St. Louis climbs Hornets' list

Thursday, November 29, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- There might no longer be a front-runner in the competition of cities for the Charlotte Hornets.

Given the chance to pick between St. Louis, Louisville, Ky., or any other city, Hornets co-owner Ray Wooldridge declined Wednesday after meeting with St. Louis Blues owner Bill Laurie and Mayor Francis Slay.

Previously, Wooldridge -- who said he remains committed to finding the Hornets a new home by Jan. 1 -- had named Louisville as his top choice.

"The negotiations are in various stages with each of the other cities," Wooldridge said. "The markets are so distinctively different."

In St. Louis, Wooldridge said, "You have a tremendous fan base and a huge market. The only thing you are missing is an NBA team to fill the void. We see it as a super town."

Wooldridge called his previous comments about Louisville's lead over others bidding for the Hornets an "expression of the process." He said his franchise needs to consider several factors, including the team's new arena and naming-rights partner, as well as corporate and community support.

"At that point in time, Louisville had been in this process much longer than the other cities," Wooldridge said.

Laurie, in his second meeting with Wooldridge, made a presentation that featured Slay and a large contingent of business and community leaders. Wooldridge called the discussions preliminary, but said he would meet again with Laurie and is "very much interested in pursuing the conversation.

"Your reputation speaks for itself," Wooldridge said. "No one ever doubted that St. Louis was a tremendous sports city."

Both Wooldridge and Laurie, a former college guard at Memphis who is married to a Wal-Mart heir, declined to discuss any details of their meetings. That included commenting on what's considered to be the biggest obstacle: In the past, Laurie has said he wanted to own any team that plays at the Savvis Center; Wooldridge has said he prefers to move the Hornets rather than sell.

"Well, not everything you read in the paper is true, quite honestly," Laurie said. "That's what these meetings and negotiations are all about."

Asked if he'd be willing to sell the team to Laurie, Wooldridge said, "I think Bill Laurie is going to be an excellent owner of an NBA team at some point, but the percentage of that, I have no idea."

Later, he added, "Those are the decisions that don't have to be made as part of these negotiations today."

Laurie has twice beamed at news conferences announcing the purchase of an NBA club, only to see the deals fizzle -- once because his offer was considered too low, once because the league wouldn't heed to his demand the team move to St. Louis.

In 1999, Laurie bid on the Denver Nuggets as part of a $400 million package that also included the Colorado Avalanche and the Pepsi Center. After his bid was challenged, he declined to make another offer.

Last year, Laurie tried to buy the Vancouver Grizzlies, but backed away from the deal after the NBA refused to support his effort to bring the team to St. Louis. The Grizzlies did end up moving and are playing this season in Memphis.

"We've been through this before," Laurie said. "I feel like our prospects with the Hornets are as good or better than before."

The NBA has not had a franchise in St. Louis since 1968, when the Hawks left for Atlanta. Wooldridge, who said any deal can be completed in the roughly five weeks before his self-imposed January deadline, has until March 1 to apply for relocation with the NBA for the 2002-03 season.

In addition to Louisville and St. Louis, Norfolk, Va. is also courting the Hornets. The team would be the only professional franchises in both Louisville and Norfolk. ------

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