Taking a shot in new arena

Sheila Johnson, owner of the Washington Mystics, is accustomed to being a groundbreaker.

July 22, 2005|By Milton Kent and Kate Crandall | Milton Kent and Kate Crandall,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - MCI Center, normally crackling with excitement and buzz during Washington Mystics games, was as quiet as a school library in July during a game with the Charlotte Sting last month when a clamor arose.

The chant, "Let's Go Mystics, Let's Go," wasn't so unusual, but the point of its origin, one of the normally sedate luxury boxes on the mezzanine level, was odd.

Strange, too, was the source of the cheering, a woman in a salmon-colored business suit. But who could blame Sheila Johnson, the first black cheerleader at the University of Illinois, for getting a little rowdy at a Mystics game?

After all, she does own the team.

"I tell everybody that comes into the [owner's] box, `You'd better be ready to cheer for the Mystics, or you'll have to go,' " said Johnson recently with a chuckle.

Johnson, widely believed to be the first African-American female billionaire, has used her wealth, amassed from the creation of Black Entertainment Television, to break into the old-boy network on a number of fronts.

Through her Sheila Johnson Foundation, she has made it possible for inner-city students to attend some of the nation's best colleges. Johnson is also building a spa in toney Middleburg, Va., over the vocal opposition of some of her well-heeled neighbors.

Johnson's most visible move yet, however, was her May 24 purchase of the Mystics, which already has been approved by the WNBA, making her the first African-American woman to hold a controlling interest in a professional sports team.

Johnson, a longtime Mystics season-ticket holder, said she was approached to buy the team by Wizards owner Abe Pollin, who had owned the Mystics since their inception in 1998.

She checked with her financial advisers about the viability of the Mystics in particular and the WNBA, which has seen three teams fold and two others relocated in nine years of existence.

"They [her financial advisers] looked at me and said, `Is women's basketball going to be around for a while?'" Johnson said. "I said, `This could be the opportunity of a lifetime as a turning point in women's basketball. You know what, guys? When you are given an offer like this, you don't want to turn it down. You want to make it work.'"

Pollin, who is recuperating from heart bypass surgery, could not be reached for comment. However, at a news conference on the day of the sale, Pollin said, "We think it's time for an African-American woman to own a WNBA team. We sought her out. We think she's perfect to run a team. I would not have sold this team to anybody else."

The sale, which came unexpectedly, has nonetheless gone over well with the Mystics players, who are accustomed to transition, with seven different coaches in their eight seasons.

"We didn't hear any talk about it," said Mystics forward Murriel Page, the only player still on the roster from the first season. "Mr. Pollin has been the owner since I've been here. There's always a coaching change, not an ownership change, so it was a big surprise."

Indeed, Pollin and Johnson have a five-year business relationship through her presidency of the Washington International Horse Show, held annually at MCI Center, which Pollin owns.

Doesn't work out

Pollin rebuffed Johnson's ex-husband, media executive Robert Johnson, who offered to build a downtown Washington arena in 1995 if Pollin would sell him a piece of the NBA franchise then known as the Bullets.

Eventually, Robert Johnson, from whom Shelia Johnson was divorced in 2001, became the owner of both the expansion Charlotte Bobcats of the NBA and the Charlotte Sting of the WNBA.

Sheila Johnson said she didn't consider the twist that Pollin was willing to sell a piece of his empire to her less than a decade after he turned down her ex-husband.

"I don't think there was anything malicious about it with Abe," Sheila Johnson said. "I've known Abe as long as Bob has known Abe. He just really saw this as a great fit. I feel very flattered that he did."

To buy the Mystics, Sheila Johnson had to purchase an equity stake in Lincoln Holdings, the group headed by AOL executive Ted Leonsis, which purchased the Washington Capitals and a 45 percent share in the Wizards and MCI Center five years ago.

Johnson's purchase of stock in the Capitals and the Wizards awaits approval of the NHL and NBA, respectively.

Pollin on board

Susan O'Malley, president of Washington Sports and Entertainment, Pollin's holding group, said Johnson fit the bill for what the 81-year-old Wizards owner wanted to accomplish.

"He [Pollin] believes in the WNBA and loves his Mystics," O'Malley said. "As part of his exit strategy, he wanted to make sure all of the teams were taken care of and that they stay in the Washington area. When he thought about the Mystics, he thought about Sheila and clearly he's very happy with Ted owning the Capitals and as future owner of the Wizards."

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