesday in New York.

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Johnson could not immediately be reached for comment.

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

"I'm heartbroken," Bird said. "It's hard to realize that the dream I've had for so many years is not be, and that an awesome opportunity, which would have been the greatest and most exciting challenge in my life, will not come to pass.

"It's difficult for me to properly express how deeply disappointed I am that we did not get the opportunity to build a championship team in Charlotte."

Belkin said: "I'm deeply disappointed and saddened by the NBA's decision. I felt that we assembled a world-class investor group and management team that was exceptionally qualified to make Charlotte a huge success."

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.

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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.

Michael Jordan and Johnson are friends, raising speculation that Johnson might 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.

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