Charlotte coach Dave Cowens couldn't shake the feeling. "I kept wondering whether I was still part of this franchise," he says. "It had been kind of tense the past couple weeks."
The major source of tension was Cowens's announcement on March 7 that he considered himself a lame duck because owner George Shinn had already made it clear he would not pay Cowens market value when the coach's $675,000-a-year contract expired at the end of the season. So, on Sunday afternoon, Cowens, who had led the Hornets to consecutive 50-win seasons, confronted executive VP of basketball operations Bob Bass. "I asked Bob if there was a future for me here," Cowens says. "The response was no. So I said to him, 'Well, then, we've got problems.' "
Those problems were ironed out pretty quickly when Cowens resigned. So ended a frustrating year for Cowens, a year in which injuries destroyed his team and his public complaints about being the lowest-paid coach in the league destroyed his future with Charlotte. Cowens says Shinn had offered him a new contract last February that would have paid him $1.2 million this season, $1.4 million in 1999-00 and $1.6 million in '00-01. Although those figures still would have left him the NBA's lowest-paid coach, Cowens reluctantly signed the pact because he wanted his 18-year-old daughter, Samantha, to finish high school in North Carolina. When Cowens signed the contract but expressed his disappointment over the terms, Cowens says an infuriated Shinn rescinded the offer. Cowens did not go public with his unhappiness then, but the bad news kept coming. In training camp, the team learned that Glen Rice would be out six to eight weeks with an injured right elbow, and a few days before the season started Anthony Mason was lost for the year with a torn right biceps. As the losses piled up, so did Cowens's frustrations. By Sunday he felt his status had become too much of a distraction for his players.
"I couldn't go out every day with this team and give it a harassed effort," Cowens said on Sunday night. "I had to feel like I was in this for something bigger."
Cowens talked to his players before making his resignation official, and argued that he was not quitting on them, but rather giving them the chance to move forward under interim coach Paul Silas, his friend and top assistant. His players were surprised and confused. Cowens knows he will be criticized for abandoning them, but he wanted to leave with his integrity intact. "I told my players this had nothing to do with them," Cowens says. "They're beat up, but they haven't packed it in. They've played hurt. I also told them they don't have to defend me. I'm a big boy."
Cowens says it was important for him to know he could pursue another job next season, instead of worrying that the Hornets might hold him to the option year. "I'm taking a chance," he says. "But at least I have a little control now."
Why Can't Mitch Get Rich?
Veteran All-Star Mitch Richmond must be wondering what he did to anger the basketball gods. After toiling in Sacramento for seven seasons, a stretch in which the franchise's record was 221-353, Richmond finally slipped through the escape hatch last May when the Kings dealt him and Otis Thorpe to Washington for Chris Webber. So what happens? Sacramento drafts Williams, a Pete Maravich clone, and signs free-agent center Vlade Divac. Webber starts racking up career numbers, and the Kings become one of the NBA's most intriguing teams. The Wizards, meanwhile, find themselves in a familiar position: struggling and bickering. "It's pretty frustrating," Richmond says.
On paper Richmond, 33, and Rod Strickland, 32, give Washington the best backcourt in the league, but they haven't played to form yet. The Wizards also have an anemic front line, featuring Terry Davis and Ben Wallace in the middle. Juwan Howard is a solid player, but not the dominating force he's getting paid to be. Despite having Strickland and two former All-Stars in its lineup, Washington was 7-9 through Sunday.
The Wizards haven't helped their cause by sniping at one another. After a loss to Miami on Feb. 23, Howard publicly questioned coach Bernie Bickerstaff's defensive strategy. (He's lucky Bickerstaff didn't publicly question his tepid rebounding in return.) Strickland admits that tensions have run high as the losses have piled up, and speculation is already swirling about Bickerstaff's job security.