Who Are These Guys? 

A look at the three NBA owners who want to move to Memphis.

While much attention has been paid to those who make up the Memphis NBA "pursuit team," little has been given to the potential majority owners who have applied to the NBA to have their teams moved to Memphis. The three men -- George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge, co-owners of the Charlotte Hornets, and Michael Heisley, owner of the Vancouver Grizzlies -- will most assuredly have an impact on the sporting history of the city. So, it's fair to ask: Just who are these guys?

GEORGE SHINN: The NBA granted the expansion Charlotte Hornets franchise to George Shinn, 59, on April Fool's Day 1987. Born and raised in North Carolina, Shinn made millions owning and managing the Rutledge Education System, a chain of proprietary schools. Later, Shinn went into real estate, writing, motivational speaking, and sports teams. Shinn also owns the WNBA Charlotte Sting and the Charlotte Checkers (minor-league hockey) with Wooldridge. Before that, Shinn owned Charlotte's AAA baseball club, the Knights.

Shinn is the author of five books, including the 1977 autobiography Good Morning, Lord! and Leadership Development, a best-selling textbook. His biography on the Hornets' Web site stresses his "strong Christian faith."

Faithful or not, Shinn has been repeatedly criticized in Charlotte for being a cheapskate when it comes to player salaries. Some of the franchise's biggest names, including Glen Rice, Alonzo Mourning, and Vlade Divac left because Shinn wouldn't pay the going rates. Shinn's most famous player mistake was the trade in 1996 that sent Kobe Bryant to the L.A. Lakers for Vlade Divac -- straight up. In February 1999 Sports Illustrated urged Shinn to sell the team because his "stinginess has destroyed the franchise."

And then there is the matter of the two sexual assault cases brought against Shinn in 1999. Leslie Price, a woman suffering withdrawal from pain-killers, accused Shinn of forcing sex on her after meeting with him to talk about paying for her rehab treatment. Shinn acknowledged having sex with Price but denied any wrongdoing. Later that same year, a Hornets cheerleader, Debbie Caddell, also came forward with a sexual assault accusation. (Good grief, Lord!) Shinn's wife divorced him (go figure) and NBA commissioner David Stern "encouraged" Shinn to sell the team. Shinn at first entered into negotiations with Michael Jordan, but His Airness lost interest when Shinn refused to make him more than a silent partner. When Jordan pulled out of negotiations, Shinn turned to Ray Wooldridge.

RAY WOOLDRIDGE: Wooldridge, 58, founded Space Master International, a modular furniture company, and sold it for a reported $270 million before he bought his share of the Hornets in 1999. Wooldridge paid $80 million for a reported 49 percent share of the team. Wooldridge has been vocal in his crusade for a new arena in Charlotte, a question that will be decided by public referendum. Wooldridge's original request was that the public be solely responsible for the proposed arena, which did not endear him to the citizens of Charlotte. Since then, negotiations have lessened the tension somewhat and the Hornets have offered to pay for some of the arena costs. Wooldridge is the general manager of the Sting and also a co-owner with Shinn of the Charlotte Checkers.

Wooldridge is -- by design -- the poster boy for the NBA, brought in to help brighten Shinn's tarnished public image. "This is a very positive day for the NBA. Mr. Wooldridge should be a good addition to our league," Stern said at the time.

Wooldridge is a native Memphian who graduated from Mississippi State before settling in Atlanta.

MICHAEL HEISLEY: Chicago-based billionaire Michael Heisley, 63, bought the Vancouver Grizzlies in May 2000. He raised hopes for the beleaguered team by saying, "We are going to build a winning tradition for this franchise .... Having an owner that is committed to this market is an important part." Less than a year later, Heisley was eating chicken in Louisville while signing relocation applications to Memphis. So much for winning traditions. And commitment.

Heisley is another self-made man. His first profit came from a house he bought and remodeled. He then took that money, bought a business, and later sold it for a profit. He has repeated the pattern on an increasingly larger scale ever since. Heico Companies is now a conglomerate worth $1.5 billion, with interests ranging from telecommunications to prefabricated buildings.

Grizzlies fans initially thought that Heisley might be the owner to turn the franchise around. However, after dismal season-ticket sales (3,000 sold) there were accusations that Heisley intentionally delayed sales efforts. Heisley denied the charges, stating that he had not gotten ownership of the team in time to push ticket sales. A few months later, citing declining attendance, poor TV revenues, and a reported deficit of $46 million, the new owner requested a relocation application deadline extension from Stern and got it. Heisley then embarked on a national tour to shop his team, with stops in St. Louis, Anaheim, Las Vegas, Louisville, Chicago, New Orleans, and Memphis. About the whole affair, Heisley said, "I'm sorry for the way the thing happened. I think the [Vancouver] people have a right to be very disappointed in me."

Heisley's biggest impact on the franchise, other than moving it to another country, was the hiring of team president Dick Versace, who has been widely criticized for his lack of experience and his management style. Versace has also had a problem keeping his mouth in check. He was recently asked if the Toronto Raptors, Canada's only other NBA franchise, might be having problems like those in Vancouver. Versace suggested that the Toronto Raptors would soon relocate to the United States. The comment drew a $10,000 fine from the league. Versace told his team's media-relations people to pay the fine with their own money since they had not prepped him for the question.

So, there you have them: the three men who could co-own our very own NBA franchise. The lusty, God-fearing cheapskate, Shinn; the homeboy, Wooldridge; and the "know when to fold 'em" Heisley. Who Memphis will get is up to the NBA board of governors, which should have an answer by mid-May to early June. One thing is certain, however: Next to these guys, our pursuit team looks positively angelic.

You can e-mail Chris Przybyszewski at chris@memphisflyer.com.

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