The Hornets Empty-Nest Syndrome Deserted by their fans and poised to skip town, Baron Davis & Co. are still determined to make one last stand in Charlotte

May 12, 2002

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.

The Nets may be more clearly Kidd's team than the Hornets are
Davis's, but, oh, how the Baron has grown in the last few weeks.
He had been closing in on stardom all season, but the
back-to-back triple doubles he laid on Orlando opened eyes all
over the league. Davis also refused to snap at the verbal bait
dangled by McGrady, who trashed Charlotte as a boring city
(T-Mac's town boasts the Hall of Presidents and SeaWorld!) and
proclaimed that he, not Baron, was the reigning royalty of the
series.

Indeed, though Davis has his brash side (he insinuated himself
into a second-quarter sideline conversation between Kidd and his
coach, Byron Scott), there is something about him that suggests a
wide-eyed, uncertain youngster, the kid who admits that "I
totally lost my confidence" and was "homesick for California"
during a mediocre rookie season that made many question the
Hornets' decision to select him out of UCLA with the third pick
in the '99 draft. Davis's grandfather, the backyard court-builder
named Luke Nicholson, died when Baron was in the eighth grade,
but he remains close to Lela Nicholson, the grandmother who
raised him. He calls her Madea, short for Mother Dear. Baron was
on the phone with Madea in early February, arranging an All-Star
break trip to L.A. to visit her, when he found out that he had
been selected to replace the injured Vince Carter on the East
team.

"If you want me to," Davis told her, "I'll pass up the game and
still come see you."

"Boy, you're not coming home," said Lela, who continues to live
in South Central despite her grandson's offer to build her a
house elsewhere. "You go on up there and play in that game with
Michael and all those boys."

He certainly belongs in the same game with those boys now. Beyond
the quickness and leaping ability that somehow comes out of that
blocky, 212-pound body--"The strongest guard, pound for pound,
I've ever been around," says Brown--what the Hornets like most
about Davis is his basketball I.Q., the way he sees the whole
floor and willingly does the little things. There he was, fanning
out to the corner on the fast break and leaving the middle to
shooting guard David Wesley, who hit George Lynch for a layup.
There he was, subtly hipping the Nets' Keith Van Horn, seven
inches taller, to grab a loose ball. There he was, ordering a
double team to deny Kidd the ball on an inbounds play near the
end of the first half. "Baron Davis," says Kidd, "is the real
deal."

What a pity that off-the-court deals have stolen attention from
this real-deal team.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN Exit wounds Davis was ascendant in a series-opening loss in New Jersey on Sunday, but an apathetic homecoming was likely for Games 3 and 4 in Charlotte.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK BURTON/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: NOREN TROTMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES Idol moment Growing up in L.A., Davis looked up to Kidd, who took matters into his own hands down the stretch on Sunday. COLOR PHOTO: NELL REDMOND/AFP

A Hive That's Lost Its Buzz

The crowd of 15,510 that turned out for this February game
against the 76ers was a far cry from what the Hornets regularly
drew in their first decade. Still, that midseason turnout
exceeded by 5,596 the average attendance for Charlotte's two
first-round playoff games.

1988 23,172
1989* 23,901
1990 23,906
1991* 23,698
1992* 23,698
1993* 23,698
1994* 23,698
1995* 24,042
1996* 24,042
1997* 23,406
1998 19,232
1999** 17,874
2000 15,010
2001 11,286

*Led league in attendance **Strike season

"All the negative stuff did affect us," Brown says. "But at some
point...we sensed it was time to start playing."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)