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Ex-Duke players courting NBA now

The Baltimore Sun

The first time Brian Davis tried to enter the NBA, it was as a second-round draft choice of the Phoenix Suns in 1992.

For a player who had been on three Final Four teams at Duke and a starter on the 1991 and 1992 national championship teams, the obstacle was daunting.

"They had Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge and Cedric Ceballos," Davis said yesterday, naming the Suns' small forwards and shooting guards, the two positions the 6-foot-7 Davis had played for the Blue Devils.

After a year playing in France, Davis made the Minnesota Timberwolves the next season. His NBA career lasted 68 games. Now, after more than a decade in the business world, mostly in real estate development in Durham, N.C., Davis is trying to re-enter the NBA - as a majority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies.

When the team's local minority ownership group decided last week not to buy the 70 percent share of Michael Heisley, it left the door open for Davis and former Duke teammate Christian Laettner to pursue their quest of owning the Grizzlies. Davis said last week he has submitted but not finalized ownership application papers.

A decision by the NBA's Board of Governors is expected later this month or in January.

Davis might have one advantage over some prospective owners.

"I would be the only owner who worked with David Stern," Davis said of the league's longtime commissioner.

It was during a nearly two-year internship at the NBA's New York office after his playing career that Davis first thought about owning a team.

"It was an extremely long-term thought, but it actually crystallized back in '96 and '97," said Davis, 36. "When I saw the other side of how everything operated, at a very sophisticated level, it was very exciting and I wanted to do that. I even stated [to Stern] that I would love to develop the wherewithal to be able to come back and actually be able to do this."

Whether Davis and Laettner, whose 13-year playing career ended before last season, have what it takes financially to purchase the Grizzlies has been argued up and down Beale Street, the epicenter of the city's legendary music and entertainment scene.

According to NBA bylaws, majority owners must prove their own net worth is at least 15 percent of the franchise's overall value.

The Grizzlies are worth an estimated $360 million, with Heisley's share valued at $252 million. That means Davis would have to show he can come up with at least $38 million of the money he has made in developing properties in Durham, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

(Davis' Blue Devil Ventures is in the midst of a $300 million redevelopment project on Wicomico Street near M&T; Bank Stadium.)

Davis has said that aside from Laettner, who would also be involved in some sort of management role with the team, he would have up to three other partners. Davis has not identified any of them or disclosed much more about how he would run a franchise that lost a reported $29 million last season despite making the playoffs for a third straight year.

"All small-market teams need to be under the cap or near the cap level," Davis said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Even being at the cap, we have a very talented team. ... Then focusing on marketing the FedEx Forum, marketing the city of Memphis at a very high level, I think we will have a lot of success."

Even more than All-Star forward Pau Gasol, the current face of the franchise belongs to team president Jerry West. Considered one of the most astute NBA executives as well as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, West has said he plans to retire after this season. West was unavailable to comment.

"We hope that he can stay involved at a high level for a lot of years," Davis said of West.

The bid by Davis and Laettner to buy a franchise that moved from Vancouver to Memphis five years ago has been met with skepticism.

Local support lacking

George Lapides, a Memphis native who has been sports editor of the local newspaper, general manager of a minor league baseball team and host of a sports talk radio show for the past 35 years, said: "I don't think it is wrong for the people here to wonder who are these people and where are they getting their money and how they're going to be able to keep the franchise afloat if they don't have enough money."

Lapides said Davis and Laettner have not exactly built up a large pool of local supporters. It didn't help that Laettner initially said he planned on playing for the team or that toward the end of his career, while with the Washington Wizards in 2003-04, Laettner was suspended by the league for violating its drug policy after reportedly testing positive for marijuana.

Though Davis plans to move his family to Memphis from Washington - he grew up in Bladensburg, and his wife, Marsha, is a former Miss Maryland - he and Laettner, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., are considered outsiders.

"Their attitude has been, 'Trust us, we went to Duke,' " Lapides said. "They have done a very, very poor job of responding to simple questions. For that reason, there's a lot of skepticism. They've brought it on themselves. They haven't given any answers. They didn't identify at all who the [other] owners are. People here want to be convinced that this is a secure thing."

Said Davis: "All I can say is that I have the money and that I'm closing the transaction."

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