After the Charlotte Hornets traded center Alonzo Mourning to the Miami Heat on the day the NBA season opened, the mural depicting Mourning and two teammates, guard Muggsy Bogues and forward Larry Johnson, on the side of the First Union Bank building in downtown Charlotte became a painful, nine-story reminder of what the Hornets once were. Some irate fans suggested that a dollar sign be painted over Mourning, in reference to Mourning's demand for a $13 million-a-year deal. But it was decided to whitewash the entire mural and come up with a new design.
Charlotte, 50-32 last season, is doing roughly the same thing on the court, abandoning its old power game for a perimeter attack. "We can't really replace Zo with any one guy," says Johnson, who with Mourning's departure has stepped up his scoring average to 24.6 from 19.4 last season. "We just have to come at people a little differently, take a new approach."
The Hornets first have to overcome a Mourning-after malaise. Charlotte lost eight of its first 11 games this season before putting together a four-game winning streak. But then the Hornets dropped two tough contests late last week, including a 108-101 overtime loss to Mourning and Miami on Friday, to fall to 7-10.
Mourning's absence has been most apparent on defense. Charlotte's three centers, Matt Geiger (who came to the Hornets with guard Khalid Reeves and swingman Glen Rice in the Mourning trade), 42-year-old Robert Parish and rookie George Zidek, can't begin to match Mourning's ability to block shots and intimidate penetrators. It is no coincidence that through Sunday the Hornets ranked last in the league in field goal defense, allowing opponents to shoot 49.9%, and tied for 25th in points allowed (106.7).
Offensively, Rice has been his usual sharp-shooting self, averaging more than 22 points. But Reeves struggled mightily in his first several games with the Hornets and was close to falling out of the rotation before snapping back to average more than 14 points during Charlotte's winning streak.
None of Mourning's former teammates seem angry at him for rejecting Hornet owner George Shinn's offer of $78.4 million over seven years and forcing a trade. But during a television interview last week Johnson reacted angrily to the suggestion that the 12-year, $84 million contract he signed two years ago set a seemingly unreasonable standard that led to Mourning's rich demands.
However, Shinn did give Johnson a deal that was far out of line with the NBA's salary structure at the time. In doing so, Shinn painted the Hornets into a corner with Mourning. As Charlotte casts about for a new identity, all the whitewash in the world won't hide that fact.