Updated: April 16, 3:32 PM ET
Johnson scores another victory for progress
By Marc J. Spears
Special to ESPN.com
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball many years ago. Numerous African-Americans have coached, although the NFL and college football should be ashamed of its hiring practices. And there have been African-American front-office personnel for years.
But this past December, professional sports entered a new era when Robert Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television, was awarded the NBA's new Charlotte franchise and became the first black majority owner of a major sports team. With Black History Month in full bloom, the latest of the black sports pioneers definitely deserves his just due.
"Interestingly enough, I think the real last door Bob opened by becoming an owner," said Ed Tapscott, the man Johnson has hired to run Charlotte's new team. "My title here is executive vice president. That is nothing new. I had that title when I was in New York (with the Knicks). Members of the African-American community have held executive positions throughout the NBA. Obviously, coach, GM, player ... I think the last door that we can talk of opening, Bob opened."
Those whispers and sometimes flat-out racist comments are harsh words that many African-Americans have heard through the years when they got an opportunity. So when Johnson beat out an ownership group led by legend Larry Bird, such ludicrous talk was expected to follow.
But maybe we're seeing a slight change of the times, since such ignorance didn't arrive along with Johnson. Or maybe, with his business expertise and success and the fact that he is the first African-American billionaire, even the biggest bigot knew such criticism would only make him or her look silly.
"Bob happens to be black, but he also happens to be one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "And he also has a substantial individual net worth that allows him to make an investment like this."
"There is no question about his qualifications as a businessman," Tapscott said. "People can describe circumstances any way they want. Certainly, one of the things that Bob brings to the table here is he's not earned tremendous wealth for himself, but has done so for others with his career. This wasn't a guy that was brought to the table. He walked to the table on his own. He probably owned the table. His financial power, his network, his acumen in his business really sort of speaks for itself."
It's not surprising that the NBA was the first major pro sports league to give an African-American such a chance.
The league is predominately black. Black coaches on the bench has been the norm for years. And there have also been blacks in the front office. In fact, Stu Jackson is one of the highest ranking officials in the NBA as vice president of basketball operations.
"It's about time, but the NBA has always been at the forefront of blacks running things," former NBA great Charles Barkley said. "Always, the other sports have a long way to go to catch up.
"I give David Stern a lot of credit for that, and I've always said he's the best commissioner in sports. This is a feather in their cap, but takes it to a whole new level."
Even though there have been black and minority front-office people and coaches throughout the years in sports, there is not a long list.
Only six of 145 major professional sports teams have black GMs. Only four have black presidents. Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar (New York Islanders) are only other minority owners in professional sports, although a Japanese company (Nintendo) owns the Seattle Mariners. And then there is the coaching issue in the NFL, where only three of the 32 head coaches are African-American.
Johnson, however, has no problem stating that he hopes to hire the brightest African-Americans and minorities to work for his franchise. In the past, Johnson constantly and strongly brings up diversity and believes you lose talent if you don't consider everyone. He got one already in Tapscott, who has been Johnson's friend for two decades after Tapscott's wife began working at BET. Moreover, North Carolina native Michael Jordan has been rumored to be leaving the Washington Wizards to become Charlotte's general manager, possibly giving the team the big name it passed up in Bird's ownership bid and another black executive in its front office.
"As an African-American, I believe people should, first of all, be judged on the content of their character, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, not the color of their skin," Johnson said. "I feel what I brought to the table was my ability and my skill as an individual, my track record in business, my ability to identify talented people to help me build organizations like I've done with BET ...
"I'm going to select the best candidate for the job -- red, yellow, black or white. I believe anybody who is looking to build a successful enterprise in this country ought to approach it (that way)."
Johnson isn't done breaking color barriers, however.
Next on his plate is trying to get a Major League Baseball franchise in Washington, D.C. Considering the racism that plagued baseball during its early days -- before and after Robinson arrived -- such a purchase would become even more substantial and bring tears to the eyes of former Negro League players alive today.
Yes, Johnson opened the door. And now that it is open, maybe other blacks -- from business entrepreneur and former NBA great Magic Johnson to the next Bob Johnson -- can follow in the near future.
"Hopefully, this will start a trend that more minorities will buy teams and get involved in the NBA," Magic Johnson said. "Bob is a sports lover and a true businessman, so they picked the right person. He is going to make that franchise work and he is going to be in it to make money, too. That is why they selected him."
Marc J. Spears, who covers the Denver Nuggets for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.