Not nearly as nasty as the taste the exile from New York left in his mouth. "I felt betrayed," he says. "I'd been told I was part of the Knicks' foundation, then I was suddenly shipped out." He blames New York coach Jeff Van Gundy and center Patrick Ewing for his banishment. "Any coach who feels he has to please one player will cause a lot of animosity with the other 11," Mason says. As Mason sees it, his sin as a Knick was being too vocal about wanting the ball in the low post, Ewing's domain.
Mason believes he's a better player than Johnson, who averaged 20.5 points last season to Mason's 14.6. "I bring defense and passing," he argues. "What does Larry bring? Sure, he averaged six more points than me, but he took 600 more shots. I shot 56 percent from the floor; he shot 48." Mason is equally dismissive of the Knicks' chances, even with vaunted newcomers Johnson, point guard Chris Childs and shooting guard .Allan Houston. "A lot of other teams don't seem to be worried about them anymore," he says sharply.
While Divac holds no grudge against the Lakers, he was no less bitter about getting swapped. He was in Berlin working out with the Yugoslavian Olympic team when he read a USA Today account of his imminent trade. "I was really mad," Divac says. "I hated it. I didn't want to leave the Serbian community in L.A. I didn't want to wreck my wife's career."
His wife, Ana, an aspiring actress, flew to Germany to talk a few things over with her husband. Such as, if he refused to go to Charlotte and instead retired, as he was threatening to do, he stood to lose the nearly $8.5 million guaranteed in the final two years of his contract. "Vlade," she said evenly, "are you crazy?"
Vlade wasn't sure. "It took 10 days to calm down and think rationally," he says. "I thought I was leaving everything I had built in L.A, like my little backyard zoo. It has fishes and dogs and turtles and parakeets—10 parakeets, too many even to name."
Cowens countered zoology with psychology. "I talked to Coach Dave, and he told me Charlotte was a nice town and people there really like basketball," Divac says. "So I came to Charlotte and I thought, It's not that bad!"
What's good about Charlotte? "You don't see that fake smile you see in California," he says. Though Divac is renting a house in Charlotte, and Mason has bought one, neither is planting roots. Divac won't send for his family until he finds an elementary school he likes for Luka and his two-year-old brother, Matia. "L.A. is the only city I've ever felt homesick for," Divac says. "L.A. is part of me. When I leave, I miss everything."
Mason misses New York, too, but he is philosophical. "It all worked out for the best," he says. "I'm with an organization that wants me and a bunch of guys who welcome me. New York is still the liveliest city I know. In Charlotte, I can chill out [away] from all that electricity."
Even Antoine has come around. After Mase brought him down to see the houses and trees and stuff, Antoine announced, "Daddy, my favorite team is the Charlotte Hornets."