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Rolling with the flow
One year later: The Hornets in Oklahoma City
Shinn doesn't know what the future holds for his NBA team

By Jenni Carlson Published: September 21, 2006
George Shinn had no pulpit, no sanctuary, no altar.

Still, he was preaching.

The Hornets' owner gathered his people for an employees-only, steak-and-champagne lunch to celebrate their first year in Oklahoma City earlier this summer. But when Shinn stepped to the front, it felt more like a church social.

"I know a lot of you, like me, are confused about our situation," the Hornets' owner said. "This business is my life. It's like one of my kids. I'll do anything to protect it."

He looked around the room at Daddy Hinkle's Original Steakhouse, only a few blocks east of the Ford Center.

"I'm convinced this franchise is going to be successful wherever it is."

Shinn would be too, wouldn't he? He's managed to land on his feet time and again, after all. He finished last in his class but built an educational empire. He started an NBA team in the league's smallest market but created a big-time success in Charlotte. He made personal blunders and professional mistakes, falling out of favor and moving his franchise to New Orleans, only to encounter more problems. First came declining attendance and revenue, then rising floodwaters.

And now, a year to the day since Shinn and his Hornets announced their temporary relocation to Oklahoma City, Shinn is back on his feet again.

His team made a 20-game improvement last season, but even more impressively, they became an unexpected, unquestionable hit in Oklahoma City.

"It's been an overwhelming success," former mayor and Hornets season ticket holder Kirk Humphreys said. "I don't know what the key players ... expected, but I think it's got to have exceeded anyone's wildest dreams."

The day the Hornets announced their relocation, Shinn vowed to prove that Oklahoma City was a major-league city.

"He's been faithful to that," Humphreys said. "I think George has been a good partner for Oklahoma City."

And vice versa. The financial windfall from last season funded a flurry of off-season roster moves that upgraded the Hornets' talent level. They start this season as playoff contenders.

Despite the positive vibe, questions remain.

The NBA says the Hornets must go back to New Orleans, where they played before Hurricane Katrina drove them to higher ground. Shinn lobbied the league to play this season's home opener there, a request that was granted. The Hornets will have some of their training camp there.

Many fans in Oklahoma City would like to see the Hornets stay. Yet when a group of local businessmen bought the Sonics in July — then said they would move the team without a new arena — many locals saw it as a fallback should the Hornets fly.

The futures of the Hornets and the NBA in Oklahoma City hang in the balance.

"I don't have a crystal ball, and I don't read tea leaves, so I'm just rolling with the flow," Shinn said Wednesday afternoon. "We could be here another year. I don't have a clue. We could go somewhere else. I really don't have the answers to any of these questions.

"Typically just about any business situation that I've had in my history before this happened, I could go back in a textbook, I could go back and talk to somebody in the league office and say, ‘Who else had this problem, and what did they do to recover?' Nobody's ever been through this before."

How will Shinn land on his feet this time?

There's no textbook for what Shinn is going through right now, but then, he never has been a by-the-textbook sort. His whole life has been one break from tradition after another. He's encountered twists and turns. He's faced dead ends. But he's always managed to find a way.

Rising from the bottom
Not quite a teenager, George Shinn knew what was happening when the auctioneer stood in front of his father's gas station and started rattling off numbers.

George Shinn Sr. had died a few years before. Already the owner of several properties around Kannapolis, N.C., George Sr. left his widow, Irene, $20,000 in debt. Eventually she sold everything, save the family home.

Shinn grew up with free school lunches and second-hand clothes.

He went to work in the cotton mill in Kannapolis after finishing high school. A back injury forced him out, and he eventually enrolled at the Evans Business College in nearby Concord. Shinn could not afford tuition, so he took a job as a janitor at the school.

One weekend while working, Shinn heard banging on a door. He found a couple of prospective students who wanted a tour. Shinn obliged.

A few days later, the prospective students returned, wanting to enroll and to speak with Shinn.

Soon after, Shinn was promoted to a part-time admissions representative, advancing to the director of admissions, then to minority owner at the school.

Evans Business College continued to grow and began acquiring other colleges in North Carolina. Shinn owned a piece of all of them. Eventually, he offered to exchange his shares in the rest of the colleges in exchange for complete ownership of Kings College in Raleigh.

"The school grew exponentially," said Britt Dorman, who Shinn promoted from dean to president there, "and we started to buy more schools."

The Rutledge Educational System grew to a chain of 35 schools. With that and other investments, Shinn's net worth ballooned to $50 million.

The man who finished last in his high school class made his fortune in education.

"But his goal was to own a professional baseball team," Dorman said.

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George Shinn, owner of the Hornets, said on Wednesday, ‘I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t read tea leaves, so I’m just rolling with the flow. We could be here another year. I don’t have a clue. We could go somewhere else. I really don’t have the answers to any of these questions.’ NATE BILLINGS, THE OKLAHOMAN

George Shinn quoteboard
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