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The Bobcats close in on a new owner

Note: The item below was posted on Thursday. Charlotte Bobcats owner Robert L. Johnson announced, early Saturday, an agreement to sell majority interest of Bobcats Sports and Entertainment to Michael Jordan and MJ Basketball Holdings, LLC. The deal is subject to NBA approval.

Is Michael Jordan, at long last, about to have his own NBA team?

Likely.

To answer that first question fully, we first need to answer two others.

Is the sale happening now?

Two sources close to the process tell me an announcement is imminent and could come at any time -- as Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer has reported. Other sources insist that kind of talk is premature, and point out that in May and August of last year there were also reports saying a sale was imminent, but nothing materialized either time.

Lending special credence to the idea that the time is now, however, are the comments of NBA Commissioner David Stern at All-Star weekend, who said that he thought a sale of the team was certain. "And I think that might happen sooner rather than later," he added "within the next 60 days or so." Those involved in the process found such specific comments to be meaningful. Not only were they coming from a very careful and lawyerly speaker in Stern, but they also seemed to suggest that he had insider's knowledge of how the process was playing out -- if key issues remained unresolved, it would surely be foolish to predict a swift outcome.

What's more, any deal would likely become public at the time a deal was struck -- which is typically long in advance of the actual closing. (Think about buying a house -- you agree to a price with the seller, who takes the house off the market by placing it "under contract." Then there's an interlude for inspections, radon tests, mortgages and the like before you get the keys at the closing.) If the sale of the Bobcats is to be completed within 60 days of Stern's press conference -- as those close to the situation believe Stern intended -- it would have to be agreed to and announced weeks before that.

Stern spoke 15 days ago. Clock's ticking.

If there is a sale, will Michael Jordan be the new controlling owner?

There are two groups known to be pursuing the Bobcats.

The primary figure in one group is Jordan, who sources say would not purchase the team solo, but instead would lead a group of investors. It's not known what percentage of the purchase price would be met with his own money. If he wants to make all the big decisions, however, he'll likely have to dip into his own pocket more than a little. The NBA likes any team's "controlling owner" to own at least 15% of the team. (Remember when Pat Croce was the "owner" of the Sixers, and then he was essentially fired? That was only possible because he owned just a small percentage.)

Jordan has dallied with lead ownership roles in the Bucks, and these same Bobcats, in the past, and has never taken this step previously.

Another group is identified with George Postolos. Postolos is the former president and CEO of the Rockets, and a former special assistant to David Stern. Postolos now runs a business advising investors who want to buy sports teams. If the group he's associated with were to win the bidding, at least some of the investors he's working with now would become public knowledge, but for the time being it's one of the better mysteries in the NBA. Who are these people? David Stern just told us teams are losing money, and small market teams have always had it worse than the New Yorks and Chicagos of the world. If you had billions, why get into this business now?

Two sources close to the process say that of the two groups, Jordan's has the inside track. That would seem to be seconded by Stern himself, who said at All-Star that "if Michael were to be a buyer that would be a good thing." That might have been a pro forma statement -- he's Michael Jordan, the biggest name in basketball history. Of course it's a good thing to have him in the NBA. On the other hand, praising Jordan as an owner is a strange way to behave if you expect to be selling the world on the merits of of George Postolos and his investors.

In addition, current owner Robert J0hnson -- who has said he owns more than 70% of the team -- told Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer last April that he'd like to sell the team to Michael Jordan. Johnson once told TrueHoop of his relationship with Jordan: "I have overwhelming confidence in Michael to make the best decisions for the Bobcats. He's the second largest owner in the franchise. He's the world's greatest guy ever to play basketball, and he's probably the most competitive guy I have ever met. And he is a friend whom I trust."

It's hard to find anyone close to the process who thinks anyone other than Jordan is likely to be the next controlling owner of the Bobcats.

How would the Bobcats be different with Michael Jordan in Robert Johnson's seat?

Basketball-wise, things would not change. Jordan has long been not only a minority owner, but the owner with the final say on basketball matters like who will be the general manager, who coaches, and who's on the team.

What would be different under Jordan, however, would be the business of the team. It's hard to imagine anyone could be better positioned to put together an all-star list of corporate sponsors, for instance.

Bobcats fans soured on Johnson some time ago (read the comments on Bonnell's story, linked above), and Jordan himself has been maligned as an absentee owner (he lives in Chicago) with multiple other interests. But if Jordan demonstrates passion for the Bobcats day in and day out, it's hard to believe fans and corporate sponsors wouldn't fall in line. Gravity is on his side.