The patch of urban paradise where Baron Davis learned to hoop was not your typical half-court layout. "You had grass, then a strip of cement that led to the garage, then grass again," says Davis, describing the idiosyncrasies of the small court in his grandparents' backyard in South Central Los Angeles. A young man who must dribble across two distinct surfaces on his way to the hole learns to be resourceful and resilient. Indeed, those words readily apply to the Charlotte Hornets and especially to Davis, their 6'3" point guard and the breakout player of this NBA postseason. A scorer lacking a shooter's touch, a quarterback with a blocking back's build, he has emerged as the leader of a team that has played the last two seasons with one melancholy eye on the half-filled seats in Charlotte Coliseum and the other on the open road.
Alas, the Hornets' resourcefulness and resiliency were not enough in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Sunday, when Jason Kidd, Davis's role model and a point guard cut from the same cloth (only a couple of inches more of it), led the New Jersey Nets to a 99-93 victory. Game 2 was scheduled for Tuesday, back at Continental Airlines Arena, where a less-than-capacity crowd of 19,071 at the opener produced something that almost passed for a playoff atmosphere. But Joisey was positively rollicking compared with what awaits the combatants in Charlotte. Between Thursday's Game 3 and Sunday's Game 4, NBA owners will almost certainly rubber-stamp their relocation committee's unanimous recommendation to allow the franchise to move to New Orleans next season. A total of 19,828 fans showed for Charlotte's two home playoff games against the Orlando Magic in the first round, and it's unlikely that many more will turn out for Round 2 against the Nets. "We don't know what to expect when we get home," says Davis, 23, "but, then, that's nothing new."
It's oddly fitting that the Hornets' move is likely to become official after their splendid four-game conquest of the Magic, which followed a gutsy push to the playoffs. Though Charlotte was the only team in the league with a better record on the road (23-18) than at home (21-20), it won 12 of its last 18 games at the Hive and was 21-13 overall after the All-Star break. Even as the local papers devoted more and more ink to the ever-escalating enmity between town and team, the players, under the steady hand of coach Paul Silas and the efficient multitasking of Davis (who averaged 18.1 points, 8.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals for the season), pulled together on the court. "All the negative stuff did affect us," says forward P.J. Brown, who, to his lasting regret, has become the players' unofficial spokesman on a topic they're sick to death of. "But at some point, without really talking about it, we sensed it was time to get over it, time to start playing. A lot of teams would've packed it in and made the excuse that they had all this turmoil, but we did a great job of hanging in there, and we're proud of that."
Perhaps the move can be chalked up to economic Darwinism, a city unwilling to replace its old arena losing out to one offering an updated building likely to bring in more cash. But it's unfortunate nonetheless, given Charlotte's initial support of the team and its reputation as a hoops hotbed. In their first 10 seasons the Hornets routinely packed the Coliseum (chart, page 69), but they finished last in attendance this season with an average of 11,286. Who's to blame?
How much time do you have?
The essence of the dispute is this: Hornets owners George Shinn (who holds 65% of the team) and Ray Woolridge (35%) wanted a new, $342 million facility with more club seats and corporate boxes to compete economically in the new NBA world. (Woolridge claims they have lost upward of $35 million over the last two years.) The city says that a June 2001 referendum in which voters soundly rejected the arena proves that the good folks of Charlotte don't want the tax burden of a new facility.
But the chain of events that led to the erosion of the fan base is much more complicated. Shinn was a Bible-thumping panjandrum until his 1999 trial for sexual assault of a Hornets employee became a main event on Court TV. He was acquitted, but the public-relations damage was irreparable. Three years ago Shinn brought in Woolridge, an Atlanta-based magnate of the modular construction industry, to do most of the negotiating with the city. Woolridge had an enormous hole to dig out of, but he was hardly handy with the spade. Comments like the one he made on Sunday haven't exactly endeared Woolridge to city officials: "The business and political leaders remember a time when simply filling the house made a team operationally sound, and, when it was necessary to join the rest of the world, the price tag was too high. The city of Charlotte is an anachronism."
The local press has, for the most part, bashed Shinn and Woolridge. "They were like a junkie brother who keeps coming to the house, wearing you down for loan after loan, until one day you lock your spine and kick him out," wrote Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson last week.
Still, it's hard to believe that three or four years from now the city fathers won't have some hard questions to answer. Should the New Orleans Hornets one day shimmy down Bourbon Street—beads around their necks, Davis hoisting the championship trophy—will the first thought among citizens of Charlotte be how much they despised the owners? Doubtful. Although Mayor Pat McCrory believes that another franchise will want to relocate to the Queen City, he has likely alienated commissioner David Stern with his remark about the league's having "lost Charlotte." Memo to hizzoner: If you want to keep the NBA embers glowing, it's essential to keep Big Dave in your corner.
Thankfully, by watching Kidd and Davis battle on Sunday one could momentarily ignore the pall hanging over the Hornets' final season in Charlotte. Davis's stat line (23 points, six rebounds, five assists, seven steals) was stuffed, as was Kidd's (21, seven, seven, one), but it was the Nets vet who took over in the final two minutes with three key baskets. By contrast, Davis didn't take a shot over the final 5:42 and didn't score over the last 10:44, as the Hornets went almost exclusively inside. That stratagem deprived Charlotte of its most potent weapon in its mastery of the Magic: employing Davis in high pick-and-rolls that enabled him to shoot, drive or dish. Still, the Hornets could take heart that they went to the wire against the East's top team without both their leading scorer, Jamal Mashburn, whose viral illness was expected to keep him out of Game 2 as well, and Jamaal Magloire ("best backup center in the NBA," says Davis), who was to be in the Game 2 mix after serving a one-game suspension for clotheslining Tracy McGrady in the Orlando series.