Worst Sports Owners Tournament: Basketball Round 1
Part 3 of a series pitting 32 of sport's worst owners in all-out battle
By: Scott Henry | 8/11/11, 6:29 AM EDT
By Scott Henry (@4QuartersRadio)
If your team has an owner or owners who treat the fans with respect, be grateful.
If your team has an owner who spends within his/her/their means, but can still improve the team, enjoy it.
If your team has an owner who is capable of dealing with the team’s home city in a respectful, civil, and productive manner, don’t take that for granted.
After all, you could have ended up with one of these schmucks.
Welcome to Day 3 of the WSOT. The Worst Sports Owners Tournament brings together 32 of the worst owners in the history of sport for a no-holds barred battle to the death, which you, the faithful reader, can decide. If you think a cheap owner is worse than one who picks up his team and hauls it off to some other city, here’s your chance to voice that opinion. If you’re reluctant to get behind your team on the field when the owner is a criminal off it, vote them up right here and remind everyone just how big a scumbag your team’s boss was/is.
The tournament will roll through three weeks, and the votes will be decided between Athlon’s editorial staff, the comments you post below each piece, and comments on the Facebook pages of Athlon Sports and 4 Quarters Radio. Remember, you’re voting for the owners whose crimes against sport, humanity, and/or nature were the most egregious. We’ll offer anecdotal evidence of each owner’s evil/incompetence, and if you’ve got more, feel free to throw it in.
Here’s the schedule:
Monday, Week 3: Quarterfinals
Wednesday, Week 3: Semifinals
Friday, Week 3: Final
All in all, our little tourney isn't too different from the World Series of Poker. There's stacks of cash, gaudy jewelry, and the occasional tantrum involved, but at least there are no epileptic seizures from staring at Greg Rayner's shades.
Today, it's the NBA's turn to have some of its black sheep sheared. From wheelers and dealers to franchise movers to the occasional sexual predator, the Association's had a little bit of everything in its owner's boxes. Read on.
Worst Basketball Owners Bracket:
(1) Donald Sterling (San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, 1981-present)
(8) Joe & Gavin Maloof (Sacramento Kings, 1999-present)
California is home to perhaps the best-run team in basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers. As if karma demands a payback, the state’s other two clubs are in perpetual chaos. The owners of one are dying to bolt from the state’s capital to Southern California, and the owner of the other would be cheerfully run out of town if enough people bothered to care about his woeful team.
When they were in their 20’s, the Maloof brothers were seen sitting courtside at the NBA Finals. Their dad had been the owner of the Houston Rockets, but he died the year before the Rockets played for the championship and Gavin had installed himself as president. He was 24 at the time. Family squabbles forced the Rockets to be sold in 1982, but the brothers were constantly anxious to get back in. Taking over the Kings in 1999, one of the league’s perennial failures became a contender, coming one game away from the 2002 NBA Finals in one of the more controversial series in recent memory.
Since then, the multimillionaire owners of the Palms casino have sought help from the city of Sacramento, in much the same way that bank robbers “seek” cash from their financial institution of choice. An August 2006 agreement would have seen the Maloofs paying only $72 million of a reported $542M package to build a replacement for the building formerly known as Arco Arena II. That package would have even called for taxpayers to pay for any cost overages. A month later, the brothers were walking away over the size of parking lots, retail surroundings, and final control over arena design. Measures were still put onto Sacramento municipal election ballots, and rejected with the same kind of zeal that would have gone into shooting down a statue of Richard Chase, the “Vampire of Sacramento.”
Bound as it was to Las Vegas, the Maloofs’ fortune took a major hit in the economic downturn, so much so that they’ve been forced to “recapitalize” their investment in the Palms. (Read: half of the casino’s been repossessed, except the creditors paid for what they took.) They’re using the cash as a lifeline to keep the Kings in Sacramento for one more year, while making it read like a tremendously magnanimous civic-minded gesture.
They’re anxious to pick up stakes and move to Anaheim, where they would share the Honda Center with the Ducks. Even then, the Maloofs demanded that Anaheim pony up for the NBA’s relocation fee and assorted other debts that they had incurred. Ducks owner Henry Samueli was first in line to splash the cash, likely seeking to make it back in tenant rent. For the Maloofs’ minds, it’d be better than holding down the aged Power Balance Pavilion, a name that was obviously settled on when Shamwow Center and Shake Weight Stadium were taken. Never mind the fact that the Lakers and Clippers aren’t the slightest bit pleased at the notion of sharing their market with yet another team.
While the Kings wouldn’t be a bug on the Lakers’ windshield, the Clippers have something to lose. Namely, the 12 fans they still have left after the insanely chaotic reign of Donald Sterling.
In his book “The Game,” former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden claims that sports entrepreneurs buy teams for the celebrity of it, the ego-stroking that comes with the fans’ attention, good or bad. Donald Sterling fancied himself a celebrity from day one. When he first purchased the San Diego Clippers, he plastered his own face on billboards all over town, believing that fans came to games to bow to the owner as opposed to watching the players. Considering their biggest stars were Freeman Williams and Swen Nater, it’s not that big a stretch, but still.
Before that first season was even over, Sterling was getting hammered with a $10,000 fine from the NBA for musing out loud that it wouldn’t be so bad if the team lost enough games to “earn” the first pick in the draft, with which they could select Ralph Sampson. Deferred contract payments, including monies due people like John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, went unpaid due to Sterling’s complete ignorance of who those men were. Of course, who knew what his excuse was for not paying Paul Silas, since Silas was actually the coach of the Clippers at the time.
He’d never claimed to know much of anything about basketball, so it made sense that he would appoint someone who knew even less about the game as an assistant GM. Patricia Simmons was a model and “companion” of Sterling’s who was hired to an executive position and stationed in Silas’s office while he was gone on an NBA goodwill trip to China. Silas found his belongings stacked in the hallway.
As insanely rich as Sterling was and is, he often seems as willing to spend money on his team as the Pope would be to spend money on hookers. During his first season, he brought to Silas an unusual line of questioning, wondering if the players really needed a trainer. After all, being an ex-player, the coach could surely tape them up before games, couldn’t he? Training camp expenses for the second year were cut from around $50,000 to around $100. (Perhaps, camp was going to be conducted at the local YMCA? If so, would the team have to vacate for a seniors’ yoga class?) The team budget for scouting dropped to around $1,000, medical was cut to $100, and advertising was trimmed to $9,000, a 95% cut from its previous $200,000.
Occasionally, team hotels didn’t get paid, so what hope did the players have? More on them in Round 2, if Sterling knocks off the Maloofs.
(4) James Dolan (New York Knicks, 1994-present)
(5) Howard Schultz (Seattle SuperSonics, 2001-2006)
Egos run rampant in the owner’s offices of professional sports teams. In the offices of these two men, the egos aren’t a part of their story, they are the story. James Dolan’s reign with the Knicks has been marked by doing whatever it is he damn well pleases. Meanwhile, Howard Schultz bailed on the Sonics the moment someone let him know that he couldn’t do whatever he wanted.
Dolan has had a case of battered-woman syndrome that would put any shrink’s kids through their own med school career. His smiling tormentor has been Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. Thomas made the kinds of personnel moves that would make Redskins owner Dan Snyder smile, but made other observers shake their heads and Knicks fans order another shot. Names like Penny Hardaway, Stephon Marbury, Vin Baker, Maurice Taylor and Steve Francis may have been solid acquisitions during the 1990’s, but by the time Thomas was hired, there was no tread left on anyone’s tires.
Multiple first-round picks were traded for a player whose career was in doubt from a potentially fatal heart condition, and while Eddy Curry had three fair-to-middling seasons as a Knick, the traded picks turned into budding stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah.
Dolan’s leash on Isiah was exceedingly long in the face of both mounting losses (141-241 record with Isiah as Knicks VP) and legal/PR insanity. When the team began showing signs of life in 2006-07, contending for the final playoff spot in the East at 29-34, Isiah got a big extension to keep coaching the Knicks. The team then bottomed out and lost 15 of their last 19. Isiah was getting paid big to lose, but even that’s better than his predecessor Larry Brown, who bailed on the club after a power struggle with Isiah during his first season in charge. Brown got paid $28 million for one year of coaching after Dolan bought him out.
Flushing money on players and coaches is one thing, but when you’re flushing cash for legal fees, changes may need to be made. Dolan didn’t really get the memo. The memo that he did get came in the form of a sexual harassment complaint by team marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders. She had accused Thomas of inappropriate touching and calling her a “ho” when she shot down his advances. Rather than even examine the complaint, Dolan simply canned Sanders without bothering to consult his legal team. Two years later, Dolan was settling a lawsuit for $11.6 million, money that could have easily been spent to buy out another coach or failed player. The scary part for Knicks fans is that Isiah still pops up every now and then, allegedly having Dolan's ear even to this day. A re-hiring could occur any day, once Isiah stops pretending to coach at Florida International.
The last time Howard Schultz was connected to the Seattle SuperSonics, he was in the midst of legal proceedings himself. He was dropping a lawsuit that he had filed against Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennett, to whom Schultz had sold the Sonics two years prior. Schultz claimed he wanted the team back once Bennett announced that the club was moving to Oklahoma City. Anyone who had watched Schultz over the last few years of his team ownership had to scoff at the idea that he wanted any more to do with the NBA.
Schultz was an excitable new owner during his first season, easily visible and jumping around like he was mainlining his own Starbucks coffee when the team was winning. They weren’t the power that they had been in the 1990’s, but they made the playoffs, at least. Schultz still had an instant dislike for his team’s best player, point guard Gary Payton, and Payton thumbed his nose at the boss by skipping the first day of training camp in 2002. By the end of the 2002-03 season, Payton was in Milwaukee.
Schultz also didn’t care for the way Rashard Lewis handled contract negotiations. Lewis sat across the table from the owner, but never spoke, never looked at Schultz, never raised the baseball cap from over his eyes. Lewis’s agents did all the talking, which bothered Schultz to no end. Still, Lewis got over $60 million in a seven-year deal, enough money that he never had to bother caring about basketball again.
By then, the Sonics had started losing, and Schultz tended to wear it all on his sleeve. Slumping down in his front row seat so far that he looked like he was in a beach lounger ordering a pina colada, Schultz’s blue aura began to infect the crowd and the team. Even as he soured on the team, he kept fighting for a new arena, going so far as to threaten to move the Sonics just four days before the Seahawks were to play in their first-ever Super Bowl. Despite the fact that Starbucks was selling coffee to the entire world, Schultz was adamant that the city was going to be the one paying for a new arena. NBA Commissioner David Stern was perfectly willing to walk into the Washington state legislature with Schultz and level veiled threats of his own, alluding to relocation as nonchalantly as any Seattleite would discuss the rain.
Sonics fans were okay with Schultz selling the club, but if they’d known that it would mean the team leaving town, could they have tolerated him a while longer? Knicks fans, for their part, are dying to see Jim Dolan sell as well, and the benefit of living in New York is that there’s always something else to do. Why subsidize Dolan when they could go down to Rucker Park and see better ball for free?
(3) Chris Cohan (Golden State Warriors, 1994-2010)
(6) George Shinn (Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets, 1987-2010)
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Words that many choose to live by. Both of these owners managed to make enemies of their friends by the time they got out of the sports industry.
George Shinn’s Hornets were the toast of Charlotte when they began play in 1988. They drew nearly a million fans to see a 20-62 team in their inaugural season, leading the NBA in attendance. It was 1998-99 before the club fell below first or second in attendance. Five years in, the Hornets were a playoff team with a great young nucleus including Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, and Kendall Gill along with veterans Dell Curry and Muggsy Bogues.
Then, Icarus flew a little too close to the sun when Shinn inked Johnson to an outrageous 12-year, $84 million contract, the richest the NBA had ever seen. Immediately, LJ suffered a back injury, one that would plague him for the rest of his career and force him to adapt into more of an outside game. The contract instantly altered the league’s entire economic structure, especially the one in Charlotte. Mourning wanted $100M, but Shinn blanched at the idea of two players eating that much salary cap.
Mourning was quickly peddled off to the Miami Heat, and it was only a couple of years later when Johnson was sent to the Knicks. Shinn’s rep as a tightwad was being cemented, but he would quickly wish that that was the worst thing the public had to say about him.
In 1997, a woman came forth with the claim that Shinn had raped her. She alleged that he took her to his house and forced her to perform oral sex, under the guise of taking her to his lawyer for help with some child custody problems. His trial was nationally televised on Court TV, and after he was forced to admit other adulterous affairs under oath, he decided to withdraw from the limelight. This was somewhat understandable for a man whose image was as one of the most pious members of the NBA’s ownership fraternity, but he admitted years after that it was not a prudent move. The Hornets even had a prayer read before games in their early days, which made Shinn’s off-court problems even more stunning.
Upon further review, Shinn didn’t completely disappear, because he needed to complain to someone that he needed a new arena. When the Charlotte voting public declined to foot the bill for said arena, it was time to pack up and move to New Orleans. Charlotte was so disillusioned with their NBA experience that the well was poisoned for the Bobcats, the new expansion club that the city was given as a peace offering. The Bobcats have yet to finish higher than 21st in attendance, a pathetic showing in hoops-mad North Carolina.
The San Francisco Bay area isn’t nearly as crazy about basketball as Tobacco Road, but the Warriors have played to over 90 percent of capacity each of the last five years. That’s an amazing figure for a team that’s struggled to make the playoffs, and one that’s slightly counterproductive for a fan base that was trying to get its owner to sell the team. Chris Cohan had that kind of effect on people, and if he didn’t, he could surely achieve the proper reaction by suing them for something or other.
If you know or have done business with Chris Cohan, you’ve probably seen him in court. It took a lawsuit for him to gain full control over the club from ex-partners Jim Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane, one apparently brought because he hadn’t been made full owner as quickly as he’d been promised. He sued two former coaches, Don Nelson and Rick Adelman, apparently for a piece of earnings made after they left the Warriors. The Oakland Alameda County Coliseum Authority tied him in knots for back rent, premium seat revenues, and facility fees. A concession-vendors’ union brought an unfair labor suit against the Warriors in 1998. Employees with the overblown titles of “Season Ticket Account Executives” sued in 2008 for unpaid commissions and overtime wages.
Cohan’s stockbroker, insurance agent, and primary attorney were all sued for various reasons. Not so unusual, except for the fact that all three were longtime friends of his, and two were actually in his wedding. Cohan’s reason for his attorneys getting more calls per day than the average Domino’s Pizza joint? He has “sometimes gotten [himself] into trouble for being way too principled,” a self-aggrandizing critique on the order of telling a job interviewer that you work too hard and that you’re too much of a perfectionist.
Even the IRS got involved in 2007, badgering Cohan about $160 million in taxes and penalties related to the sale of his original business, Sonic Communications.
All of this creates an oddball sideshow detracting from a team that could use some attention itself. A domino sequence of trades kicking off with the banishment of Chris Webber, less than a month after Cohan took over the Warriors, ended up bringing in names like Tom Gugliotta, Donyell Marshall, and Antawn Jamison, but ultimately netted little more than the remains of Avery Johnson, Nick Van Exel, and Popeye Jones.
For all the cash splashed on the attorneys, Cohan and his longtime chief executive Robert Rowell had an odd view of what were acceptable expenditures. Despite often proclaiming a willingness to pay luxury tax bills to get great players and a chance at a title, the Warriors demurred when offered a chance to add Kevin Garnett in the summer of 2006. Adding KG to a perimeter nucleus of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, and either Jason Richardson or Monta Ellis (depending on who would have been traded) could have made the Warriors even better than the plucky number-eight seed that pulled a stunner on Dallas.
With an owner that seemed to spend more time and money on legal fees than on his team, is it any wonder that Cohan’s own Oakland fans booed him when he hosted the 2000 All-Star Game?
(2) Ted Stepien (Cleveland Cavaliers, 1980-83)
(7) Michael Heisley (Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies, 2000-present)
Many of the 32 owners in the WSOT set the bar high in terms of incompetence. But as far as we can tell, only one actually had his league’s rules changed to protect him from himself.
There’s a rule on the NBA’s books forbidding teams from trading first-round picks in consecutive drafts, and it’s commonly referred to as the “Ted Stepien Rule.” Stepien took over the club in 1980, and it was 1987 before the team actually made the draft pick that was granted by its record or lottery placement. (Actually, they did make their own pick in 1985, but that pick was donated to new owners George and Gordon Gund as a sympathy bonus for all of Stepien’s madness.)
The players that ended up in Cleveland as a result of the trades included Don Ford, Chad Kinch, Mike Bratz, Geoff Huston, Larry Anderson, Richard Washington, and Jerome Whitehead. That's an All-"Who?" team if you ever saw one.
Some of the traded picks turned into James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Roy Tarpley, Derek Harper, and Detlef Schrempf. Dallas fans had to have put Stepien on their Christmas card list by 1989.
He wasn’t a very keen judge of on-court talent, and his eye for coaches wasn’t the greatest, either. Stepien tore through five coaches during his three years of tumult, including a college-trained fellow named Chuck Daly, who went 9-32 during the 1981-82 season. The other three coaches that year combined for a 6-35 mark. Stepien on Daly after the firing: “I don’t feel guilty at all. I don’t feel Chuck ever totally accepted us. He had a great opportunity. I don’t think he’ll ever get it again.” Within the next 20 years, Daly would win over 600 games and two NBA titles, eventually being inducted into the Hall of Fame. There is no word on Stepien's comment regarding Daly's induction.
The previous full-time coach before Daly was a guy named Don Delaney, who had never been a head coach above the community college and NAIA levels. Unsurprisingly, Delaney went 7-19, which may have qualified him for a contract extension or even sainthood by the Cavs’ standards of the time. Compounding the misery, Delaney came down from the general manager’s office onto the bench, which made him at least complicit in a lot of the hideous deals going down at the time.
Stepien at one point threatened to move the Cavs to Toronto, which would have given Canada its first taste of pro basketball action since the Toronto Huskies folded in 1947. From an owner who pondered going into Canada, we move on to one who couldn’t wait to get out of the Great White North.
The NBA was insistent that whoever purchased the Vancouver Grizzlies try to make a go of it in British Columbia for five more years. Heisley made it one year, then sprinted to Memphis. Former owner Arthur Griffiths eventually accused Heisley of “bankrupting the fan base, alienating people, not marketing the team, presenting the argument that basketball didn’t work in Vancouver, which was hogwash.” Even if basketball had some tough sledding in a hockey-crazed city like Vancouver, Memphis’s status as one of America’s premier basketball towns should have helped the turnstiles spin.
It hasn’t. Only once since coming to Memphis have the Grizzlies sat higher than 24th in the NBA in total attendance. That 2004-05 season is the only one in which the team nudged above 90 percent capacity for the year at FedEx Forum.
Oh, and speaking of FedEx Forum, the new arena’s naming rights generated some controversy when Heisley, desperate for quick cash, securitized the cost of the deal into a bond and took a $60 million lump-sum payment for the club. (Such a deal would actually be funny and appropriate if the building was being named the J.G. Wentworth Center, but anyway, back to the story.) Minority partners considered the loss of the annual revenue a major hit to the team’s potential value, but Heisley needed the cash.
That potential value is a big deal, since Heisley claims to have been seeking an exit strategy since practically the moment the team moved. Earlier this year, he told the Vancouver Sun, “If I’d analyzed the situation in Vancouver the way I analyzed all the other businesses I’ve had, I never would have bought them.” The team was almost sold in 2006 to a group led by former NBA player/still-Public-Enemy-No.-1-in-Kentucky Christian Laettner. No other buyers have been interested in even nibbling at his $300 million asking price.
Vancouver media coverage seems to indicate that the NBA would be welcomed back with open arms into a much more economically friendly climate, but probably not with Heisley anywhere involved. Just wait, though. Maybe once Dan Gilbert gets a few effigies burned in Cleveland, that Cavs-to-Canada move could be feasible 30 years after Stepien first brought it up.
Remember, it’s all about the votes in deciding which owners did more to screw over their fans and their leagues, so leave some comments and discussion below or on the above-linked Facebook pages. You guys will decide who you'd like to read more eye-rolling tales about in Round 2. Happy voting.
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