NEW YORK -- The NBA moved a step closer Tuesday to putting a team back in Charlotte, appointing an expansion committee to look at ownership groups willing to pay the expected price of at least $300 million.
The league's Board of Governors ended a two-day meeting at which they were briefed on the prospects of adding a new franchise. One prospective ownership group includes Larry Bird and M.L. Carr, but the league said there is no front-runner for the new team, which could begin play in 2004-05.
Charlotte lost its NBA franchise when the Hornets moved to New Orleans after last season. Since then, at least three groups have said they would like to bring a team back to Charlotte, and deputy commissioner Russ Granik said the league is near agreement with city officials on a deal to build a new arena with an NBA team as the primary tenant.
''It's a very positive step, but I don't think we can say yet that it's a done deal,'' Granik said.
The Board of Governors, comprised of a representative from each of the 29 teams, also approved a change in the bylaws for the WNBA, allowing for non-NBA ownership groups to pursue WNBA franchises in non-NBA cities. Currently, the league owns all the teams, and with the exception of the Charlotte Sting, all WNBA teams are operated by the NBA teams in their cities.
In another development, the owners approved the opening of a leaguewide credit operation, to be run by JP Morgan Chase, from which each team would be entitled to borrow up to $100 million.
Commissioner David Stern said he did not sense opposition from any of the 29 owners to putting another team in Charlotte. Two or three prospective ownership groups are expected to meet with the expansion committee, which will be comprised of Jerry Colangelo of Phoenix, Larry Tanenbaum of Toronto, Joe Maloof of Sacramento, Lewis Katz of New Jersey, Stan Kroenke of Denver and George Shinn of New Orleans.
''There is no front-runner,'' Granik said.
While a new arena is built, a new team could play one season in the Charlotte Coliseum, which lacks the luxury and club suites the Hornets needed to make money, Granik said.
Steve Belkin, the key player in one of the investment groups trying to bring an expansion team to Charlotte, said his group is the sentimental favorite because it includes Bird and Carr.
Bird, who would be the team's general manager, has visited with city and business leaders in Charlotte.
Carr, who would work in community relations, spent the summer running the WNBA's Charlotte Sting. Former Celtics general manger Jan Volk is also part of the group.
Other groups expressing interest are one headed by Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson and another led by Miami Heat minority owner Bob Sturges.
''I think they have to treat everyone fairly. That's the only fair way to approach it,'' said Belkin, adding that he has heard the expansion fee will be at least $300 million.
Stern and Granik would not discuss a prospective expansion fee, although they said the 29 owners believe they should receive ''a marketplace fair price.''
An agreement was reached last month to sell the Boston Celtics for $360 million, but Belkin does not believe that should be a benchmark for a new team in Charlotte.
''Boston is one of the league's largest markets, and Charlotte is certainly not Boston. The Celtics are one of the league's premiere franchises,'' he said.
Stern said the addition of a 30th franchise would have no effect on his plan to expand into Europe -- possibly by the end of this decade.
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