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 bottomNot 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. "He had a little file that he would accumulate information about baseball teams, and his goal was to own a Major League Baseball team. And you might say he achieved that. "Only it ended up being a major-league basketball team."
Building on the dreamCharlotte isn't on Tobacco Road, but it definitely has signs for the on-ramp. It is a basketball city in a basketball state. But NBA basketball? Shinn, who grew up just north of Charlotte, decided the NBA belonged there. "When George gets that way," said Carl Scheer, the Hornets' first president and general manager, "it's very hard to turn him down." The NBA didn't, and Shinn and Charlotte made good on the decision. The Hornets sold 15,000 season tickets by the start of their inaugural season, on their way to an NBA record 21,500 the following season. "He was almost childlike," said Marilynn Bowler, the Hornets' vice president of public affairs throughout the franchise's time in Charlotte. "It was like he had this dream, and he woke up and it wasn't a dream." Eventually, though, the nightmare began. The Hornets began playing in a new arena, but having been built to lure college basketball events, the Charlotte Coliseum had no luxury suites, no club seats and limited revenue streams. As the franchise persisted in its need for a new arena despite sell-out crowds, animosity grew. Then, Shinn was sued for sexual assault. Even though Shinn won a civil trial that was broadcast on Court TV, the two-year episode did not play well in Charlotte. "I had ... a lapse in judgment," Shinn says now almost a decade after the trial. "I had a marriage that was falling apart, and I became very vulnerable. And I did something stupid and got set up." All the while, the PR hits continued. Players arrested. Bobby Phills killed in an accident while drag racing with a teammate. Minority owner Ray Wooldridge vowed no money for a new arena. In the meantime, Shinn remained in the shadows. He stopped going to games. He turned down public appearances and civic speeches. The citizens of Charlotte turned their backs on Shinn and the Hornets. Folks all but stopped going to games and refused to build a new arena, a decision reversed a few years later when they agreed to a state-of-the-art palace for the expansion Bobcats. "If it was something I had to do all over again, I wouldn't do that," Shinn said of going into hiding. "I'd be strong and stand up and say, ‘Hey, I made a mistake. I'm sorry. I'm going to move forward from here.' But I didn't do that. I was stunned, knocked off my feet." On Jan. 17, 2002, the Hornets announced they were relocating to New Orleans. "When we went to New Orleans," Shinn said, "it was really like a rebirth." Even though attendance lagged and revenue suffered the first few years, season-ticket sales rose last summer. So did hopes. Then, Katrina blew through. "The storm was probably as low a time in my life ... " Shinn said, his voice drifting, his thought trailing. "You wake up one morning, and the city where your business operates is almost three-fourths under water. It just shakes you." He sighed at the memory. "Gosh, what do you do?" Folks in Oklahoma City are well aware of what Shinn did. Following NBA commissioner David Stern's advice, Shinn temporarily relocated to Oklahoma City. It sparked a love affair. The Hornets pocketed about $800,000 in revenue each game. That was twice as much as in New Orleans. Such profits helped the Hornets add the likes of Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler. "We have the potential to have one of the best teams we've had in the history of the franchise," Shinn said. "We just got better." Shinn is on his feet again.
Continuing on the journeyGeorge Shinn has no idea what will happen next. He told his people as much earlier this summer at that employees-only lunch. Not long after it, Clay Bennett and Co. bought the Sonics and NBA commissioner David Stern made his strongest statements to date about the Hornets returning to New Orleans. And they could do just that for the 2007-08 season. They could stay in Oklahoma City. They could go to another city. Kansas City. Las Vegas. San Jose. Imagine being the owner of a multi-million-dollar business and admitting you had no clue where you'd be in a year. "Dealing with this whole storm has been frustrating, and not just for myself," Shinn said Wednesday. "We have over a hundred employees that work for us that depend on me making the right decisions. I have a responsibility not only for myself and my family but for my family of employees." Shinn made several moves this summer to make that family aspect of his business even stronger. He balked at selling part of the franchise to a group of Oklahoma City investors in part because they wanted an option to purchase and he wanted the Hornets to stay in his family. He elevated son Chad to executive officer of the board and hired Hugh Weber, a relative by marriage, to assist with business operations. Say what you will about George Shinn, but there's no disputing that he's resilient.
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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
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