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The Houston Rockets officially unveiled their latest hotshot at the monthly meeting of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority board, but he didn't have the height of Yao Ming, the cat-quick speed of Cuttino Mobley or the jumping ability of Eddie Grifffin.
Instead, he was Rodney Ellis, the plumpish, wisecracking state senator and former Houston city councilman. Ellis came strutting onto the sports authority court with the tricky assignment of quarterbacking Rockets owner Les Alexander's management squad past a roomful of highly skeptical authority directors. In recent months, the relationship between the sports board and the franchise has soured in an assortment of downtown arena squabbles ranging from food service to construction-cost shortcutting.
Ellis also will have to chill out Houston minority leaders who've called for a potentially explosive public meeting with Rockets officials. They're concerned that Alexander and team president George Postolos are trying to monopolize arena food and beverage concession profits in violation of a campaign promise. According to several sources, the senator is even considering inserting himself into the equation as a minority partner with the project's food management consultant -- a deal that would be worth several hundred thousand dollars a year. (Ellis referred our inquiries to the Rockets and Postolos declined to discuss the matter.)
"Some of you might know me on my regular job," purred Ellis by way of introduction at the sports authority meeting. "I do want to point out it's an honor and a privilege to be the senator for some of you, but that is a $600 a month honor." As Ellis quickly made clear, his time was worth much more than that to the Rockets.
The scouting report on Rodney indicates he can switch his political and business hats faster than Steve Francis can execute a crossover dribble, but even the jaded authority directors in the downtown boardroom seemed stunned by his latest sleight of hand.
The senator is a virtuoso practitioner of the subtle art of melding public and private interests. That dates back to his City Hall days, when he built a successful bond-underwriting operation, Apex Securities, with the help of the municipal financial adviser, Tom Masterson. Ellis routinely got bond writing assignments for Apex from the county and school district, where Masterson was also an adviser. Apex snagged deals in cities like Atlanta run by political allies of Ellis; in return the councilman pushed firms from those areas for City of Houston business that he himself could not legally accept. Ellis eventually sold Apex and has become a globetrotting specialist representing corporate interests in some unlikely places.
One board director expressed amazement at Rodney's chutzpah, particularly in listing his credentials. Ellis included his representation of Southwestern Bell in closing a huge deal in South Africa, one described by the senator as the largest private U.S. investment in Africa.
"He's boasting about things people had just been whispering about," laughs the director, noting that plenty of legislation affecting Southwestern Bell has flowed through Austin during Ellis's tenure.
Authority CEO Oliver Luck, a former Houston Oilers quarterback, says Ellis's new assignment for the Rockets has made some directors uncomfortable.
"I don't think there's anything illegal about it," notes Luck, "but there's certainly concern our board has as to whether that's appropriate."
Ellis's hiring reportedly miffed several Senate colleagues, including John Whitmire and Mario Gallegos, who "sort of consider themselves the fathers of the sports authority," says a source who knows both well.
"Mario and Whitmire have beat on us for five years to do what's right for minorities," notes a director, "and the Rockets hire Rodney to come down and tell us what a good job they're doing? It's just peculiar."
When he was first approached by the Rockets, he thought Alexander might be willing to take him on as a partner, Ellis told the board.
"Mr. Alexander and Mr. Postolos looked me straight in the eye and said, 'No, we won't let you be an owner. First of all, you don't have enough money to buy no ownership in this team, but we do want you involved.' "
So Ellis signed on as a consultant with the stated purpose of coordinating efforts to meet goals for the participation of minority, women and disadvantaged business (MWDBE) owners in the operation of the arena, which is scheduled to open next fall.
Ellis's detractors claim his real role is political mercenary hired to play defense in the black community while Alexander and the Rockets welsh on an electoral promise made to minority leaders.
In order to secure overwhelming minority support three years ago for the second referendum to build a downtown arena, Alexander signed an agreement specifying MWDBE participation goals of 30 percent for both construction and operations at the new sports palace. Inner-city votes won the election, and the sports authority provided the $175 million to begin arena construction.
Now it's nearly time for the Rockets to honor their commitment on the facility's operations. In the previous case of the Astros and their downtown stadium deal, the team hired a food and beverage operator, Aramark. It then distributed an allotted percentage of the contract to minority owners who run their own food outlets at Minute Maid Park.