Hue and Cry

The Newest NBA Owner Often Chooses Green Over Black

For the NBA, Johnson is a double coup—not only is he a deep-pocketed owner, but he adds to the NBA's well-earned reputation under commissioner David Stern as the most progressive major sports league. "No one's color-blind, certainly not David Stern," says Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at Penn's Wharton School of Business. "This is an issue that has remained on Stern's plate. The name that has always come up has been Bob Johnson. Most people say it really only makes sense."

But Shropshire, who is African American, says the jury on Johnson is still out: "The debate within the African American community is about the kind of product he put out. He has a national black network and he's put out videos and infomercials, and recently he's cut out news. Does it relate? I think this is one of those situations where criticism in the African American community is more focused than in the broader community."

What is clear is that Johnson will not be able to run his NBA team like he ran his cable channel. At BET, he enjoyed a virtual monopoly over black programming; in the NBA, he'll have to compete and win. "Will he be the kind of owner we can proud of?" asks Burwell. "Will he be a maverick like Mark Cuban? Will he be like the Maloof brothers out in Sacramento? Or will he be like Mike Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals, where all he is doing is cashing in?"

Burwell adds, "For a great CEO who runs just a regular business, what's the most important thing? Satisfying the stockholders. That doesn't work in sports. If you are the Cincinnati Bengals and you're making money hand over fist, but you have sucked, you aren't a good owner. And if he is a lousy sports owner, he will hear about it, and black folks who are good basketball fans will let him know."

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