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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: Bob Johnson, Basketball, And Business

Nine local black professionals hope the $1 million they've pooled to become part owners of the Charlotte Bobcats will help both their community and the team.

The Professional Sports Investment Group is a collection of doctors, dentists, church leaders and entrepreneurs who aligned more than two years ago to keep the Hornets in Charlotte, and later, to buy into the city's new NBA team.

They set their sights long before Bob Johnson was named owner. But it was Johnson's team they threw their money behind.

Johnson says the Bobcats won't be successful unless they operate as a community-minded team. That, he says, is what makes the Professional Sports Investment Group so important.

''What I needed was the community depth of support,'' Johnson said. ''To have minority owners sends a signal that we want to do business with minorities, such as having minority vendors. And we want to encourage larger companies here to do what we're doing to encourage minority businesses.''

The group's members won't reveal how much they've each tossed in, but they say the total exceeds $1 million, with a minimum individual investment of $20,000.

Members acknowledge turning a profit may take years. But their goals go beyond money. Their other aims: to serve as role models and to be the Bobcats' link to the community.

''I want to let our group get out there and say, 'Look guys, there are a lot of ways you can be successful,''' said Jeff Bradsher, who at 31 is the youngest of the investors.

''Ever since I was in high school, I always told myself that I would try to be an owner of an NBA team. I want to show young people that you don't have to dribble the ball. You don't have to throw the ball. You can own the ball.''

Charlotte dentist Spurgeon Webber III has been a basketball fan all his life, but never made it past the junior varsity basketball team at Duke. Now, the investment group's co-chair beams when he talks about having a piece of the NBA.

''Not in my wildest dreams did I think I'd become an owner,'' he says. ''But now that I have, I'm going to enjoy every bit of it.''

Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, was celebrated around the world when he became the first black majority owner of a major-league sports team.

He enthralled crowds in Charlotte, throwing pep rallies and pledging to boost uptown with his team and the city's new arena.

And he paid special attention to the local black community, donating $1 million to build a YMCA on the city's westside and speaking to black groups.

NBA officials say only a handful of grassroots minority ownership groups exist around the league.

So far, local investors including former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr. and Family Dollar stores Chairman and chief executive officer Howard Levine have bought a $50 million stake in the team.

The amount put up by Bradsher and his friends amounts to 2 cents on every local dollar invested.

But Johnson said he was ''never looking at the money'' when the group asked to buy in. What he needs from them, he said, is their ''enthusiasm to encourage other people to support the team.''

Local black leaders are counting on the group to raise the profile of the region's black-owned businesses, and to be the ear Johnson needs to tune in to the community.

''Successful black business leaders have not been as visible as they need to be,'' said Charlotte City Council member Malcolm Graham. ''Hopefully this group can play that role.''

But are the Bobcats the best place for a community-minded group to plunk down $1 million?

Former Mecklenburg County minority affairs director Ahmad Daniels says yes, so long as the group doesn't get caught up in profits and forget its community responsibility.

''If they're able to ride in on the wagon (Johnson) brought to town, more power to them,'' he said. ''But I hope when they do receive profits, that we can see it introduced into the community.''

Webber acknowledges that supporting a charity might be a more secure community investment. But his group's members are already regular contributors to civic causes, he said, and they had to seize the chance to buy into the Bobcats.

''It's an opportunity that doesn't come around often,'' Webber said.

Note: This article was written by the Associated Press

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

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