Time Warner Cable Arena was packed with 19,000-seat crowds in late March and early April. Playoff talk was realistic. Fans were excited and engaged. The Bobcats, who have struggled on the court and on the balance sheets, were relevant.
"It was fun to come to games," Mohammed said, eyes blazing with anticipation. "I want to see it [again]."
So do the Bobcats, who need that success -- and the financial surge that often comes with it -- more than at any time in their brief history.
The five-year-old franchise has made as many headlines for financial conundrums as it has for anything related to its basketball product. There have been layoffs and cash calls to investors, eight-figure financial losses and explorations of a sale. The recent recession has undermined the team's value and chopped its owner's personal wealth in half, while financial considerations have been tied to trades and drawn-out contract negotiations.
Yet Charlotte returns most of a team that made a credible run at the playoffs last season and enters this year believing it has a reasonable shot at the postseason. Coach Larry Brown returns, bringing instant credibility to a team that is low on star power but is filled with veterans who have played key roles on successful teams.
"We know that if you want the fans to come, you need to win some games and you need at least something exciting about our games," Bobcats forward Boris Diaw said. "And I think we can bring that. We know it's very important. We're going to do our best anyway to win games, but definitely because it's a tough time right now."
Tough time? The franchise has experienced little else since its inception.
The market itself was tough considering the circumstances and competition the franchise bought into. The NBA brand was already soiled by the Hornets' bitter departure two years earlier. The NFL's Carolina Panthers had just come off a Super Bowl run, and the soon-to-be national champion North Carolina Tar Heels were just up the road. Davidson University soon started making its own national headlines across town with Stephen Curry, and NASCAR's popularity was omnipresent.
With the Bobcats laboring through losing seasons and struggling to establish a connection with a tepid community, fans had few reasons to pay them attention. The hiring of Michael Jordan to lead the front office drew buzz for a time, but no one buys tickets to see a legend in a suit. Attendance has steadily declined, and even the enthusiasm that gripped the team for the final weeks of last season didn't prevent the Bobcats from drawing the second-lowest seasonal attendance in their history.
"You look at the end of the day, you're a season-ticket holder, the economy's bad, you have your money, who are you going to buy season tickets for? An average team, or a team that's winning?" forward Gerald Wallace said. "It makes sense at the end of the day."
But the Bobcats' struggles have extended well beyond the typical expansion-team growing pains. There were early decisions that turned into costly blunders, such as a joint venture with Time Warner Cable to establish a regional network, Carolinas Sports and Entertainment Television. When the network failed after its first year, the Bobcats were stuck with a long-term deal with Time Warner, which withheld broadcasts from other cable networks and satellite companies. The lack of visibility -- a vital need for the fresh face in town -- made it difficult for the franchise to cultivate a fan base.
Fissures in the team's financial foundation began developing after only a couple of years. Team owner Robert Johnson said the franchise lost $50 million in its first four years, and complained that area business leaders did not follow through on their pledges to invest in the franchise. Layoffs followed, along with projections of continued losses.
Johnson started exploring a sale of the team last spring, shortly after Forbes reported that his personal fortune -- which was estimated at $1.3 billion when he bought the team -- had plunged to $550 million. Investment groups reportedly showed interest, but a firm deal has yet to emerge and substantial penalties in the team's lease restrict a move to another market.
These are the headlines that have dominated the Bobcats' existence. Not meaningful victories, developing stars or anticipation of success. Just a stream of unsettling news that has even attached itself to minor successes, always offering a sidebar of perspective. And that's why the franchise is desperate for something -- anything -- to draw the focus away from the problems.
Bobcats president and chief operating officer Fred Whitfield believes there is hope on the business end. The problematic broadcasting rights were wrestled back last year as part of the naming-rights deal for the arena, allowing the Bobcats to add 800,000 households to their footprint through a new regional network. Refinancing the team's debt also helped repair relationships with area corporations, he said.
With a polished pitch to praise attractive amenities and pricing adjustments in the arena, Whitfield said the team is better positioned to capitalize on what it hopes is budding community interest. Now he needs the basketball end to catch up.
"If you look at the way we finished the season, if you saw the energy that was in the building at that time, when people thought we had a chance at making the playoffs, you know, it's gradually coming," Whitfield said. "I don't think we would've been able to maximize it [previously]. I think we would've played at a different level business-wise, but I think now we're poised to take advantage if the team gets out of the box hot."
But are the Bobcats ready to win? Players freely admit that the team lacks a true franchise player, and the balance sheets still govern personnel decisions. Negotiations with starting point guard Raymond Felton dragged on until the week before training camp opened, when the fifth-year point guard agreed to the minimum qualifying offer. And while the Bobcats laud the offseason trade of starting center Emeka Okafor to New Orleans for Tyson Chandler, whom they consider to be a more athletic and versatile center, it didn't escape notice that the move also relieved the franchise of the final five years and more than $60 million remaining on Okafor's contract.
The Bobcats have now completely made over their roster, retaining only three players since Brown was hired last year. And despite their financial restraints, the moves led to improvement on the court, as the addition of veteran role players such as Raja Bell, Diaw and DeSagana Diop reshaped the Bobcats into a team that better fit Brown's defensive and ball-sharing philosophy.
The result was a short run of success that gave the beleaguered franchise hope. After falling to 22-35 shortly following the All-Star break, the Bobcats went 12-5 in late February and March and clawed their way back to the brink of the postseason. With success finally providing a draw, three of the final four home games drew capacity crowds and players could sense the community embracing the franchise. With the core of that roster intact, players are hopeful that the momentum can carry over.
It may not be that simple, though. Other Eastern Conference playoff no-shows, such as Toronto and Washington, aggressively upgraded their teams over the summer and may have bypassed Charlotte in the postseason pecking order. Still, the franchise is optimistic that the playoffs are within reach and that a successful year can help it tap into the community enthusiasm it started developing last season.
"Find a city that wouldn't rally around a team that's winning," said Wallace, who pointed to the euphoria created by the Detroit Lions' victory on Sept. 27 that snapped a 19-game losing streak. "They just had a parade [for the Lions]."
The Bobcats aren't looking for a parade. They just need a little success to help them connect with their city, and hope it can trickle down to their bottom line.