With their fans up in arms and a move on tap, the Hornets are a
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
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.
Shinn has not made much effort to win over the public after
admitting to sexual indiscretions during his trial, including an
affair with a Hornets cheerleader; according to associates, Shinn
says that if voters were willing to elect Bill Clinton twice
despite his promiscuity, then why should the same behavior be
held against a private citizen? Shinn and Wooldridge, who both
declined to be interviewed, have backed off their Jan. 1 deadline
to decide the team's future but continue to talk to five
cities--Anaheim, Louisville, New Orleans, Norfolk and St.
Louis--none of which, league officials say, is a more attractive
market than Charlotte.
A recent poll conducted by The Charlotte Observer and TV station
WCNC indicates that 20% of those opposed to the new arena would
change their position if Shinn sold the Hornets. While there have
been rumors of a bid by local businessmen, it has yet to
materialize, and in any case Shinn is adamant that his remaining
65% share in the team--"my child," he calls it--is not for sale.
Cleveland's Master Plan
21 Feet of Center To Choose From
In a league hurting for size, the Cavaliers have staked their
future on a trio of young 7-footers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Chris
Mihm and Desagana Diop.
The Cavaliers' high-risk, high-reward strategy began with the
7'3" Ilgauskas, who would have by now developed into the East's
dominant center if not for the three foot operations that have
marred all but one of his six seasons in Cleveland. Last February
he underwent surgery to alleviate the stresses in his right foot
that have caused fractures of the tiny navicular bone. Through
Sunday, the Cavs were 71-56 when Ilgauskas played and 73-129 when
Ilgauskas returned on Dec. 4 and steadied the team, providing a
defensive and low-post presence, scoring 12.2 points per game.
Rather than ask him to carry the team, Cleveland is limiting him
to 24 minutes per game (mainly off the bench) and 40 minutes in
back-to-back outings in hopes of getting him through the season
without crutches. G.M. Jim Paxson says the 26-year-old Ilgauskas
may face similar restrictions for the rest of his career. "It's
awkward, because I know I need extra work," Ilgauskas says. "I
would like to spend two or three hours a day on my game, but most
of my work is being done during games."
Unable to rely on Ilgauskas, Paxson used the No. 8 pick last
June to draft Diop, a 19-year-old, 7-foot 300-pounder who left
his native Senegal three years ago to play for Oak Hill Academy
in Mouth of Wilson, Va. It was a controversial selection because
Diop was, like Ilgauskas, recovering from a broken left foot.
Diop underwent surgery last February, and as a result he was
overweight and unimpressive in predraft workouts. Unlike the
mysterious stress fractures that have haunted Ilgauskas,
however, Diop suffered a clean break of the fifth metatarsal bone.
A stress reaction injury to his left foot over the summer
(unrelated to his previous fracture) and a strained left knee
ligament in preseason had limited Diop to a total of 32 minutes
in six games at week's end, but Paxson believes that Diop's
willingness to work will help him make up for lost time. He is
blissfully free of an entourage, apart from a brother who has
moved from Senegal. "He reminds me of Antonio McDyess," says
coach John Lucas, who urged Cleveland to draft Diop. "He has a
humility that's not common today, and that's the kind of guy a
team can grow with."
Center and point guard are usually the toughest NBA positions to
fill. Cleveland already has a star playmaker in Andre Miller, who
in coming years may feed a front line of Diop or Ilgauskas
alongside the 7-foot Mihm, a second-year man who starts at center
now but feels better suited to power forward. When Paxson looks
around the league for up-and-coming centers, he doesn't see much.
After Shaquille O'Neal, the most prolific scorer among centers
under 30 is the Bulls' 25-year-old Brad Miller, who was averaging
13.2 points through Sunday.
Indeed, most of the big men entering the league, including this
year's No. 1 draft pick, the Wizards' Kwame Brown, want to be
power forwards or perimeter hybrids like Kevin Garnett. "Kwame
wants to dribble the ball, do the crossover," says Diop, a friend
of Brown's. "I want to be a true center. Once I get my body
right, I want to play even harder than Shaq. Why not?"
Celtics rookie Kedrick Brown
Start of a Run on Juco Players?
Much as high school players draw inspiration from Kevin Garnett,
so may junior collegians look up to 6'7", 222-pound forward
Kedrick Brown, who became the first juco player to go in the
first round when the Celtics made him the 11th pick last June.
Although Brown has played in only 13 games, coach Jim O'Brien
says he is progressing quickly enough to crack the rotation by
season's end. Every day at practice Brown makes a dazzling play
that has teammates and coaches shaking their heads. "Kedrick has
blocked turnaround jump shots by Michael Jordan and Vince
Carter," O'Brien says. "I don't cringe when he goes in the game.
I put him on the other team's best player."
Brown was a two-year star at Okaloosa-Walton Community College in
Niceville, Fla. He had committed to join LSU this season, but his
coach, Bruce Stewart, advised him to leapfrog to the NBA. In part
because of Stewart's close relationship with Boston G.M. Chris
Wallace, Brown agreed to work out only for the Celtics, leaving
other teams to evaluate his skills based on what they could see
on a few low-quality videotapes. Now every team is scouring
junior colleges for another Kedrick Brown. Next to follow in
Brown's path could be Qyntel Woods, a 6'8" swingman at Northeast
Mississippi Community College, in Booneville, whom scouts compare
with Tracy McGrady. (Woods has announced he will attend Memphis.)
Like many other juco players, Brown went to Okaloosa-Walton to
qualify academically, but he also benefited on the court. "It
would have been a lot harder for me to turn pro coming out of
high school," says Brown, who played center at Zachary (La.)
High. At junior college he lifted weights for the first time and
played for a disciplinarian coach who helped prepare him for the
Should Brown have played a year at a major college for seasoning?
"He's better off here," says O'Brien. "He's better off playing
against Paul Pierce every day in practice, and he's better off
being a millionaire rather than playing for his tuition, room and
Play of the Week
After missing 15 games with plantar fasciitis in his left foot
and another game because of migraines, point guard Steve Francis
returned to the Rockets' lineup last Thursday, against the
Pistons. He responded with a career-high 36 points and his first
game-winning shot--a difficult runner launched just inside the
foul line over 6'10" Cliff Robinson with .2 of a second left for
a 99-97 victory. Said coach Rudy Tomjanovich, "I've gotten over
being surprised by great players."
around the Rim
Don't expect Kenyon Martin to back off much despite his
suspensions for flagrant fouls against Karl Malone on Dec. 22
and Tracy McGrady last Friday. "I like him being physical,
aggressive, emotional," Nets coach Byron Scott says. "He has to
be a little smarter, but I don't want him to change."...
The lure of skilled wing players in Europe and centers in Asia
has prompted many teams to divert time and money from scouting
college prospects. "It costs more to get things done overseas,"
says Magic G.M. John Gabriel, who this season has taken 20% of
his college scouting budget and diverted it to foreign
While the Jazz will be prevented from playing at home throughout
February because of the Salt Lake City Olympics, the team is
optimistic about holding its own--thanks to a couple of five-day
breaks provided by the compassionate schedule maker....
With Terrell Brandon sidelined and Chauncey Billups hurting,
Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders is considering giving point
guard minutes to Kevin Garnett, who at week's end was hitting
34.0% of his three-pointers and averaging 5.6 assists....
Pistons coach Rick Carlisle has asked that Jerry Stackhouse
become more unselfish this season, but enough is enough. "We
need him to be [a scorer] first and the guy who gets others
involved second," Carlisle says. "He can't get his teammates
involved unless he has his aggressive offensive disposition."...
Injuries have forced the Hawks to start 11 players this season
and to move guard Jason Terry back to the point. One beneficiary
of the shuffling: forward DerMarr Johnson, the No. 6 pick in the
2000 draft, who averaged 13.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in his
first three starts.
Spurs guard Steve Smith (above) entered the season a 34.5%
three-point shooter for his 10-year career, with a high of 40.2%
in 1992-93. Through Sunday's games Smith was knocking down 56.7%
of his threes (55 of 97). Since the inception of the trey, in
'79-80, the 50% mark (minimum 25 three-pointers made) has been
reached only six times. Smith's current percentage would top
those players by a long shot. --David Sabino
POINTERS POINT PERCENT
PLAYER, TEAM SEASON MADE ATTEMPTS MADE
Steve Kerr, Bulls 1994-95 89 170 52.4%
Tim Legler, Bullets 1995-96 128 245 52.2%
Jon Sundvold, Heat 1988-89 48 92 52.2%
Steve Kerr, Bulls 1995-96 122 237 51.5%
Detlef Schrempf, Sonics 1994-95 93 181 51.4%
Steve Kerr, Cavaliers 1989-90 73 144 50.7%