Retired NBA star Jermaine O’Neal is suing DFW International Airport over what he says are unrealized aspirations for a retail and entertainment district where the basketball player built his Drive Nation Sports youth athletics complex.
In the lawsuit filed this week in Dallas County court, O’Neal said that he’s sunk $14 million into building the Drive Nation training academy — which has helped nurture young NBA stars such as Cade Cunningham and Tyrus Maxey — but that the airport never followed through on promises to build a thriving development around it.
That’s left participants in the sports complex with few nearby options, even though the airport is benefiting from athletes and families flying in from around the world, lawyer Victor Vital said. Vital said damages amount to at least $10 million.
“They essentially sold them a bill of goods,” said Vital, an attorney with Barnes and Thornburg in Dallas. “The lawsuit was filed by Drive Nation because DFW Airport lured them into the lease with empty promises.”
DFW Airport spokesman Brian Brooks said the airport is aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment further.
O’Neal was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers, blossomed into a star with the Indiana Pacers, and spent 18 years in the NBA. He was a six-time NBA All-Star and three-time All-NBA player before retiring in 2014.
Even with no ties to North Texas, O’Neal settled in Southlake after his career ended and in 2017 opened the Drive Nation complex, a 91,000-square-foot training facility that has several basketball courts and hosts tournaments and training for youth teams.
“This is really for young people to sharpen their skills and to learn life lessons too,” O’Neal said in an interview.
The facility hosts about 60,000 people a year, mostly for tournaments and camps on the weekends. About 500 kids and teenagers train there regularly.
O’Neal claims he hasn’t made anything back on his $14 million investment at Drive Nation, which was financed by the $168 million he made during his NBA career.
The facility has thrived and expanded into hosting youth volleyball training as well as a charter school focused on student-athletes. Drive Nation’s youth basketball travel team, playing in the Nike Elite league, has hosted a handful of NBA players, including Cunningham of the Detroit Pistons, Maxey of the Philadelphia 76ers, and RJ Hampton of the Orlando Magic, as well as a handful of high-profile college players.
In the lawsuit, O’Neal said he nearly built Drive Nation in Keller to be the anchor of a development there, but was lured by DFW Airport commercial development chief John Terrell with the promise that the complex would be at the center of a mixed-use development featuring hotels, restaurants and retail next to one of the world’s busiest airports.
Drive Nation signed a lease, agreeing to pay the airport $145,000 to $445,000 annually for 40 years on 16 acres, about half of which is undeveloped but can be used for sporting events.
But six years after it opened, Drive Nation is surrounded by industrial warehouses, with fading hopes of creating a retail-friendly district.
“That promise could not have been further from the truth: Today, Drive Nation’s multi-million dollar sports facility is on an island, surrounded by a sea of warehouses and a single Whataburger connected to a gas station,” the lawsuit said. “This is far from the mixed-use development that DFW pledged to entice Drive Nation to sign the lease.”
The lawsuit states that O’Neal’s team reached out to connect Terrell with former MGM Resorts executive Alex Yemenidjian about a desire “to bring legal gambling to the area,” but nothing ever came of the talks. Casino gambling proposals have been defeated every time they’ve gone before Texas voters.
A Hyatt Place hotel is nearby, as are a Starbucks and Whataburger attached to a gas station, but none of that is within the “Passport Park” development area the airport pitched when Drive Nation was negotiating, the lawsuit states.
O’Neal also had a deal to sell Drive Nation, but that fell apart when DFW wouldn’t extend the terms of the lease by 15 years, according to the suit.
“The emphasis is not so much on Drive Nation as on the intended beneficiaries of the sports complex, which are the young athletes and their families,” Vital said. “The tournaments at the Drive Nation complex are important events in the lives of these young athletes and their families, and they should be able to go out to eat and celebrate nearby when they are here.”