Luka Divac had spent his entire life--all five years of it--in
Los Angeles. But last summer his old man, Vlade, informed him:
"I've been traded by the Lakers, and I'm not going to play here
anymore. We're moving to Charlotte."
"No, Dad!" pleaded Luka. "I don't want to leave the United
Four-year-old Antoine Mason was no more eager to leave New York
City. After the Knicks dealt his dad, Anthony, to the Hornets
last summer, Antoine told his mother, "I love the New York
"Daddy's with the Hornets now," Mom said.
October 20, 1996
Antoine nodded and said, with the insouciance of a native New
Yorker, "Well, I love the New York Knicks."
If you think the sons were hard sells, you should have heard the
fathers. Both Vlade Divac, the Serbian-born center who adopted
L.A. as his hometown in 1989, and Anthony Mason, the
helicoptering homeboy raised in Queens whose smashmouth style
lit up Broadway for five seasons, were downright hostile to the
idea of moving to Charlotte. Neither wanted to leave the big
city for a place (pop. 395,934) that, in the geography of the
NBA, is the size of Muggsy Bogues. But soon after Charlotte
acquired Divac for the rights to first-round draft choice Kobe
Bryant and then dealt high-scoring forward Larry Johnson for
Mason (and forward Brad Lohaus), the reluctant Hornets
reconsidered. And now they are resigned to being exiles on Mint
Street. The Old South had the Mason-Dixon Line; the New South
has the Mason-Divac Front Line.
With his menacing mug and Etch-A-Sketch head, the bulky, hulky,
sometimes sulky Mason was a crowd favorite in Madison Square
Garden. A brutal defender, the 6'7", 250-pound forward is a guy
whom former Knicks coach Pat Riley twice suspended for "conduct
detrimental to the team"; who once joked that, upon retirement,
he planned to go into criminal justice, "except I ain't decided
what side yet"; and who still faces assault charges stemming
from a July confrontation with several Manhattan cops near Times
Square. Back in the living room of his New Rochelle, N.Y.,
split-level, he programmed an electronic device that continually
delivers the following message in red letters: SIT YOUR ASS DOWN
AND DON'T TOUCH S---.
If Mason is tough, Divac is fluff. A year younger than Mason at
28, Divac is the same pure-hearted, soft-eyed giant who showed
up at the 1989 NBA draft in a borrowed shirt and tie; fortified
himself for games by sucking down two hot dogs, two chocolate
bars and a Coke; built a parakeet house in the backyard of his
Pacific Palisades home; appeared as a Yugo dealer in a comedy
film (Autobahn) about a radish-powered sports car; and declared
in a direct-to-video tribute to the Flintstones: "Fred knows
Neither Divac nor Mason knows Charlotte. "Until a few months
ago," says Mason, "I wasn't aware Charlotte had a downtown." As
it turns out, it doesn't. Charlotteans call their downtown
Uptown. "Whenever I came to Charlotte with the Knicks, I'd check
into the hotel and watch a movie," says Mason. "I thought
Charlotte was just a bunch of houses and trees and stuff."
"I, too, knew it was just a bunch of trees and stuff," says
Divac. "But basically, when I thought of Charlotte, I thought of
Back in 1883 a South Carolina aristocrat called Charlotte "an
extremely dull place...but a town disposed to improve." How dull
the 1996-97 Hornets will be is arguable. Whether they're a
better team now than they were at this time last year is not,
especially given their less-than-impressive showings in their
first two preseason games, last Friday's 122-118 defeat of the
lowly Boston Celtics and a 108-105 loss the next night to the
also lowly New Jersey Nets. Against New Jersey, Divac led
Charlotte with 21 points, and Mason, as he had the night before,
hauled down a team-high eight rebounds.
A year ago the Hornets were coming off a franchise-best 50-32
campaign, and their mainstays were All-Stars Johnson and center
Alonzo Mourning. After reaching a salary impasse with the
Hornets, Mourning was dealt to the Miami Heat before the season
opener, and Charlotte went on to a 41-41 record, missing the
playoffs. Without Mourning's rugged inside presence, the Hornets
allowed opponents to shoot 48.9% from the field (next to last in
the NBA) and were 24th of 29 teams in rebounds and steals. "And
dead last in blocked shots," adds new coach Dave Cowens.
Against Boston, at least, Mason provided some of the defensive
sting the Hornets previously lacked. When on offense, the
Celtics shied away from Mason, who plugged the middle--muscling
up, draping over and elbowing out an array of increasingly
frustrated guards and forwards. "Mase makes us a much better
defensive team," says swingman Glen Rice, Charlotte's leading
scorer last season. "And with better defense we won't have to
rely on one or two scorers to win the game." Rice, eighth in the
league in three-pointers made last year, should also benefit
from Divac's dexterous ball handling and passing. "We're a team
that shoots a lot of threes," says Cowens. "Since the day Vlade
signed, our guys have been waiting for him to get them the ball
from the high or low post." Among those outside threats are
dependable veteran guard Dell Curry and first-round draft choice
(No. 16 overall) Tony Delk, who hit three treys and scored 16
points against the Nets.
When the Hornets fired coach Allan Bristow in April, they looked
for a replacement who would stress defense and physical play.
They introduced Cowens to the local media by showing a video
clip of him as a Celtic stripping a ball from Oscar Robertson
during the 1974 NBA Finals. "He was an intense player," says
Mason. "He got in people's faces."
Despite the physical presence of centers Matt Geiger (last
year's usual starter) and George Zidek, the Hornets,
traditionally, have not. "They were explosive offensively but
not bangers," Mason says. "They weren't about stopping people."
Johnson, for instance, usually got defensive only when
justifying his 12-year, $84 million contract. "We've added some
big players," says Cowens. "Now we've got to play big."
The biggest new Hornet is the 7'1", 250-pound Divac, who led the
Lakers in rebounding in each of the last four seasons but had to
be traded because L.A. needed salary-cap room to sign free-agent
All-Star center Shaquille O'Neal. "Vlade is mobile and an
excellent passer," says Mason. "And he can play D when he wants
to." Which, in the past, has been only occasionally (he averaged
1.66 blocked shots per game last season). "I don't know what
fires are burning internally with Vlade," says Cowens. "With
some guys, it's like there's a pilot light that isn't on. As a
coach, you've got to relight it to heat up the system. Other
players are just ready to combust."
Mason is self-igniting. "With Mase," Cowens says, "I just have
to fan the flames." Mason lacks the quickness of many small
forwards and the height of many power forwards. And if he's more
than 12 feet out, his touch turns truly masonic--he lays bricks.
But the 1994-95 NBA Sixth Man of the Year is a deft dribbler who
can break a press better than any other forward in the league.
"They call Mase a point forward," says Divac. "He plays hardball."
Mason has hardball written all over him. Or, more precisely,
HARD-BALL all over his head. When Mason asks if you'd like to
come up to see his etchings, he's talking about the words he has
razored in his scalp. The messages--which over the years have
included DOGG POUND, WHATYAGONNA DO? and the haloish POINT
GOD--are periodically updated by Freddy Avila, who modestly
bills himself as "the Rembrandt of barbers." Avila usually has
his customers bring their cranial canvases to his hair studio in
Queens. While Mason was a Knick, however, he would sometimes ask
Avila to make midnight house calls to the Garden, thereby adding
postmodern meaning to Rembrandt's The Night Watch.
Mason is thinking of asking Hornets management to fly Avila down
for biweekly sloganeering sessions. "If we can't work something
out," says Mason, "I'll play this season bald."
REBIRTH OF A STAR is what Mason's head read at his Aug. 27
introductory press conference. "Reporters asked if I minded
coming to Charlotte," he says. "But, hey, I started my pro
career in Turkey. You could never send me nowhere worse. Pepper
was different, ketchup was different, even milk was different.
It came from goats and it was nasty, man."
Not nearly as nasty as the taste the exile from New York left in
his mouth. "I felt betrayed," he says. "I'd been told I was part
of the Knicks' foundation, then I was suddenly shipped out." He
blames New York coach Jeff Van Gundy and center Patrick Ewing
for his banishment. "Any coach who feels he has to please one
player will cause a lot of animosity with the other 11," Mason
says. As Mason sees it, his sin as a Knick was being too vocal
about wanting the ball in the low post, Ewing's domain.
Mason believes he's a better player than Johnson, who averaged
20.5 points last season to Mason's 14.6. "I bring defense and
passing," he argues. "What does Larry bring? Sure, he averaged
six more points than me, but he took 600 more shots. I shot 56
percent from the floor; he shot 48." Mason is equally dismissive
of the Knicks' chances, even with vaunted newcomers Johnson,
point guard Chris Childs and shooting guard Allan Houston. "A
lot of other teams don't seem to be worried about them anymore,"
he says sharply.
While Divac holds no grudge against the Lakers, he was no less
bitter about getting swapped. He was in Berlin working out with
the Yugoslavian Olympic team when he read a USA Today account of
his imminent trade. "I was really mad," Divac says. "I hated it.
I didn't want to leave the Serbian community in L.A. I didn't
want to wreck my wife's career."
His wife, Ana, an aspiring actress, flew to Germany to talk a
few things over with her husband. Such as, if he refused to go
to Charlotte and instead retired, as he was threatening to do,
he stood to lose the nearly $8.5 million guaranteed in the final
two years of his contract. "Vlade," she said evenly, "are you
Vlade wasn't sure. "It took 10 days to calm down and think
rationally," he says. "I thought I was leaving everything I had
built in L.A, like my little backyard zoo. It has fishes and
dogs and turtles and parakeets--10 parakeets, too many even to
Cowens countered zoology with psychology. "I talked to Coach
Dave, and he told me Charlotte was a nice town and people there
really like basketball," Divac says. "So I came to Charlotte and
I thought, It's not that bad!"
What's good about Charlotte? "You don't see that fake smile you
see in California," he says. Though Divac is renting a house in
Charlotte, and Mason has bought one, neither is planting roots.
Divac won't send for his family until he finds an elementary
school he likes for Luka and his two-year-old brother, Matia.
"L.A. is the only city I've ever felt homesick for," Divac says.
"L.A. is part of me. When I leave, I miss everything."
Mason misses New York, too, but he is philosophical. "It all
worked out for the best," he says. "I'm with an organization
that wants me and a bunch of guys who welcome me. New York is
still the liveliest city I know. In Charlotte, I can chill out
[away] from all that electricity."
Even Antoine has come around. After Mase brought him down to see
the houses and trees and stuff, Antoine announced, "Daddy, my
favorite team is the Charlotte Hornets."