Still, it is Mashburn's endgame that has stood out the most. He has been so effective in the clutch that the other Hornets can't agree on which late-game performance was his best. Brown votes for the three-pointer against the Sixers. "We were down five, and I got an offensive rebound" he says. "Mash called for the ball. All he said was 'P.J.,' but the way he said it was like a command. From the second I passed him the ball I had no doubt his shot was going in"
Silas thinks Mashburn's breakthrough came during a 103-93 win in Milwaukee on Feb. 17. "Mash took over in the second half and just demolished those guys," Silas says. "I turned to my assistants and said, 'Mash has made it. He's there now.' "
But Mashburn's body of work in the clutch won't convince everybody until he rises to the occasion in the playoffs. It was, after all, in the postseason last year that those who doubted his ability to perform under pressure felt they had their suspicions confirmed. With Miami trailing the New York Knicks 83-82 in Game 7 of the ' Eastern Conference semifinals Mashburn passed up a 16-foot jump shot in the closing seconds, dishing the ball to Clarence Weatherspoon, who missed a difficult shot, and the Heat was eliminated.
"In that system, with the way I was asked to play, that was the right play," Mashburn says. "Coach Riley always stressed he wanted us to make the extra pass. If Spoon makes that shot, I'm a hero for being unselfish, and maybe things work out differently for me in Miami." Instead, Mashburn took lacerating criticism from fans and media. One columnist described him as "looking somewhere between timid and terrified" on that last possession.
"I sat in the locker room after that game pretty much knowing I had played my last game for Miami, and I was actually happy," Mashburn says. "It always seemed like whatever I did, it wasn't enough. I had some good games and made some big shots against Detroit in the first round last year, but after the Knicks series it was like no one had any memory of that. I learned some things from Coach Riley, and I'm glad I played for him, but I was just as glad to get out of there."
He didn't get the impression that all his Miami teammates were sorry to see him go, either. Mashburn remembers attending 'Zo's Summer Groove, an annual charity event held by Heat center Alonzo Mourning last July, and hearing Miami point guard Tim Hardaway lead the fans at American Airlines Arena in chanting, "Ed-die! Ed-die!"—an indication of how much they wanted the trade for Jones to go through. "There was always a little friction between Hardaway and me," Mashburn says. "He said and did some things that I didn't appreciate, things that showed he wasn't really committed to me as a teammate."
Hardaway thinks Mashburn is blaming the wrong person for his problems in Miami. " Eddie Jones is a shooting guard, and Mashburn's a small forward," Hardaway says. "If he felt Eddie Jones was coming in to take his position, that tells you he was lacking confidence in himself."
Even the adversity he faced in Miami had its benefits. "It toughened me and made me a professional," says Mashburn. "Hearing all the criticism, seeing my name thrown around in trade rumors all the time, it all helped me learn how to put other issues aside when I step on the court. That really helped me in dealing with my mother's cancer."
When Mashburn arrived in Charlotte, Silas addressed his self-confidence immediately, and the coach has diligently massaged his new forward's psyche. "I told him it doesn't take a lot of guts to take the last shot, when you think about it," Silas says. "I've told him stories about when I was playing with the Celtics back in the '70s and Dave Cowens, John Havlicek and Jo Jo White almost used to fight over who was going to take the big shot. They knew that if you make it, you're a hero, and if you don't, you at least get credit for having guts enough to take it. I think that eased Mash's mind a little bit."
Mashburn's mind won't fully be at ease until his mother gets a clean bill of health, but his game and his resolve are stronger than ever. He could hear the crowd noises coming down the hall as he sat at a table near the Hornets' locker room last Thursday. His teammates were hard at work out on the court against the Magic, but Mashburn was taking the evening off because of a bruised sternum he had suffered against the Minnesota Timberwolves two nights earlier, when he was accidentally hit by an elbow and felt a popping in his chest. "It scared me at first," Mashburn said, pat-' ting the area near his heart, "but they took some X-rays. Internally, I'm fine."