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Hornets’ owner looking for investors

A group of New Orleans-based investors are front-runners for gaining a minority share of the Hornets, team owner George Shinn said Wednesday.

there remain people in Oklahoma City who are interested in buying into the Hornets, even after another Oklahoma group led by Clay Bennett bought the Seattle Supersonics on Tuesday.

Negotiations with New Orleans investors are “much more advanced than the other group,” Shinn said after meeting with prospective minority owners at the team’s headquarters in a downtown New Orleans high rise.

“If we were running a race, the group here is in front,” Shinn said. “But I can’t predict what’s going to happen. We’ve got to sell sponsorships and the business community has got to step up and help us, but we think a lot of positive things are moving in our direction.”

Bennett led a group that at one time was pushing seriously to buy a majority stake in the Hornets. Shinn, however, has refused to sell more than 49 percent, referring to his NBA franchise as “a family business” of which he intends to remain in charge.

Bennett has said he would not seek to move the Sonics for at least a year while he attempts to negotiate a deal with Seattle and the state of Washington for a new arena and a more favorable lease.

Shinn said the Sonics’ sale had little impact on the Hornets’ plans since he always intended to return the team to New Orleans, barring another natural disaster here. “Our plan is to come back. I’ve said that from Day One,” Shinn said. “That’s the reason what’s happened (in Seattle) hasn’t affected me one bit.”

Shinn said the New Orleans investor group is comprised of about a dozen people who are looking at buying 35 percent of the team. Shinn said he could not disclose how much investors would have to pay for such a share.

The group includes Crescent City Bank and Trust chief Gary Solomon, who so far is the only member to reveal his involvement publicly. A confidentiality agreement prevents those in the negotiations from disclosing any of the participants other than themselves.

Shinn said he could not predict when a sale of minority shares would take place and had not set a deadline.

Under an agreement approved by the state of Louisiana, which owns the New Orleans Arena, the Hornets will play 35 regular season games and all playoff games in Oklahoma City during the 2006-07 season. They will play six regular season home games in New Orleans.

Shinn said he remains enthusiastic about the coming season in Oklahoma City, despite the fact that some fans there may be inclined to turn their attention toward the Sonics.

“Right now that market is in my estimation in love with the Hornets,” Shinn said. “I’m pleased with Oklahoma. … I think they’ve been great. And the deal was to stay there for two years and we’ve got one more year, and that’s it.”

Also, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett cautioned Tuesday that the purchase of the Seattle SuperSonics by an Oklahoma City businessman does not necessarily mean that the NBA franchise will relocate to the city.

“I think it’s presumptuous to assume that Clay Bennett and his ownership group won’t own that Seattle team for a long, long time in Seattle or somewhere else. It’s presumptuous to assume they’re going to move that franchise to Oklahoma City,” Cornett said. “I understand that people are going to say that seems to be a likely scenario, but that’s just speculation.”

Upon the formation of his investor group in February, Bennett said: “The bottom line is, we want a team for this market.”

But on Tuesday, he had a different message. He told a Seattle news conference that he would keep the team in Seattle if an agreement could be reached for a new arena.