Shinn: I messed up in Charlotte

Their season ticket sales have more than doubled over last season to about 11,000, a dramatic increase in a city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Tuesday will be the 20th anniversary since the team debuted in the NBA as the Charlotte Hornets, marking the city's entrance into major league sports. Then, owner George Shinn was considered a hero for overcoming long odds to land the franchise .

Now, Shinn says the team would likely still be in Charlotte had he acted differently when his personal life became the center of a controversy that engulfed the once-beloved team, leading to a move to New Orleans in 2002.

“If you embrace the city, the city will embrace you,” Shinn told the Observer in an interview. “It happened in Charlotte.

“I had my issues there. One of the biggest mistakes I made, and this is hindsight, I quit. I was so humiliated and taken back by the bad judgment I made in my life… I was so embarrassed.”

The New Orleans Hornets will visit the Charlotte Bobcats Friday in Time Warner Cable Arena, their only game here this season. Shinn has not attended a Bobcats game in Charlotte and is not expected to attend Friday night.

After being hugely popular in Charlotte when the Hornets came into existence, so popular he was approached to run for governor, Shinn fell out of favor a decade later after being sued in a sexual assault case.

A jury rejected the sexual assault claim in December 1999, but he admitted in court to having two sexual relationships outside his marriage. The trial was broadcast nationwide on Court TV and drew some of the cable network's highest ratings at the time. Shinn later divorced and has since remarried.

The fallout from the sexual assault issue was immense, and Shinn withdrew from the public.

“I had been making speeches all over, and I never charged a dime. I quit doing it. I quit talking to the press. It was the stupidest thing I could have done,” Shinn said.

“People (in Charlotte) love basketball … Had I wised up early and gotten out in the community like now, we'd probably still be there.”

When Charlotte-area voters rejected a new arena proposal, Shinn and former ownership partner Ray Wooldridge moved the team to New Orleans. Wooldridge sold his stake in the franchise several years ago.

There were questions about whether New Orleans had the economic foundation to support an NBA franchise. The challenge was made more difficult after Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city and forced the Hornets to play two seasons in Oklahoma City.

Shinn said he expected the move to Oklahoma City would force him to sell the franchise and he was “devastated.”

Instead, the Hornets were a hit in Oklahoma City. After two years away, the Hornets returned to New Orleans amid serious questions as to whether the franchise could survive in a region largely destroyed by storm.

“When it came time to leave (Oklahoma City) and come back here, I was getting all kind of criticism. One story somebody referred to me as being stupid. I've been called worse,” Shinn said.

“One reporter said, ‘Shinn has been lucky and pulled a lot of rabbits out of his hat, but he's run out of rabbits.'

“The majority of my people didn't want to come back here. They'd read about certain areas of the city that didn't have power. The roads were horrible. There was crime. There was the issue of education. Nobody wanted to come back.”

It is not certain whether the NBA would have allowed Shinn to keep the Hornets in Oklahoma City had he sought to do so. The Seattle franchise ultimately moved to Oklahoma City.

“We prayed about this thing and decided we have to do what's right,” Shinn said. “I'm 67 now. I've made some mistakes in my life, and I understand that. The fact I had a better chance to make money in Oklahoma was not what I needed. I needed to do what was right. What's right was to help this city. I have a home here. We knew how this city was suffering.

“I'd attend functions. People were depressed. They were tearing down their own city. It had to stop.”

Shinn said he makes regular public speaking appearances around New Orleans, offering encouragement for the area. In a region traditionally tied to the NFL's New Orleans Saints, Shinn said he's been gratified to see the number of Hornets' flags now decorating the area's homes and businesses.

“I've made enough mistakes in my life. I'm not going to make one here. This city needs us here. We're going to make this (New Orleans) thing work.”

Shinn said the spirit reminds him of Charlotte during the team's early years, calling the franchise's early days “incredible.”

Aware of the Bobcats' struggles now in Charlotte, he said he doesn't know enough about the situation to offer advice.

“I would hope that things will work,” Shinn said. “It's a great market, a great community.”

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