Last week, I wrote a report card article for this site on Michael Jordan. In it, I praised Jordan's effort to push for a D-League team for the Hornets at the beginning of the 2016-'17 season. One of those potential locations for the team is Asheville, North Carolina. Dennis Justice, founder of the BEElieve in Asheville movement, is pushing for the city to become the home for the Hornets official affiliate. Justice reached out to At the Hive and we thought that it would be a cool idea to do a brief Q&A on the subject to learn more.
At The Hive: What can you tell me about your movement and what has motivated you to push for an NBADL team in Asheville?
Dennis Justice: BEElieve In Asheville is a fan group started last year to encourage Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Hornets to put a D-League team in Asheville. I had gotten some media coverage but basically it had died down until last week's announcement by the Hornets. When they announced they were considering seven cities for a D-League team, I knew it was time to re-boot this effort. Since then I have already gotten good buzz from people supporting this.
I have been involved in the local sports scene for over 15 years, starting with the local hockey team's booster club and other teams as a volunteer, including the Asheville Altitude. I have since gotten a bachelor's and master's degree in Sports Management. I had been writing columns for years saying the NBA was going to bring the NBA D-League back to the southeast and should be far better run than the original NBDL.
ATH: I know there's the university in Asheville, but it sounds like it's a bit of a basketball hotbed. What's the culture there like to set it apart from the other contenders?
DJ: Asheville is known as a tourist destination due to our mountainous area and many mountain sports, our eclectic downtown, the Biltmore Estate, the Grove Park Inn, a plethora of outstanding golf courses, and many microbreweries. We had been known as "Beer City USA" (as well as other designations) and the locals have been known to be very active in social media.
What makes Asheville a favorite to win the Hornets' D-League team is a great current relationship with them. The local sports commission, as well as UNC-Asheville, has been instrumental to getting the Hornets' last three training camps at UNCA as well as host a preseason game two years ago. As such, the Hornets have great familiarity to excellent training facilities for the players. Asheville is also rated as the 24th best minor league sports market according to Sports Business Journal, and 5th among cities with just one sports team. We also are still the only city to have won consecutive D-League titles, and we never got the chance at the "three-peat," something Mr. Jordan knows all too well about.
The proof that Asheville can host this team comes from the upgrades of the U.S. Cellular Center and how well Asheville has hosted the Southern Conference Basketball Tournament. Admittedly, I was one who publicly doubted the arena would be much better, and I was pretty much wrong. The renovated arena is in vastly better condition than when the Asheville Altitude were first here. The seating has been reconfigured to create a more intimate atmosphere.
Other cities in the running have venues that are simply too large. Greensboro's expected proposal would use three venues due to all of them being too booked to host on their own, which simply does not make sense in terms of ticket sales and corporate sponsorships. Our venue is more right-sized for the D-League. The defending champion Santa Cruz Warriors only play in a venue seating about 3,000, for example. Attendance is simply not as important as developing players. Asheville would take this team more seriously than other cities, as the purpose of the team is helping Michael Jordan and the Hornets bring a NBA championship to the Carolinas.
(One potential future option is hosting the D-League Showcase. If the D-League ends up with 30 teams, there's no way any city can host 30 teams and 60 games. But if they split to the Western and Eastern Conferences, it would make plenty of sense for Asheville to host the Eastern Conference D-League Showcase, greatly increasing Asheville's publicity.)
ATH: Where do things sit currently?
DJ: From my understanding, the Hornets sent requests to each of the cities. The local leaders have not officially decided to pursue the team yet, but all hints are they will do so. The seven cities have a few days to submit an initial interest that they would pursue the team, with something more formal by mid-June. I am hearing that a decision on a city may be done by year's end. My guess is there could be two finalists who can compete against each other (Asheville and Columbia?), but the Hornets may just choose a city as soon as they decide on one. They would begin marketing the new team by early next year.
ATH: Are you encouraged by the news that the Hornets will be getting a team in the future?
DJ: I have been advocating this for years, and it's great to see it's finally happening. Naysayers will point to bad attendance the last time the Asheville Altitude were here. But the truth is no city in America would have succeeded back then. The approach was too centralized, rushed, and had no team affiliations. To blame any city for a previous team failure is intellectually lazy.
I have noticed on social media that previous "failures" have done nothing whatsoever to dampen the enthusiasm from the four Carolina cities that had NBDL teams in the past. The numbers are out there as to how the D-League has greatly improved the NBA. Hornets fans have been screaming for a D-League team as our rookies simply cannot get enough playing time on the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (who we share with at least 10 other teams).
The NBA should be as excited once Jordan puts his D-League team in, it will force all other southern NBA teams to either form their own team, or relocate an existing one. Maybe the Memphis Grizzlies puts their D-League team in Knoxville? Maybe the Orlando Magic puts their D-League team in Jacksonville? Maybe the Atlanta Hawks puts their D-League team in Augusta? Maybe the Washington Wizards puts their D-League team in Virginia Beach? Maybe the Miami Heat moves their D-League team (Sioux Falls Skyforce) to Columbia (a city marketed as "Famously Hot") to become the "Columbia Heat?" (A Western Conference NBA team would simply have their D-League team in Sioux Falls.) Then in 2-3 years, all of a sudden we have a very competitive southern division.
While I think Asheville is a favorite, maybe the favorite, it cannot be taken for granted we will win this team. Fans need to be willing to organize to be ready to assist our sports commission in whatever they decide to do. If we pull this off, we simply have to have the best booster club in the league. Whichever city wins, I hope their residents understand that the team is not a "feather in the cap" to take for granted. It is about developing players that can help the Charlotte Hornets bring a NBA championship to the Carolinas.
So I urge fans to follow us on Twitter @BEElieveInAVL and tell Mr. Jordan and the Hornets to "BEElieve in Asheville!"