With their fans up in arms and a move on tap, the Hornets are a dispirited bunch
As a hoops-crazed state that made legends of Michael Jordan, Grant Hill, Jim Valvano and countless others, North Carolina should be a natural fit for an NBA team. So it is exceedingly strange that the Hornets are on the verge of forsaking Charlotte, their home of 14 years.
Make no mistake: Charlotte loves basketball. It just can't stand the Hornets' owners, George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge, who alienated their fan base and then asked voters to pay for a new arena. At week's end a franchise that led the league in attendance as recently as 1996-97 ranked second to last, with crowds of 11,124 per game—less than half of what it drew five years ago. According to a league source, Charlotte is losing more than $1 million a month because of the poor turnout.
The Hornets' uncertain future and the fans' indifference are affecting the players. Through Sunday, Charlotte was 9-9 on the road and 5-9 at the Coliseum. "We play our hearts out, and nobody's coming," says point guard Baron Davis, 22, an emerging star. "When you have a big crowd, a big atmosphere, you tend to focus more. We appreciate the fans who do come, but it's too comfortable for the opposing team."
"If we were drawing 15,000 to 18,000, would we play better? The answer is yes," says team president Bob Bass, though he cites the absence of forward Jamal Mashburn as the primary reason for the team's losing record. Mashburn, Charlotte's top offensive threat, has been sidelined since Nov. 20 with a lower abdominal strain. "He brought the ball up for us and initiated our offense 10 to 12 times a game," Bass says. "He usually did it while Baron was out of the game, and that helped David Wesley and the other guard come off picks for open shots."
The Hornets hope Mashburn can avoid surgery and spur a second-half run in the wide-open East. A decision on his surgery was expected this week, along with a prognosis for forward George Lynch, who is recovering from a broken left foot suffered before he was acquired from the 76ers in a preseason trade for Derrick Coleman. Lynch is a North Carolina alum, and the team hopes he will lure fans as well as shore up Charlotte's defense and rebounding.
This has been a far different season than would have been predicted last May 17, when the Hornets seized a 15-point second-quarter lead against Milwaukee in Game 6 of the conference semifinals. But the Bucks rallied to win and then took Game 7, and two weeks later, Charlotte voters rejected a referendum for a new arena for the Hornets, 57% to 43%.
Team officials believe that the vote was doomed by Mayor Pat McCrory, who had vetoed a minimum-wage bill shortly before the referendum, turning many voters against him and his support of the project. It's also worth noting that if the team had held its Game 6 lead, the vote would have been held while the Hornets were playing in the Eastern finals, which would have enhanced its chances of passing. "Things looked like they were starting to turn around," Davis says. "We were drawing 22,000-plus for the playoffs. Then they voted against us."
Usually the decline of a franchise's popularity has much to do with the boorishness or incompetence of the players. Not in this case. Now that Coleman is gone, no controversial players remain on the roster, and the team hasn't finished with a losing record in 10 seasons.
In Charlotte it comes down mainly to Shinn, who was vilified as a cheapskate for letting Alonzo Mourning walk as a free agent in 1995, and as a philanderer in the wake of revelations during his nationally televised 1999 civil trial for sexual assault. (He was acquitted.) Shinn has asked for public funds to build the arena, even though he moved to Florida and no longer pays North Carolina taxes. He declined to sell majority control of the team to Jordan three years ago, then two months later sold 35% to Wooldridge, an Atlantan whose inflexibility in negotiations with city officials has further estranged fans and voters.