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Canucks owner sets sights on moving Hornets to Vancouver

Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (24) pulls up a jump shot over New Orleans Hornets center D.J. Mbenga (28) and guard Willie Green (33) during the first half of their NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Louisiana February 5, 2011.

MISTY MCELROY

For more than five years, Canucks Sports and Entertainment chairman Francesco Aquilini has eyed the NBA, looking for a portable franchise that could be bought for a bargain and moved to Vancouver.

Those sights are now set on the New Orleans Hornets.

Sources say Aquilini, whose family owns the NHL's Canucks but was never involved with basketball's Vancouver Grizzlies, is inspecting the Hornets, who are being sold by the NBA and could be relocated in the next few years. During an interview this week, commissioner David Stern said Vancouver is one of several markets interested in a relocated NBA franchise, and went out of his way to praise the strong business performance of the Canucks.

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Aquilini did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. One source familiar with his NBA flirtations said Aquilini would require partners to finance a purchase, but that the NBA is impressed with the family's stewardship of the Canucks.

"We've had visits from, believe it or not, Vancouver, where the Canucks are absolutely doing a spectacular job," Stern told ESPN.

The NBA bought the Hornets last year for $310-million (all currency U.S.), but Forbes values the franchise at $280-million, or 26th among 30 clubs.

The NBA could be headed into a labour interruption after this season, but facing a similar situation in the NHL five years ago, Aquilini was undaunted. He first took a 50-per-cent gamble on the Canucks during the NHL lockout of 2004-05, before completing a full purchase from owner John McCaw in 2007.

Today, the franchise boasts a sellout streak of 337 home games and has gained $50-million in value, according to Forbes.

Stern referred to Seattle, which lost the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, as a "prime" market to get the NBA back once a new arena is built, but wondered whether that would happen in his tenure. He also said that three groups from Las Vegas and representatives from Anaheim have met with him regarding relocated franchises.

He listed Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Tampa/St. Petersburg as markets with NBA-ready facilities. Vancouver's Rogers Arena, owned by the Canucks, would qualify as well.

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"I have regrets about both Seattle and Vancouver," Stern said.

The NBA purchased the Hornets when it became clear that owner George Shinn was no longer going to finance the club and when a proposed sale to a minority partner stalled. The club's lease with the New Orleans Arena expires in 2014, but an escape clause could trigger in January, 2013 if attendance benchmarks are not met.

Stern re-iterated that his top priority is to find a buyer who would keep the team in New Orleans, but conceded that some NBA owners would prefer the club be contracted, and that other cities are circling.

"There [is]no shortage of suitors who have contacted us who want to buy the team and take it someplace else," he said. "That would not be our first choice at all. That's not why we stepped in and bought the team."

The NBA's Grizzlies left Vancouver for Memphis in 2001 after just six seasons, a brief existence that Stern has called his largest regret in 27 years as commissioner.

Aquilini's interest in an NBA team dates to 2005, when the Hornets were temporarily displaced by Hurricane Katrina and eventually landed in Oklahoma City for two seasons. Within weeks of the disaster, discussions took place between the sides as Vancouver owned one of the few "plug-and-play" arenas at the time.

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Shortly thereafter, when the Portland Trail Blazers were believed to be in play, the Canucks owner again looked at the possibility of returning the NBA to Vancouver. And in the spring of 2009, Aquilini was reportedly interested in purchasing and moving the Indiana Pacers, who were negotiating a new lease deal for Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

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About the Author
B.C. sports correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Matthew spearheads the Globe's sports coverage in B.C., and spends most of his time with the NHL Canucks and CFL Lions. He has worked for four dailies and TSN since graduating from Carleton University's School of Journalism a decade ago, and has covered the Olympic Games, Super Bowls, Grey Cups, the Stanley Cup playoffs and the NBA Finals. More

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