Fred Whitfield, the NBA’s only black chief operating officer, has been on the money for Hornets and Charlotte
When he isn’t busy working for owner Michael Jordan, the executive is aiding the community
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — When Fred Whitfield is not standing in his usual spot in the tunnel of the Spectrum Center at Charlotte Hornets games, Hall of Famer Michael Jordan probably figures that his close friend and business confidant is making an impression somewhere off the court.
Whitfield is Hornets Sports & Entertainment’s chief operating officer, president and minority owner and oversees all business operations. The North Carolina native represented the organization’s efforts to secure the 2017 NBA All-Star Game and re-secure the game in 2019 after the controversial House Bill 2 (HB2) was repealed last year. His efforts have quietly played a major role in keeping the Hornets in Charlotte and sports entertainment afloat in the Spectrum Center.
Whitfield has the respect of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and team executives throughout the league, and Jordan is glad to have the NBA’s lone African-American COO as part of his team professionally and personally.
“I’ve known him for over 35 years, and we have been through a lot together,” said Jordan, the Hornets’ owner and chairman. “We worked together when he worked with my agent, at Nike when we launched the Jordan Brand and he worked with me in the front office of the Wizards. We know and trust each other well, and that allows us to work cohesively with the same goals. I am thankful to have him as the team president and as my friend.”
The energetic Whitfield also is heavily involved in helping North Carolina’s youth through his charity efforts. The Undefeated spent three days with the 59-year-old during the preseason and learned how busy he is working for the franchise and how instrumental he has been in aiding Charlotte’s community.
Whitfield stopped eating his steak, put down his fork and knife and nearly had tears in his eyes on this Oct. 9, 2017, night at a downtown steakhouse when he recalled the moment when North Carolina changed for the better and probably kept the Hornets from moving. On March 30, North Carolina lawmakers repealed HB2, including the requirement that transgender people use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificates. The repeal of the “bathroom bill” ended about a year of controversy that saw businesses leave North Carolina and concerts and sporting events get canceled, including the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, which was moved from Charlotte to New Orleans. The North Carolina General Assembly, however, did not remove restrictions on local municipalities enacting their own nondiscrimination ordinances in the new House Bill 142.
Whitfield worked behind the scenes to push to repeal HB2 with the Hornets’ business and goodwill in mind. Whitfield’s work didn’t go unnoticed, as the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce named him the 2017 Economic Growth Champion of the Year. Whitfield told The Undefeated that if HB2 hadn’t been repealed, the Hornets might have been forced to move from North Carolina for financial reasons and because of a potential lack of sports and entertainment events at the Spectrum Center.
“This is much bigger than the All-Star Game,” Whitfield said. “And we sat in those chambers. And I sat right next to [state Sen.] Dan Blue. We were so nervous that the House [of Representatives] wouldn’t pass the appeal. When it finally passed, there was euphoria amongst us who were involved.”
Whitfield said that Jordan told him to focus on working to get HB2 repealed, so Whitfield spent a lot of time in Raleigh in 2016 and 2017 working behind the scenes. The repeal of HB2 led to the NBA announcing on May 24 that the 2019 NBA All-Star Game would be held in Charlotte.
Silver has said that although the repeal of HB2 “did not go far enough, we believe the recent legislation eliminates the most egregious aspects of the prior law.” Silver said he is also confident that the Hornets will “set equality principles to ensure that every All-Star event will proceed with open access and anti-discrimination policies.” Silver saluted Whitfield for playing a big role in getting the NBA All-Star Game back in Charlotte.
“Fred has delivered tremendous results for the Hornets and the city of Charlotte, from leading the team’s rebranding to reinventing the in-arena experience for fans,” Silver said. “We speak regularly, and I marvel at his way of bringing people together, as he did when he played an instrumental role in Charlotte’s bid to host our All-Star festivities. But what makes Fred stand out is not just what he has accomplished but how he has done it. He is humble, patient and open-minded and treats everyone with respect.”
Whitfield leaned on his longtime mentor, Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts, who is gay, for insight and advice in the fight against HB2. Welts wasn’t satisfied with the compromise that came with the repeal of HB2. But through a phone conversation set up by Whitfield, Welts said he had about a 45-minute conversation with then-North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, who explained that at least this was movement in the right direction for more change.
Welts described Whitfield as a “force” whose passion has garnered trust and respect and added that he worked hard in his effort to challenge HB2.
“He probably gave me more insight than I gave him,” Welts said. “He was the force. He was not going to lose the All-Star Game and try not to undo some of the damage that had been done and get the law changed that caused the problem in the first place. I hope you got the sense of how much time and energy he personally put into this. This was months of his life. Where he was great with me was periodic check-ins on what progress had and hadn’t been made, what he was thinking and what the NBA was thinking in terms of potential courses of action to undo some of the damage done by HB2.
“He and I developed a friendship. As a gay executive in the NBA, he could talk to me and test his own feelings against anything I might have on how this would play out. I had so much respect for how he handled himself. He tried so many different avenues to make this work. He was incredibly respectful of everyone’s opinion. But he is a force and an imposing guy who is passionate about what he does and cares about. That comes through and makes him incredibly persuasive based on respect and trust that he is able to instill in people that is a rare quality in anybody.”
Jordan also saluted Whitfield for his work on helping to get HB2 repealed.
“That could not have been more evident than his role in helping the state legislature come to a compromise on HB2,” Jordan said. “HB2 was having a negative impact on our entire community — it wasn’t just about the Hornets or Spectrum Center. He was among the group of business leaders who worked tirelessly behind the scenes in an effort to bring a change that would help all businesses in Charlotte. I’m proud to say that due in large part to his hard work and commitment, the city of Charlotte and the Hornets will host the 2019 NBA All-Star Game, an event that truly benefits the community and showcases our great city.”
On the morning of Oct. 10, Whitfield was in his office overlooking the Hornets’ practice court inside the Spectrum Center when it was time to straighten his tie and head downstairs for a big announcement. Whitfield cut the ribbon during a grand opening of the Hornets’ new FanShop. Charlotte city manager Marcus D. Jones was on hand. The city of Charlotte operates the Spectrum Center, but the Hornets book the basketball, concerts and other events in the arena. One big nonsports event that Whitfield booked was the 2012 Democratic National Convention.
After the ribbon-cutting, Jones described Whitfield’s impact on the Hornets, Charlotte and North Carolina as “immeasurable.”
“It’s interesting to know Fred’s story,” Jones said. “Everybody can jump on board easily and understand his story, coming up and playing college basketball and, somewhat unique, going forward to get his law degree and becoming a successful businessman. But I think people should really focus on his heart and what he does for the community in terms of giving back to the kids with his basketball camp. Everything he is doing is to make sure that individuals have the same opportunity that he had coming up.”
After the ceremony, Whitfield handled some more Hornets business before heading to a speaking engagement for the Charlotte Rotary Club. Whitfield shook hands, enthusiastically answered questions and enjoyed a buffet lunch in the banquet room at the Fairfield Inn before preaching about his beloved Hornets and telling some of his story.
Mike Crum, chief financial officer of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, introduced Whitfield. Crum spoke about Whitfield’s list of accomplishments, which included helping the Hornets more than double their value since his arrival in 2006, getting signature events back in Spectrum Center after becoming a “political activist” and giving to the community and being on several education boards. Whitfield said he nearly teared up hearing those words, but he did tell Crum that he forgot one thing.
“The one thing that Mike left out is that my owner expects excellence in everything,” Whitfield said. “He’s a guy that I respect in the biggest of ways.”
Whitfield said he met Jordan in 1980 in Buies Creek, North Carolina, while they worked as counselors at a basketball camp at Campbell University. Whitfield was a former team captain and All-Big South Conference basketball player at Campbell. Jordan was going into his senior year at Laney High in Wilmington, North Carolina. Whitfield learned that Jordan was special on the court from the skill set, athleticism and competitive mentality he displayed as a teen while playing in pickup games with the camp counselors.
Jordan more than lived up to his teenage potential, as he became a six-time NBA champion and six-time NBA Finals MVP with the Chicago Bulls, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.
“The pickup games were intense,” Whitfield said. “James Worthy. Dereck Whittenburg. These cats were going at it every night, but this guy [Jordan] was just different. … Back then I was still playing pickup, and I would notice that he would always work on stuff that was his weakness. He might not drive to the basket all summer, just shoot jump shots. Or work on bringing the ball up every time working on his ballhandling because he knew he could get to the cup. Over the years, we became closer and closer.”
Whitfield would regularly visit Jordan at the University of North Carolina and attend his games. He was on hand when Jordan hit the game-winning jump shot as a freshman to give North Carolina a 1982 NCAA championship game victory over Georgetown. Whitfield also visited Jordan numerous times in Chicago when he was playing for the Bulls.
The connection between Jordan and Whitfield turned to a business side too.
Whitfield, after graduating from law school, had a private law practice before joining Falk Associates Management Enterprises. He went on to work at Nike Pro Basketball before leaving his position as director of player development to serve as director of player personnel and assistant legal counsel for the Washington Wizards, where Jordan was a player, president and minority owner. Whitfield, who joined the Wizards during the 2002-03 season, was responsible for the team’s salary cap administration, contract negotiations and overseeing player scouting and was credited with facilitating the methods to correct the team’s troubled salary cap situation.
Jordan played in his final NBA game on April 16, 2003, and was expected to continue his front-office role with the Wizards. But on May 7, 2003, then-Wizards owner Abe Pollin fired Jordan as Washington’s president of basketball operations. Whitfield followed Jordan out of D.C. too.
“I took it hard because I knew it wouldn’t be long before I got let go,” Whitfield said. “Him going back to play turned our business around, if you recall. Back then, the Wizards were losing $50 million a year. He goes back to play and then all of the sudden we sell out every game and we start making money, so we just assumed once he finished playing he would just roll back into his old role and keep pushing.”
Whitfield served as director of business and legal affairs for Jordan Brand, managing endorsements and sports marketing strategy that included signing star athletes outside of basketball such as baseball great Derek Jeter and boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. On June 15, 2006, Jordan bought a minority stake in the then-Charlotte Bobcats, becoming the team’s second-largest shareholder behind majority owner Robert L. Johnson. Whitfield joined Bobcats Sports & Entertainment as president and chief operating officer in July 2006.
On March 17, 2010, Jordan and his group, MJ Basketball Holdings, received approval to buy the Bobcats from the NBA board of governors. Jordan replaced Johnson as the NBA’s lone African-American owner.
“Fred has led efforts to increase the estimated value of the Hornets from less than $300 million in 2006 to an estimated $780 million today. That’s not a bad ROI [return on investment] for your ownership group,” Crum said.
After spending 90 minutes with the Charlotte Rotary Club, Whitfield headed back to the arena for a walk-through for the 10th annual My Hero Gala. The black tie with basketball sneakers fundraising event for a local foundation honors local heroes who have had an impact on the community.
Then it was time to head over to the Sportsman’s Club of Charlotte. The club was founded more than 50 years ago by a group of community leaders with the hope of bringing “outstanding and well-known individuals in the world of sports” to talk to the members about life and career, according to the club’s website. The men’s club limits its predominantly white membership to a maximum 250 members.
The club’s website also boasted a long list of sports celebrity speakers in Dean Smith, Lou Holtz, Joe Namath, Bob Feller, Darrell Waltrip, Ken Stabler, Mike Krzyzewski, Arnold Palmer and Roy Williams, but no black speaker was listed. Whitfield, however, was welcomed warmly from the moment he arrived. Members listened intently to his speech and asked some hard-hitting questions about their beloved Hornets.
Attendees were excited and proud about the Hornets nickname being used instead of the Bobcats. The original Hornets were in Charlotte from 1998 to 2002 before moving to New Orleans. The expansion Charlotte Bobcats arrived in 2004 and used the nickname until changing back to Hornets in 2014 after the New Orleans franchise changed its nickname to the Pelicans. Whitfield spearheaded the change back to Hornets.
“How many of you have been to a Hornets game since we reclaimed the name and tried to steal a lot of the equity that the prior Hornets organization built in this community?” Whitfield asked the crowd. “All the great things that [ex-Hornets] Muggsy [Bogues], Dell [Curry], Alonzo [Mourning], you name it, we tried to embrace them all and have them be a part of our Hornets family. I was a Hornets season-ticket holder when I was a lawyer in Greensboro and worked for Nike Pro Basketball. I went to almost every home game. I was fortunate to be a part of the energy that that organization had.
“Not only on the court, but on the community. All those great things those players gave back to the community, we are trying to emulate that in our players now.”
Whitfield was again dressed to the nines as he stood in the tunnel during the first quarter of the Hornets’ preseason home game against newcomer Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics on Oct. 11. He met with season-ticket holders before tipoff as well. But as soon as the first quarter was over, Whitfield and his wife, Mary, departed to the Banking on Our Community fundraiser at the Mint Museum. The event raised a record $400,000 for seven charitable organizations in the Charlotte area.
Whitfield was a guest speaker before the fundraising auction. Also in attendance were Whitfield’s parents, who have been married for 61 years and both had master’s degrees before he was born. Whitfield earned a degree in economics and an MBA from Campbell University and went on to earn a law degree from North Carolina Central University. Campbell assistant basketball coach Press Maravich, a former Louisiana State University head coach and the father of Hall of Famer “Pistol” Pete Maravich, encouraged him to do so as he impressed on him that he had the intelligence for the job.
Whitfield also credited his parents for ensuring that he put as much if not more energy into education as he did in basketball growing up in Greensboro.
“My parents felt that education was sort of the equalizer and would give me the opportunity to do whatever I wanted to do,” Whitfield said. “I grew up a very good student. My mom had me studying in the first grade at night before I could go out and play basketball. That’s just how they engrained it in me. I was lucky they believed in education so much.”
Whitfield told the attendees of the Banking on Our Community event that while he was truly proud of his work to help repeal HB2, he is most proud of the impact his basketball camp has made.
Whitfield is the founder of the 33-year-old Achievements Unlimited basketball camp in Greensboro and Charlotte that has served more than 10,000 kids, including many who attend on need-based scholarships. Past speakers have included athletes, musicians and media stars such as Jordan, Stephen Curry, Mourning, Kyle Perry, Anthony Hamilton, Joe Morgan, Cam Newton, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Ron Rivera, Grant Hill, Stephen A. Smith, Richard Dent, Ray Allen, Branford Marsalis, Dean Smith, Michael Waltrip and Stuart Scott. NBA and college stars typically work as camp counselors and sign dictionaries that go to players on the camp’s winning teams.
The camp counselors, including Jordan in the past, also took part in some spirited pickup games at day’s end. Former North Carolina State star and NBA guard Sidney Lowe fondly recalled how Whitfield made being a counselor fun by adding the pickup games and golf during down time.
“In Achievements Unlimited, the first thing is the kids knew they could do anything they want to do and there were no limits to it,” Lowe said. “Obviously, he always had a lot of great players who would come back and play. The games were really good. M.J. would come back and play some. It was a great atmosphere. Teaching with the kids was good. The festivities were good. It was just a good environment.
“I remember playing in those pickup games with big names like [James] Worthy and Jordan, guys kids want to emulate and be like. It wasn’t like an All-Star Game. It was competing, and we were really trying to play and we had fun doing that. And when it was done, guys would sit down and we’d smoke cigars and talk.”
Whitfield also hosts the 14-year-old HoopTee Celebrity Golf Classic that provides scholarships for underprivileged kids to attend Achievements Unlimited basketball camp and supports numerous other youth-based programs throughout the Carolinas. More than 1,000 children have earned scholarships to attend the camp.
Warriors guard Curry said he has played in HoopTee in Greensboro and Charlotte about four times and he has sent items to be donated for auction when he cannot attend. The two-time NBA MVP, who is the son of former Hornets star Dell Curry, said it “means a lot to him” that Whitfield gives back strongly to the Charlotte community that raised him.
“My first experience with Fred was with HoopTee in Charlotte with Jordan helping a little bit,” Curry said. “I know how much giving back was a passion of [Whitfield’s]. He’s not only a success in the office running an organization, but every year he’s always reaching out trying to raise money and create a great event in the Charlotte area.”
The winning has not followed the Hornets like it did during the days of Mourning, Bogues, Curry, Vlade Divac, Kendall Gill and Larry Johnson, as the franchise has been to the playoffs only twice since the name change. But off the court, Jordan is confident his franchise is winning with the NBA’s highest-ranking African-American on the business side.
“One of Fred’s greatest strengths is his ability to connect with people and build lasting relationships,” Jordan said. “Overseeing Hornets Sports & Entertainment means more to him than simply running a business. He understands that we are an important part of the Charlotte community, and he prides himself on doing what is in the best interest of the community.”