In some ways the Bobcats are the perfect team for Brown in that they are so manifestly imperfect, a lump of clay waiting to be shaped by the master artisan. "The things they don't know boggle my mind," says Brown. Such as? "Like when you're on the weak side [on defense] and you have to see man and ball. Like talking on defense. Like denying one pass away. Or if a guy drives baseline on you, how you have to fold back and take the big guy off the board. Like throwing it to the first open free man instead of faking to that guy. There's a reason he's open, right?" The list goes on, but time is short.
In other ways, though, the Bobcats are exactly wrong for Brown, or at least wrong for his prescribed team template. Brown likes to have three guards, two of them natural points, whom he can play together. He likes two athletic small forwards, one of whom can swing to power forward, one of whom can swing to two guard. He likes four long players up front who can shuttle interchangeably between power forward and center. He likes gutty guys who enjoy playing a singular role, the grizzled vet, the underdog. And he likes the ultrasmart player over the ultratalented player. The Bobcats—32--50 last season under fired coach Sam Vincent and 3--4 after Sunday's loss to the Raptors—are small, young, not particularly versatile, mistake-prone and rather soft.
Brown can be blunt ("We have serious deficiencies on this team," he says), but the key to figuring out what he really thinks is to listen to what he does not say. For example, he praises rookie point guard D.J. Augustin of Texas for his ability to pick up things on the fly, which is his way of suggesting that starting point guard Raymond Felton does not. ( Augustin says he takes care to be quick on the uptake "because what Coach Brown doesn't like is telling you something twice, and he likes it less and less the more he has to tell you.")
Behind the scenes Brown lobbies, as he always has, for personnel changes. He usually doesn't call Jordan first, but observes the chain of command above him that includes Higgins and director of player personnel Buzz Peterson. "Whatever I tell Buzz and Rod reaches Michael's ears anyway," he says.
At week's end, a three-way deal that would've sent Wallace to the Golden State Warriors and brought Knicks center Eddy Curry to Charlotte was apparently dead. But it's a near certainty that the Bobcats roster will not remain intact. Jordan said in his interview with the Observer that he believes his club as presently constructed is potentially a playoff team, but that is a stretch and he probably knows it. Wallace and shooting guard Jason Richardson are reliable scorers, but neither is a superstar who can carry a team. Emeka Okafor is a consistent double-double guy but will never be a dominating, elite center. The point guard battle between Felton and Augustin is unresolved. Brown seems to like both Morrison and Carroll, but neither has the length he prefers.
THERE ARE deeper questions about the franchise, however, than whether it will make the playoffs this spring. The relationship between team and fan base is tenuous; the attendance of 13,435 at last Friday's game carries with it the pointed adjective of announced. Six years ago, remember, the Hornets departed for New Orleans without much civic complaint. Does Johnson want to sell? Will local investors ever respond to his entreaties in this economic climate? Will Johnson sell to Jordan? Will the $100 million relocation penalty in the arena lease discourage an outside buyer?
And how committed is Jordan to the whole enterprise? Even before he reached out to Brown ( North Carolina class of '63), MJ had turned the Bobcats into a satellite UNC alumni club, hiring former Tar Heels roommate Peterson ('85) and assistant coach Phil Ford ('78). Brown added Dave Hanners ('76), Ford's backcourt mate, to his staff. In addition, Jordan hired Fred Whitfield, a longtime buddy, as the franchise's president and CEO, and tapped Higgins, a former Chicago Bulls teammate. All that doesn't necessarily spell doom, of course. Higgins is a smart man, and no one has ever questioned the coaching bona fides of a Dean Smith product. But it does raise the issue of whether Jordan makes hard personnel decisions or whether his legacy will be having made personal decisions.
Still, NBA commissioner David Stern says he is optimistic about the Bobcats' prospects, not least because Jordan is "deeply engaged." Stern, it should be noted, is not above looking into a cyclone and defining it as a soft, warming wind, and he may be stretching the word deeply to its breaking point. But ... who knows? Perhaps Jordan will stick with it, viewing the Bobcats as a chance for redemption from his front-office failures with the Washington Wizards.
And who's to say that Brown won't figure out a way to reach .500, something he has failed to do only four times in 35 seasons as a coach. One hesitates to call Brown content, but despite missing his family he feels at home in Charlotte, with his mother and two older daughters from a previous marriage close by and so many old friends from his days at UNC and as coach of the ABA Carolina Cougars. He loves the fact that "Coach [ Smith] is down the road" in Chapel Hill and available for counsel. And he loves those moments when he and Jordan share their bleeding-Tar-Heel-blue camaraderie, as when MJ called him in his New York City hotel room last week to say that he had registered as " Bobby Jones," a 1974 UNC grad and one of Brown's alltime favorite players.
Most of all, Brown loves the coaching, the daily dose of exquisite misery that has defined his life. But to what degree does Jordan share that love for his job? The answer might determine whether Brown and his team succeed in Charlotte.