Billionaire Boys Club

The Scoundrels among the NBA owners

Sex! Greed! Violence! The National Basketball Association is filled with lurid tales of rich men and their out-of-control antics. There's the guy who was obsessed with a team dancer; the one who tried to get a team clerk to prostitute herself; the one who set his chest hair on fire after games. There are accusations of sexual harassment and sexual aggression, influence peddling and big-time tax dodging.

But these aren't the players we're talking about. These are descriptions of the owners' alleged behavior—descriptions, in all likelihood, that you have never heard before.

The players have been under a harsh public spotlight throughout the NBA lockout and in the months leading up to it, their worthiness and moral fiber seemingly questioned at every turn. The owners, meanwhile, have emerged virtually unscathed. Their behavior, their beliefs, even their extraordinary wealth (nearly one-third are on the Forbes 400) are rarely mentioned.

But open the book on the owners and out comes a seamy saga worthy of some scrutiny. It's a dirty story, but in the interest of fair treatment, somebody has to tell it.

George Shinn, Charlotte Hornets

One of the league's most religious figures (he has a prayer read over his arena's p.a. system before each game), Shinn was accused of kidnapping and sexual assault by a Charlotte woman last year. He allegedly offered to drive the woman to his lawyer for help with her child custody problems. Instead, she charged, he drove her to his home. In the car Shinn allegedly grabbed her breast and put his hand up her underwear. She asked to be taken home, but he refused. (As commissioner Stern once said of Shinn, "He doesn't know how to take no for an answer.")

In his house, Shinn allegedly pushed the woman onto his bed and forced her to perform oral sex. Shinn's accuser claimed he later offered her $200 and told her they'd have to "do this again sometime." A South Carolina prosecutor ultimately decided he didn't have enough evidence to charge Shinn, but said that he thought "something did in fact transpire between Mr. Shinn and this victim."

The woman later filed a civil suit, which is still pending and contains allegations of unwanted sexual advances by two former female employees of the Hornets. One of them, a former Honey Bees dancer, claims that Shinn became obsessed with her. Shinn, meanwhile, has slapped a slander suit on his original accuser. Says his attorney of family-man Shinn: "They met, she gave him a blowjob, she left."

Flagrant Fouls: Estimated net worth: $100 million (in 1994). Shinn, who has called him self "God's Little Idiot" to explain his financial success, has asked North Carolina taxpayers to build him a new arena to replace the 10-year-old Charlotte Coliseum.

Donald Sterling, Los Angeles Clippers

Sterling was accused of sexual harassment by a former team clerk in April 1996. Christine Jaksy, a onetime model, claimed Sterling asked her to call modeling agencies to hire beautiful women to escort his friends. He then offered her $300 to have sex with him. Jaksy claimed Sterling repeatedly kissed and hugged her, and repeatedly asked her to have sex with him and his friends in exchange for an extra $300 to $400 a week. When she refused to fulfill his desire to find models willing to prostitute themselves, she alleges, she was forced to quit. Sterling's attorneys denied all of Jaksy's claims and fired back with a countersuit. (Ac cording to Jaksy's lawyer, Natasha Roit, both matters were "resolved" in December 1997. Neither side is allowed to say more.)

Flagrant Fouls: Estimated net worth: $750 million. Among his penny-pinching antics: asking assistant coaches to tape players' ankles in order to save costs on the trainer's salary and neglecting to pay hotel and restaurant bills.

Jerry Buss, Los Angeles Lakers

Plagued by rumors of heavy gambling losses, Buss in one four-year span sold the L.A. Kings hockey team, a $3.8 million coin collection, his multi million-dollar Kern County ranch, and the historic Pickfair Beverly Hills mansion—all part of what the L.A. Business Journal called "a personal sell-a-thon virtually unmatched in Los Angeles history." (Referring to his employer's rumored monetary woes, the best a Buss spokesperson could say was that while the Lakers boss did gamble, to use the term heavy gambler to describe him would be "subjective.")

Buss was hit with a palimony suit in 1987 by former lover Puppi Buss, who said that in 15 years of an on/off relationship, she cared for him when he was ill, took his last name even though they never married, and gave up her career for him. The two reached an undisclosed settlement three years later. Puppi wasn't the only one to sue. Former wife Veronica, in her 1983 divorce-palimony suit, alleged that when she and Buss wed he was still married to someone else. Their settlement figures were also never revealed.

Flagrant Fouls: Estimated net worth: $270 million (in 1994). Buss reportedly used to entertain friends after Lakers games by setting his chest hair aflame and snubbing cigarettes out in his palm.

Rich DeVos, Orlando Magic

The really really rich DeVos received the dubious distinction of being named Mother Jones magazine's number-one political campaign contributor in 1998. He and wife Helen each gave $500,000 to the GOP in April 1997. Just a bit of civic-minded largesse? Perhaps. Of course, three months later Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich slipped DeVos's Amway Corporation a last-minute tax break on its Asian branches, saving the company a cool $19 million. And then there's Amway itself; its $2.5 million contribution to the Republican National Committee in 1994 is the largest soft-money donation ever.

Co-founded by DeVos in 1959, Amway sells household products to millions of small distributors who are told they can strike it rich by reselling the items and recruiting new distributors. Its heavily pushed recruitment scheme has come under tremendous fire: one former distributor told Business Week he lost $15,000 in four years "buying the tapes, traveling to seminars, staying in hotels." Long suspected of running an enormous pyramid scheme, Amway was ultimately cleared of such allegations by the Federal Trade Commission in 1979. But it wasn't so lucky up north, pleading guilty to avoiding Canadian duties by undervaluing exports. The company paid $50 million to settle the charges. Writes Mother Jones of Amway's 750,000-person domestic sales force: "This ever-growing network ...heavily influenced by the company's dual themes of Christian morality and free enterprise, donates money and operates like a private political army."

Flagrant Fouls: Estimated net worth: $1.5 billion (No. 110 on the Forbes 400). A former distributor once said Amway tells "you to al ways vote conservative no matter what. They say liberals support the homosexuals and let women get out of their place."

Abe Pollin, Washington Wizards

The senior owner in the league, Pollin is often portrayed as a sincere man who truly cares about the fans. His "greatest pleasure," he told The New York Times last month, "is to see families and children come to my building to see an NBA game in a clean environment." Next time round, the Times might want to ask Honest Abe if his concern for a proper fan environment extends to the team's disabled followers. They sued Pollin in June 1996 to get his brand-new arena to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. "We alerted the MCI Center to the requirements of the law prior to the onset of construction," an attorney for the Paralyzed Veterans of America told the Engineering-News Record. The veterans won their suit, forcing Pollin to provide 127 to 160 wheelchair spaces with clear sight lines. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the owner's appeal, Abe Pollin v.Paralyzed Veterans of America, cementing the victory for the disabled.

Flagrant Fouls: Estimated net worth: $100 million (in 1996). A major supporter of the Democratic Party, Pollin was co-host of a 1997 function that brought in some $2.3 million for the DNC.

Mickey Arison, Miami Heat

Mickey inherited the team from dad Ted, the Heat's original owner. Ted probably didn't check in with Pat Riley and company much—he renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1990, in part to dodge U.S. taxes on his massive fortune (one of a class of "economic Benedict Arnolds," as a Treasury Department official once put it). Likewise, the Arisons' Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's biggest cruise company, is headquartered in Panama, exempting it from taxes on its revenue—$666 million in 1997. Mickey is managing general partner of the Heat and chairman and CEO of the cruise company.

Carnival was among the subjects of a scathing November 16 Times investigation of the cruise industry, revealing, among other embarrassments, that a Florida court found the company guilty of firing a crew member who refused to lie to protect Carnival in a civil suit.

Flagrant Fouls: Estimated net worth: $3.5 billion (No. 36 on the Forbes 400). Despite his enormous wealth, Arison fought hard to get Dade County to fund a large percentage of the Heat's soon-to-open arena.

Rogues' gallery: Charles Dolan (No. 92 on the Forbes 400), the Knicks' owner, owed the Internal Revenue Service $235 million in back taxes in 1993 but got away with never paying it. Perhaps Dolan and Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen (No. 3) are the pacesetters for a much-criticized trend among Gen-X NBA players—both are college dropouts. Rupert Murdoch (No. 18), who has minority stakes in the Knicks, Lakers, and Clippers, is, well, Rupert Murdoch—a one-stop controversy clearing house. To pick just one recent scandal: his News Corp. paid a mere $103 million in taxes on an operating income of $1.32 billion in 1997. In the words of one journalist, Atlanta Hawks owner Ted Turner (No. 19) has had "a succession of wives and mistresses bumping up against each other like commuters on a rush-hour subway."

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