Hornets president reflects on highs, lows of running NBA franchise for more than a decade

Hornets president reflects on highs, lows of running NBA franchise for more than a decade

Charlotte Hornets President Fred Whitfield (Melissa Key/Charlotte Business Journal)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — In a room filled with 150 business and civic leaders last week, the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance named Charlotte Hornets President Fred Whitfield as the winner of its Citizen of the Carolinas award. Whitfield, in Pittsburgh as part of the alliance’s inter-city visit, received an ovation as he thanked his bosses, coworkers, and a number of political and corporate executives whose boards and committees he has served on over the years.

Whitfield became the top business executive for the local NBA franchise in 2006. Along the way, the team has gone from deficit-riddled to profitable while struggling to become a consistent playoff contender. (Not there yet.) As operators of the city-owned uptown arena, Whitfield and the Hornets lost major events because of the anti-LGBTQ state law passed in 2016 and known as House Bill 2. Whitfield was among a small group of business leaders from across North Carolina who spent a year lobbying for what became a partial repeal of HB2 — enough of a repeal to bring back major sports, entertainment and corporate events.

Content Continues Below

Such as? The NBA All-Star Game. It was supposed to be played here in February 2017, but HB2 led the NBA to pull the game, a move Whitfield said was made “for the right reason.”

This year, because of the successful repeal campaign by Whitfield and other business executives, as well as a plea to the NBA to give Charlotte a second chance, the city finally got its All-Star weekend.

“We still go back (to the General Assembly) just to do maintenance visits, just to say hello,” Whitfield said, drawing knowing laughs. “It was a complete team effort. I get more credit for that than I deserve. It was a 100% team effort (with those executives).”

Next summer, the Republican National Convention will, in a political context, do what the All-Star Game did: Boost sales for tourism-related businesses while bringing national and international media coverage to the city.

Whitfield, a former executive at Nike Inc. and player agent, counts Hornets owner Michael Jordan as one of his closest friends. In this instance, he’ll be following in Jordan’s footsteps. Jordan is a previous Citizen of the Carolinas winner, as are civil rights leaders Harvey Gantt and the late Julius Chambers, retired bank CEO Hugh McColl Jr., the late Rev. Billy Graham, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

Whitfield spoke with CBJ moments after learning he will receive the Citizen of the Carolinas award. Read excerpts from that conversation here.