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Christian Laettner

Christian Laettner

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DURHAM For college basketball fans, Christian Laettner and Brian Davis are glorified chapters in Duke University sports history -- teammates who won back-to-back championships in a record four consecutive trips to the Final Four.

When Laettner sank his famous 17-foot buzzer-beater, propelling the Blue Devils over Kentucky on their way to the 1992 championship, Davis was cheering on the sidelines.The two have since teamed up in the business arena.

And although that college success has opened doors for the former Duke stars as they look for good fortune off the court, the tandem's long shots at development and professional sports team ownership rattle the rim.The duo, which led a $170million effort to convert an abandoned tobacco factory into a thriving mix of restaurants and offices and apartments in the heart of the Bull City, faces at least five lawsuits for failing to pay more than $6million to friends and associates.Their financial straits have prompted questions about the anticipated completion of that project, West Village.

Now, efforts to test the model in other parts of the country are on ice.Their journey from the hard court to the boardroom to the courtroom, detailed in interviews with former business partners and in lawsuits filed during the past 15 years, give a glimpse of the big money, big egos and big-time successes and failures of professional athletes who try to make it big in the business world."The whole confidence factor with athletes, it is at a very high level.

And their greatest strengths become their greatest weaknesses if they're not careful," said Anthony Dilweg, a former Duke quarterback who, after leaving the NFL, formed a successful Durham development firm.

"They think they can pull things off.

And a lot of times people like to bet against them."The triumphs and tribulations of the high-profile players also provide insight into the free flow of money, ideas and ambitious real estate during the mid-2000s, when dollars for developers oozed from every pore of the economy.And they underscore the challenges and obstacles of building in these dire economic times.Their struggles are not unique.

As lenders have tightened credit, the lifeblood of commercial real estate, some of the most seasoned developers have been forced to bench projects.

These were not seasoned developers.

Instead, they were just a couple of guys who aimed high in life, expecting success."There's been three steps forward, one step back, five steps forward, one step back," Laettner said in an interview Friday.

"You win some championships, you lose some games.

But you keep trying to win."Financing the ideasLaettner and Davis reached the pinnacle of their sport.

Both played in the NBA after Duke.

Laettner played for 13 years on various teams; Davis for one.Armed with a sense of accomplishment, they tried to beat the odds with an ambitious plan near their alma mater.Davis and Laettner hooked up with Tom Niemann, a Duke business school grad.

They formed Blue Devil Ventures in 1995, and drew up plans to renovate factories abandoned by the tobacco companies that made the city hum for generations.The kind of project they envisioned -- renovating historic buildings for new uses -- is considered one of the most difficult to pull off, even for the most talented developers.

And being in what at the time was a burnt-out downtown, the plan didn't get much support from investors and lenders, Davis recalled in a recent interview.

So they poured their own money into the project, and turned to friends for more.During the course of his NBA career, Laettner's total contracts were worth at least $60 million.

Laettner and Davis, whose professional careers included a year in France and one with Laettner on the Minnesota Timberwolves, credit their legacy at Duke with their ability to get the project off the ground.

It gave them a foot in a door that likely would have been closed to lesser-known developers.

"Without it," Davis said, "it would have been impossible."Once complete in 2000, the apartments carved out of those brick husks were snapped up by graduate students and employees in downtown and nearby Research Triangle Park who were willing to pay hefty rates."It proved two major things," said Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., a nonprofit liaison between developers and city officials.

"One, that people would live downtown and really enjoy it, and secondly, that you could do a very big project in downtown and be profitable."Riding the success of that project, Laettner, Davis and Niemann embarked on a major expansion of West Village, including 366 apartments, and 234,000 square feet of offices, labs, restaurants and shops.

In 2004, they were able to lure dollars from Wall Street investors including Rhahime Bell, the best man at Davis' wedding.By then, their roles were established.

Laettner was the main money man.

Niemann was the on-the-ground manager.

And Davis, although he doesn't like the description, was the affable salesman for the vision.

But their ideas about the direction of the company differed.Buoyed by initial success in Durham and an increasingly fluid lending environment, Laettner and Davis shifted their gaze to restoring crumbling buildings in the blighted parts of other inner cities, rather than focusing on finishing in Durham first.

They bought sites in Baltimore, and near Temple University in Philadelphia, and had designs on many more cities.

Davis talked up plans for a hotel in Miami, and had "visions of being 'the black [Donald] Trump,'" according to a company history distributed by a New York publicist in 2005, as Blue Devil started to break ground on the second phase of West Village.Along the way, though, Laettner and Davis frustrated partners with their lack of focus.

With ambitious real estate projects already under way, Laettner and Davis sought to invest in sports teams with an eye toward developing near their stadiums.

The duo bought a small stake in the D.C.

United Major League Soccer team.

But other efforts did not gain serious traction.

Plans for the second phase of West Village were delayed until late 2006.About that time, the two had agreed to a combined $40million to buy the Memphis Grizzlies, with Davis pledging to put in more than half to become the youngest majority partner in an NBA ownership.NBA displeasedLater that month, when Davis was still trying to pull together the money, a reporter from The Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper, asked the player about his net worth for an article on Oct.

8, 2006.

"Between a dollar and 50million," Davis answered.

By that time, though, big players in the sports business were wondering whether the bid was just smoke blowing from Tobacco Road.Davis reportedly needed to produce about $31million in cash to close the sale.When the pair couldn't deliver, the deal fell apart with NBA executives issuing stern words about the stumble.Their desire to be big players in various arenas off the court appear to have clashed with Niemann's desire to focus on the niche of historic renovation."Brian has a lot of ideas, and he may get tired of people not executing them," said Eddie Belk, a Durham architect who worked on the early stages of the West Village project.

He said dealing with the partners wasn't easy.

At the time, "Christian was very actively playing basketball and wasn't there a lot, so in that sense, he was the easiest."Frustration between Davis and Niemann came to a head in June 2006 at a lunch meeting in a downtown seafood restaurant.

The partners had begun closing on properties for the second phase of West Village that day.

Harsh words led to a scuffle, which was neutralized after Davis, who is 6-foot-7, picked up all 5 feet 8 inches of Niemann.Niemann dismisses the incident as "boys being boys," adding that the two made up soon after.

But he called it a critical moment in their relationship.Soon after, Niemann began investing in renovation projects in small towns along the East Coast, without Davis and Laettner.

Davis formed Blue Devil Partners, an entity that excluded Niemann.

Davis said that the partnership -- "51 percent me, 49 percent Christian" -- was an effort "to keep it simple."But what has come since forming Blue Devil Partners has not been simple -- despite early success at West Village.Ninety-nine percent of the 455 apartments are full and fetching high rents, and 80 percent of the offices are leased.

But plans to renovate the six-story Art Deco Chesterfield building with 157 apartments, almost 70,000 square feet of offices and ground-floor shops, are delayed.City leaders and residents, meanwhile, are crossing their fingers for a completed connection between the city center and an established downtown entertainment hub, Brightleaf Square.

The city committed $2.9million in economic incentives to the project.

But it has doled out only $222,690 thus far, and won't give away more unless certain deadlines are met.

"If we get two out of three with this dynamic trio, with the personalities involved and the economy the way it is, that's fine," said Eugene Brown, a Durham city council member.But lenders and associates want their money back -- and have gone to court to recoup more than $6million.

And that could complicate the completion of their Durham project.LawsuitsIn April, Chevron sued in federal court, alleging that Blue Devil Ventures had not repaid $1.5million lent to redevelop the Chesterfield Building.

Chevron lawyers declined to comment.In a separate suit, a Maryland company led by Shawne Merriman, a Pro Bowl linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, accuses Laettner and Davis of failing to abide by terms of a $3million loan and a settlement reached last year in federal court."While Shawne would have preferred these matters to have been resolved amicably, the lawsuit has been brought to protect Shawne's business interests and the interests of his company," Merriman's lawyers said in a statement.On May 14, a federal judge in Washington ordered Ball Street Ventures, another development company Davis and Laettner are associated with, to pay $687,230 plus interest to Bryan K.


Simms claimed he was owed the money as compensation.Davis, court documents say, persuaded Simms, an associate of the two from Duke, to leave his job as a vice president at Lehman Brothers to take a seven-figure job at Ball Street.

Simms declined to comment.In 2007, two other investments groups sued the two, complaining of abandoned loan settlements.'Do it great'Davis says he can't discuss the lawsuits in detail.

He says he was surprised by a few of them, perhaps hurt.

"Friends in business sometimes doesn't always work out as it should," he said.All the claims have been addressed, he said, adding that "a couple have actually been settled, and we're taking care of everything in terms of no litigation, no courtrooms, and paying everything in full."Davis seems to have learned from the experience, or rather he has learned to apply to business a lesson he learned from coach Mike Krzyzewski in the locker room at Duke: Keep it simple.He doesn't speak as easily about chasing sports teams and other deals in other cities, as he did in 2006, when he was in town to kick off the second phase of West Village.

He says he wants to finish up in Durham, and then move on to Baltimore when the time is right.

"Understand that we can't do everything," he said "If you're going to do it, do it great.

But don't do too much.

And that's what I'm trying to do."We actually have said 'no' to a lot of things," he continued.

"But we've said 'yes' to things that we love.

And we're going to continue doing that.

The lesson is, 'keep it simple, and just work.'" [email protected] or 919-932-8741
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