The 6'7" Burrell, who pitched in the Toronto Blue Jays' farm system for parts of three summers while at the University of Connecticut, is arguably Charlotte's best all-around athlete and inarguably its biggest cutup. "Scottie's like a full-grown Dennis the Menace," says forward Kenny Gattison. Burrell has been known to put on a wig and impersonate comic Flip Wilson's Geraldine, and he's a Jim Carrey aficionado. "I think he must have the script of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective memorized," says Gattison.
The Hornets showed how confident they were that Burrell would emerge as a solid player at small forward by trading Kendall Gill to the Seattle SuperSonics before last season and shipping Johnny Newman to the New Jersey Nets (he's now with the Milwaukee Bucks). "It definitely helped to know they believed in me," Burrell says.
If Burrell is Charlotte's off-the-court jester, third-year pro Mourning is its dark prince. He is admired around the league for the fury with which he plays, but he's also been criticized for occasionally letting that rage burn out of control. If there had been statistics kept on stare-downs and chest-to-chest confrontations with opponents during his first two years, the combative Mourning surely would have been among the league leaders. His low point came last season when with five games left and the Hornets making a last-ditch playoff run, he was heaved from a game for fighting with Bull center Luc Longley. It was Mourning's fourth ejection of the season. Without him, Charlotte lost to Chicago—it was the Hornets' only defeat in a crucial 10-game stretch at the end of the season—and ultimately missed the playoffs by two games.
But this season Mourning has displayed a newfound maturity, walking away from confrontations that in his first two years might have led to technical fouls (Mourning was called for 18 T's last season but has only six so far in '94-95) or worse. "Zo has finally realized that when you're one of the top-five centers in the league, you don't have to go out and prove it with an overly aggressive attitude," says Gattison. "When you're the baddest dude on the block, you don't need to keep reminding everybody."
Mourning, who through Sunday was leading the Hornets in scoring and rebounding with 20.5 and 9.8 per game, respectively, credits an off-season trip to South Africa with fellow former Georgetown centers Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo with helping him grow as a person and a player. "I got a chance to see the conditions under which some people live over there," he says. "It helped me realize what's important and what only seems important. I don't think you can make a trip like that and not come back a more mature person than you were when you left. I've found out that I can play with the same emotions and keep them under control."
If Mourning needs any reminders about how to exhibit maturity and maintain control, he need look no further than Parish, the league's oldest player. There are nights when Parish is exactly the experienced backup center the Hornets were looking for when they signed him to a two-year contract last summer, and there are other nights when he looks every one of his 41 years. But his contributions as a locker-room leader are a constant. "Robert's like the guy in the Kung Fu series," Bristow said early in the season. "They ask, 'What hand is the stone in?' And you're thinking he'll say the right or the left, and instead he says, 'It's in the hand it should be in.' And you're thinking, Oh, man, that was the best answer."
When Johnson was out with a foot injury in the preseason, the Hornets began running one of his favorite plays for Parish. Some of the other Hornets were needling Johnson in practice about Parish taking his play, but Parish said exactly the right thing. He smiled and said, "No, LJ. I'm just keeping it warm for you."
As it turns out, that is exactly what Parish was doing, because Johnson is now as good as new in most areas. His injury woes began when he suffered a herniated disk in a July charity game after the 1992-93 season, and things grew worse in December '93 when he tore a ligament in his back and ruptured another disk in a game against the Detroit Pistons. He wound up missing 31 games last season, and he wasn't himself in most of the other 51, as his scoring average dropped from 22.1 to 16.4 and his rebounding fell from 10.5 to 8.8. But the numbers didn't indicate the way his trademark explosiveness had been drained from his game because the damaged disks had caused a weakening in his right leg. They didn't show the frustration of having to shoot fallaway jumpers in situations that before the injuries would have led to powerful dunks.
Johnson finished last season on the injured list and went home to Dallas for a summer of rehab (SI, Oct. 10, 1994). He came to training camp feeling healthy, but unsure of how well his back would hold up. "He had to get past the mental barrier of not knowing if his body was going to fail him," Parish says. "Once he broke that down, you knew LJ was going to be all right, and if LJ's all right, we're all right."
But it remains to be seen whether the Hornets will be all right the rest of the season (they started their current brutal six-game Western swing with two losses) or in the playoffs. Johnson hasn't been quite the re-bounder he was before his injuries, and Charlotte would have liked to have acquired another rebounding forward before last week's trading deadline. But the Hornets couldn't make a deal, and their weakness on the boards could catch up with them in the playoffs. But perhaps Charlotte has a trick or two up its sleeve for the postseason, as Johnson does for getting his teammates into his barber chairs. "The first cut will be free, just to get them hooked," he says, winking. "Then—bam!—20 dollars a pop."