Charlotte, and the SouthPark region in particular, is home to many interesting and influential residents, from business and real estate icons to superstar athletes, entrepreneurs, artists and philanthropists. This month, we’re excited to introduce SouthPark Sit-down, a casual conversation with those movers and shakers at their favorite local spots. Who better to kick it off than Hornets Sports and Entertainment President and Vice Chairman Fred Whitfield? He sat down with contributor Natalie Dick at Steak 48 to talk basketball, life lessons and more. For more of the interview, watch below.
The Charlotte Hornets president and vice chairman has spent his entire career working alongside Michael Jordan. But his personal passion is creating opportunities for underprivileged youth.
by Natalie Dick | photographs by Richard Israel
Fred Whitfield loves a good steak. So it seems only fitting that we meet for a late afternoon meal at his favorite restaurant anywhere: Steak 48. His go-to dish isn’t one you’ll find on the menu.
“It’s called the butcher’s cut. It’s the end cut of a ribeye, very tender,” he tells me as our meals are delivered to the table. Whitfield’s allegiance to the restaurant extends beyond his palate. “They have been great partners of my personal charity, HoopTee. We’ve filled the whole restaurant with supporters. I feel like I’m part of the Steak 48 family.”
Whitfield has lived in SouthPark since he arrived in the Queen City in 2006, when he accepted the role of president and chief operating officer for the then-Charlotte Bobcats. (In 2014 he led the franchise through a name change back to the beloved Hornets.) At 64, he is the third-longest-tenured president of business in the NBA. New Hornets majority owners Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin have assured him they don’t plan to make changes anytime soon.
In August, when the new owners took control of the team, they advised Whitfield they planned to allow him and his senior leadership team to continue running the business. Whitfield says he’s grateful for the opportunity to continue working alongside the talented staff he’s assembled over the years. And despite the team’s disappointing performance on the court last season, he’s proud of the way he, Chief Operating Officer James Jordan and their team have built and maintained such a profitable organization.
Whitfield credits his success in life and in business to building strong relationships. At a young age, his parents instilled in him the importance of education, and of dreaming big while remaining humble. His friendship with Michael Jordan kicked off a career he says he never could have fathomed.
“I met Michael when he was in high school, and I was playing basketball for Campbell (University). He came to Campbell’s basketball camp. We just connected, I think because of the way he was raised by his parents, and [how] I was raised by my parents. We had a lot in common — a lot of mutual thoughts and feelings, and we gravitated to each other and became true friends.”
The friends became lifelong business associates. While Jordan was busy playing in the NBA, Whitfield was earning a law degree at North Carolina Central University with a goal of becoming a sports agent or sports attorney.
“One of the things I learned early in my career is oftentimes people mistake kindness for weakness.”
“I was very fortunate that a lot of the large sports-management firms started recruiting me because they had done their due diligence and knew I had a relationship with this guy from Wilmington. They wanted me to help them steal (Jordan) from David Falk, who was his sports agent and attorney at the time.” Instead, Falk asked Whitfield to join his firm. “And from there, I have pretty much been in the sports business and worked with Michael in some capacity almost my whole career.”
Whitfield went from private practice to negotiating sports deals at Falk Associates Management Enterprises (FAME), then on to careers with Nike Basketball, the Washington Wizards and Nike’s Jordan Brand. Through it all, he has become a master negotiator. His secret weapon: kindness.
“One of the things I learned early in my career is oftentimes people mistake kindness for weakness. My mom and dad taught me that at a very young age. But they also taught me to always say please and thank you, and that those two words will take you a long way in your life. Anybody that is even remotely successful has had the help of a lot of people, typically a village. So, I have always thought about how I got the opportunities that I got and realized that I didn’t do it on my own. A lot of it had to do with how people wanted to help. I think people want to help people that they like being around, that they feel a connection to. I think the more successful you are, the more you have to say thank you and be appreciative of the people who helped you get to that next level.”
The current season is Whitfield’s 18th as the Hornets’ president. He’s brought a community focus back to the organization through charitable events, partnerships and themed nights at Spectrum Center. Fans feel connected to the team.
“We’ve reimagined the fan experience. It’s more family-friendly and welcoming to every demographic. It’s intentional that we play rock ’n’ roll, R&B, hip-hop, country. We play something for everybody, and Hugo has as big a brand in the arena [as] our players.”
On the business side, Whitfield has forged long-term lucrative partnerships for ticketing, entertainment and broadcast rights. And he’s worked to elevate Charlotte’s profile on the national and international stage, teaming with city leaders and other CEOs to promote the region to economic-development prospects. He successfully lobbied to repeal HB2, making it possible for the Queen City to host the 2019 NBA All-Star Game. He also played critical roles in bringing the 2019 ACC men’s basketball tournament, the 2020 Republican National Convention, and the 2012 Democratic National Convention to Charlotte. In May, Whitfield received the Charlotte Business Journal’s Most Admired CEO Lifetime Achievement Award, and later this month, he’ll receive the North Carolina Award, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the state and awarded to a select few.
Whitfield is humbled by the accolades, instead praising his colleagues (“an unbelievable team that is there every day making sure our business keeps moving forward”) and what he says is a talented and impassioned local business community. “Charlotte has everything that a great community should have, and our quality of life just continues to improve because we all have been and are focused on how we can make this place better.”
Whitfield’s personal passion is helping ensure at-risk and underprivileged youth in the community can have a bright future. His nonprofit HoopTee Charities provides academic scholarships for four students (two boys and two girls) for all four years of high school at Charlotte Country Day School and Providence Day School. The nonprofit also just announced a new partnership with the John Crosland School to fund two scholarships to underprivileged students (one boy and one girl) in grades K-6.
Part of HoopTee Charities, Whitfield’s Achievements Unlimited basketball school has provided more than 15,000 underserved kids the opportunity to attend a one-week summer camp at no cost. Begun in his hometown of Greensboro 38 years ago, the program moved to Charlotte in 2011 and is now held at Charlotte Country Day School. It blends the hardwood with the blackboard and features prominent sports figures and business leaders, character-building messages, and daily vocabulary quizzes.
Photos courtesy of Fred Whitfield and Hornets Sports & Entertainment: Adam Silver, Michael Jordan and Fred Whitfield; 2023 HoopTee Legends Dinner at Steak48; Whitfield giving a talk during an Achievements Unlimited basketball school
“We bus the kids from various areas in Charlotte,” Whitfield says. “We work with the Boys and Girls Club, the Police Activities League, the YMCA and more. They get breakfast and lunch, great fundamental basketball training, and life lessons. There is an anti-drug message. We teach the importance of education.” The school also invites CEOs and entrepreneurs to visit and share their stories. “Successful people that look like them, and that’s important because it helps them to dream. A lot of them have never even been out of their zip code.
“I pretty much have dedicated my life to it, and I love it,” says Whitfield, adding that he plans to continue his philanthropic work as long as he’s living. “Forget the fact that I’m an NBA president and all that stuff, and I have won all these awards and whatever. It’s about seeing kids 20 years later that came to our camp, and they’re a military officer or they’re a doctor or they’re a lawyer, a schoolteacher, a fireman. And they’re thrilled and having a great life and they say, ‘I remember [learning] all those vocabulary words at your basketball camp — that’s when I really started to realize how important school was.’
“For me, that’s what I hope, if anything, I will be remembered for.” SP
Comments have been edited for length.
I feel like I’m at home in SouthPark. It sort of has a city feel but a suburban feel as well. It’s a vibrant community. It has everything that you would want. Great restaurants, great shopping —obviously the best shopping in town. It is easy to get to the airport. I can get to the arena in 15-20 minutes any time of day going the back way. It’s just great people, great neighbors.
Favorite dining spots:
We’ve become regulars at Firebirds, BrickTop’s, Toscana, Village Tavern, CharBar 7 and Selwyn Pub. For special occasions, Steak 48 is our absolute favorite. (Whitfield’s go-to meal at Steak 48 — not found on the menu — is the wagyu butcher’s cut ribeye with corn, sweet potatoes and creamed spinach.)
Favorite grocery store:
The Harris Teeter at Morrocroft.
What does SouthPark need?
A five-star hotel. We have a lot of great hotels in Charlotte and around SouthPark, but I think this area needs some of that caliber.
What do you miss or would you bring back?
Manzetti’s! It was where Paco’s Tacos is now. They had great food and a great atmosphere.
Online extra: Watch the video to hear what Whitfield has to say about the NCAA’s NIL policy, the one time he was fired, and whether he always thought MJ would become the GOAT.