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THE NBA: STARTING OUT AND STARTING OVER : THE BOTTOM LINE : Expansion Teams Find How Tough It Is to Get Going

October 11, 1987|ANTHONY COTTON | The Washington Post

ORLANDO, Fla. — As he drives past the construction site of his team's new $90 million arena, Pat Williams, president and general manager of the Orlando Magic, proudly boasts of a building that will feature private sky boxes opening onto patios overlooking a man-made lake.

"That's a feature that Cleveland doesn't need in the winter," he says with a sly smile.

At the moment, all there is to see are steel girders, and dirt. Lots of dirt. But Williams and other Orlando officials know the best is yet to come.

It's pretty much the same story for executives in the other three cities that paid more than $32 million each for NBA expansion franchises. The Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets will begin play in the 1988-89 season; the Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves the following season.

Williams gave up his general-manager position with the Philadelphia 76ers last June to move to Orlando, and he still laughs when he thinks about his initial efforts at acquiring the franchise.

"We asked people to deposit money for a team that didn't exist in a league that wasn't sure they wanted us and for an arena that hadn't even begun to be built," he said. "We challenged the town. We told them that Orlando was the largest U.S. city without a major-league team. And the people responded."

Each of the four cities has responded, partially because of the NBA's proviso that each have a season-ticket base of at least 10,000 before the first basketball is shot. Orlando is in the process of whittling down the 15,000 applications and deposits received for season tickets.

When the news came that a franchise had been awarded to the Piedmont region, applications in Charlotte jumped from 8,000 to 15,000.

"Our biggest problem was that no one in the area had ever considered having major-league sports of any kind here," said George Shinn, owner of the Hornets. "I think that's the mind-set of Charlotte. We were building an arena, but it was going to be for normal activities -- maybe college tournaments. Pro sports weren't a consideration."

Chances are that in the first few years at least, the only thing fans in each of the cities will be able to claim is that they're in the big time. Other things, like victories, for example, will be in very short supply.

Orlando has hired a player-personnel director and even decided on a logo and uniform colors (black and electric blue). But like the other cities, there is not a single player to outfit just yet. When they do fill their rosters, from an expansion draft as well as the collegiate draft, these teams hope the players will follow the tenets they've already sold to the community.

"Right now, the basketball philosophy has to be extreme effort, with an emphasis on hustle and conditioning," said Williams. "When people are coming out and sitting through losses, they have to know that, even though the team is down by 30 points, the team is giving its all. It just has to be that way."

Although there are no delusions of instant success, there is anticipation of the beginning of play. For one thing, Williams and other basketball people can return to areas they're more familiar and comfortable with, like personnel. For another, the first jump shot taken will mark the end of what has been a maddening experience.

"When we heard that we were one of the cities granted a franchise, my initial reaction was good news-bad news," said Williams. "We got the team but we wouldn't start until 1989 and we didn't know what we would do for two years. Now I don't think we would be able to play at all if we didn't have the extra year."

"Starting a franchise is just a tremendous endeavor," echoed Lewis Schaffel, until last January the general manager of the New Jersey Nets, now the general manager of the Miami team. "I don't think anyone here realized what a tremendous undertaking it would be. When I went to the Meadowlands for a Nets game, the parking lot was there, the scoreboard was already in place. Now I have to build the parking lot and I'm buying the scoreboard and it's, 'Should I pick a dot matrix screen or something else?' I don't have any background in this stuff."

And neither man is receiving much help in efforts to get the teams off the ground. Williams has a full-time staff of six, Schaffel has just one other person in his employ full-time. That makes for some mad scrambling at times. The Magic and the Heat are housed in temporary offices, and more than once, both men have filled in as receptionists and telephone operators.

Shinn already has an entire entourage securely in place, perhaps a reflection of his dealings with the business world. A self-described entrepreneur for 25 years, Shinn said, "I'm more comfortable taking care of all those business things than I am in trying to select the right players for the team.

"It's hard work, sure, but it's fun, too. It's like anything else in business. You establish goals and then you go out and do it."

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