A new Louisiana purchase??

By Jimmy Smith
Updated: December 6, 2010

NEW ORLEANS — The NBA is poised to assume total ownership of the New Orleans Hornets in the next few days, and published reports have someone with local ties overseeing the transition and eventual sale of the club.

Jac Sperling, vice chairman of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, is a New Orleans-born attorney who has in the past negotiated the sale of professional sports teams and guided the Wild into one of hockey’s most successful franchises, according to a report at SI.com.

League sources said Sunday night that the NBA would purchase 100 percent of the Hornets, including the 65 percent currently owned by George Shinn and the 35 percent owned by minority partner Gary Chouest.

It’s possible – but a long shot – that Chouest could turn around and purchase 100 percent of the team from the NBA.

Another league source said Sunday that NBA Commissioner David Stern would likely be taking these steps because he firmly wants the Hornets to remain in New Orleans. By taking over the team, the source said, Stern would be able to ensure a sale to someone who was also committed to keeping the team in New Orleans.

The Hornets said team president Hugh Weber would not comment on the latest developments, but that Weber would still be in control of the day-to-day operations of the team.

Sperling would be Stern’s overseer of the continued sale negotiations but would not be based in New Orleans, staying instead at his Minnesota home base with periodic trips South to monitor sale activity.

Chouest, who owns a 35 percent stake in the franchise, had reached an agreement in May to purchase the 65 percent owned by Shinn, a transaction that, according to sources, would be in the neighborhood of $300 million.

But that deal apparently has broken down.

The NBA continues to refuse comment, despite repeated requests the last four days.

Chouest had refused all interview requests since becoming a minority partner in 2007.

The Hornets can opt out of their lease in New Orleans Arena, which runs through 2014, should they fail to average 14,735 fans per game through Jan. 31 with a penalty of just $10 mllion. The team would have to notify the state of their intentions by March 31, 2011 should the attendance benchmarks failed to be achieved.

The team’s attendance average though 10 games so far this year is 13,860. The Hornets have 14 more home dates before the Jan. 31 deadline, including visits by the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs, currently among the top teams in the league.

Hornets Coach Monty Williams said before Sunday night’s game in San Antonio that he’d addressed the situation with the team, and that players asked several questions which he answered as best he could.

“All I can do is answer the questions I can answer. I don’t know the particulars of it,” Williams said. “To be honest with you, I don’t want to know. I don’t want it to affect my focus and my job. When whatever happens, happens, I’ll deal with it then. Now, I’ve heard speculation since I’ve been in New Orleans. It’s not anything new to me.

“I can’t go into (specifics of what players asked). That’s personal stuff. I think there’re going to have the same questions anybody else would have, I just don’t want to reveal locker room stuff.”

Several players indicated they’d heard the news that the league would be assuming ownership of the team, but said their focus remained on what was in front of them.

“I really don’t know what it means,” veteran guard Willie Green said.

“I know it’s definitely something that’s going on with the ownership and the league, but as a player I guess I really don’t understand or know what that means right now.

“Obviously, we’ll find out more information as time progresses, but my thinking right now is I’m just trying to make sure I focus in on the things I can control. And obviously that’s not one of them. But I’m sure we’ll find out how it impacts us as an organization and team later.”

Center Emeka Okafor said he’s main focus Sunday was guarding the Spurs’ Tim Duncan.

“I just play ball and I don’t worry about things I can’t control,” Okafor said.