One of the rare silver linings to the Atlanta Hawks saga was the opportunity for new, less racially charged team ownership to enter into the NBA. In case you missed it, the majority owner of the Hawks, Bruce Levenson, leaked some of his own emails where he openly discussed ways to bring in the key demographic for season ticket sales in the NBA — namely, middle aged white people and corporations — by making the game experience less black. Seriously, you can read the full email here. This was compounded when GM Danny Ferry was caught reading a scouting report of Luol Deng that said Deng had “a bit of African in him.” Ferry’s been suspended from the team indefinitely.
So, bad things were afoot for the Atlanta Hawks — at least as far as the management and front office are concerned. While it didn’t come to pass (the team was sold to an ownership group that included Grant Hill in April), one of the most exciting rumors was the idea that the team was potentially looking to move the Human Highlight Film further up the ownership ladder. Dominique Wilkins, who spent his most impressive NBA years with the Hawks, was already the team’s vice president and a color commentator, told ESPN that he’d “absolutely” be interested in moving up in the ranks some more.
While ‘Nique did not wind up transitioning into an ownership role with Atlanta, Grant Hill became the sixth celebrity owner to join the league, not counting Magic Johnson, who was briefly an owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Read on to see the other five.
5. Shaq, Sacramento Kings
If you remember Shaq’s run as the pillar of the Los Angeles Laker’s threepeat at the turn of the century, then you remember Shaq owning the Sacramento Kings on the floor, especially in the contentious (and potentially referee-assisted) 2002 Western Conference Finals. That was the context for about a billion jokes in September of 2013 when O’Neal became a minority owner of the Kings in the wake of the Maloof saga’s resolution. In case you missed that: the Kings were very close to being purchased by an ownership group that would have moved them to Seattle, resurrecting the SuperSonics, because the former owners refused to negotiate with any prospective buyers in Sacramento. It was yucky, and eventually the NBA had to step in on behalf of the city in order to keep the team in California’s capital.
There is nothing good about the pun Shaqramento Kings, though. We’re glad that didn’t catch on beyond this ESPN report.
4. Michael Jordan, Charlotte Hornets
The first former NBA player to successfully become a majority owner of a franchise, Jordan started his involvement with the Hornets back when they were still called the Bobcats. Although he had tried to become a part owner during the last waning years of the original Hornets franchise (now in New Orleans, and now called the Pelicans), His Airness was unable to gain a foothold until he nabbed a minority share of the new team in 2005, assuming full ownership in 2010.
3. Peyton Manning, Memphis Grizzlies
When the Memphis Grizzlies were sold in 2012, the ownership group (helmed by Robert Pera, who has some crazy ideas about how to run a team) was first reported to include Manning’s wife, Ashley, and not Manning himself, who said at the time that, “I am proud of Ashley as she pursues this opportunity with the Memphis Grizzlies. While my focus is on playing quarterback for the Denver Broncos, I look forward to watching her become involved with her hometown team.” By the time the pen went to the paper, though, the Denver quarterback had, indeed, signed on as a limited owner — as had one-time NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway, another Memphis native. That’s before we mention the other big name involved in the Memphis purchase — the number two on this list.
2. Justin Timberlake, Memphis Grizzlies
As an A-list celebrity, Timberlake’s presence in the NBA — even (or especially) as a limited partner in a small market team like Memphis — brings a lot of visibility to the league. While he’s probably not as heavily identified with the Grizz as Jay-Z was with the Nets, his appearances on the sideline during the playoffs, and occasionally the regular season, help bring a little more spotlight onto one of the more traditionally ignored franchises.
1. Will Smith, Philadelphia 76ers
“Larry Bird ruined my childhood.” That was how Will Smith — actor, rapper, and West Philadelphia native (that’s right, born and raised) — celebrated Doug Collins’ 400th win, which came over the Boston Celtics. Smith has existed in the upper stratosphere of celebrity since bursting into the world’s awareness with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and roughly a million blockbuster movies. With accompanying soundtracks and singles, natch, he is, far and away, the most famous of the NBA owners.
Smith first bought into the 76ers in 2011 when the franchise sold for just under $300 million, or less than one sixth of what the Clippers would sell for three years later.