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.
Luck says the system works well for the vendors and there have been few complaints from that sector. "It's really self-policing," he explains, because "the minority vendors who are in there see the numbers every two months and know how the business is going, and have influence because they own a piece of it."
The Rockets have chosen a different food service model. As Ellis explained to the board, the Rockets will operate their own food and drink facilities and hire a consultant for advice on such items as food delivery, purchasing and hiring.
Luck says arenas the size of Houston's typically have food and beverage sales between $12 million and $15 million a year. By contrast, the Rockets' total projection for minorities' involvement in arena operations is barely $2 million. Several board members came to the conclusion that the food and drink profits are not being included in Alexander's 30 percent pledge.
Authority director Howard Middleton contends that "if we're going to ask all other people, all other companies, to share 30 percent of revenues with minorities, I think if the Rockets are going to develop another organization to run food service, then that ought to be part of the 30 percent."
In his presentation to the board, Ellis stressed that minorities would benefit from supplying goods and services to the arena rather than selling the prepared food itself.
"It is a new model for Houston," declared Ellis. "It means maybe somebody in the past who operated ABC Restaurant in an airport are gonna have an opportunity to do something they haven't done before."
His suggestion that restaurant operators settle for supplying meat or napkins to a Rocket-owned entity at the arena immediately provoked a backlash.
"I've had a lot of calls by the vendors," says Middleton. "They question me on that, and I can't answer it. The Rockets made a commitment to the community, and I want them to hold that commitment."
At the sports authority meeting, Ellis said that "you'll know when it's over whether or not we did it." Middleton's quick retort: "That's late."
The Reverend James Dixon II took part in the negotiations three years ago that led to the Rockets' promises. In a letter last week to sports authority general counsel Gene Locke, he called for a public meeting to revisit the issue.
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"I, along with other African American community and business leaders, am concerned with the perceived direction the Houston Rockets seem to be taking," Dixon wrote. "It appears that there may be some variance in what their objectives are from the original agreement." He says Rockets officials have agreed to schedule a meeting within the next ten days.
During the sports authority session, Middleton warned Ellis that his deal with the Rockets could put him on the political hot seat if Alexander does not fulfill his commitments.
"If someone puts me in a position to which I'm embarrassed, I'm real loud, Howard," replied the senator. "When I put my credibility on the line, it ain't for a few little gold coins."
Judging by Rodney's well-documented history as a coin collector, it just might prove impossible to embarrass a politician who has no shame to begin with.