Emeka Okafor is not just playing basketball for the expansion Bobcats. He is also playing the lead role in the franchise's version of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlotte's attempt to eradicate the memory of its previous team. Two years after the bitter divorce between the Hornets and the city was finalized, wounds remain raw and antipathy for the league runs deep. "We know," says general manager and coach Bernie Bickerstaff, "that we have to win some people back."
Enter Okafor. Taken second in the 2004 draft, out of UConn, the 6'10" center is, unambiguously, the new face of the new team. Within days of his selection his expansive smile was a staple on local billboards and his rumbling voice filled Charlotte airwaves. The franchise printed thousands of OKAFOR IN '04 signs to launch his Rookie of the Year campaign. "I realize the challenge here," Okafor, 22, says. "Whatever they want me to do to help, I'll do it."
His obligations will be just as weighty when the season begins. A polished shot blocker and rebounder, Okafor readily admits that he needs to expand his offensive vocabulary, but he'll have ample opportunities to learn on the job. "I wish I could start playing today," he said on the eve of training camp. "The players are ready, the organization is ready, the fans are ready."
Despite Okafor's best efforts, Charlotte will lose prodigiously this season. Shackled by salary restrictions--their payroll is capped at $31 million, one third lower than the rest of the teams'--the Bobcats consist mainly of players known only to hard-core fantasy leaguers. Even in a best-case scenario, Charlotte's new NBA entrant won't have anyone recalling the Hornets teams that routinely made the playoffs. But then, that might not be such a bad thing. --L.J.W.
ENEMY LINES an opposing team's scout sizes up the Bobcats
"If they win 20 games, it will be a good season. They shied away from giving big contracts to guys who might have helped them right away, so their strategy is to try to get through this year, build up salary-cap space and then target free agents over the next few summers.... Rookie Emeka Okafor is their only guy who would be a starter for other teams. He should be able to block shots, defend and rebound immediately, and the demands on him will accelerate his development. He can't produce in the post, but he has a smooth stroke from 15 feet and can score in transition or on the offensive glass.... Primoz Brezec is 25 years old and 7'1". He has a back-to-the-basket game and he can shoot, and I can see them running the pick-and-pop with him. His size and skill give him a chance to eventually be one of the top 15 centers in the league.... After three years on Sacramento's bench, Gerald Wallace has the potential to be a good player. Though he doesn't shoot or handle the ball very well, he's an excellent athlete who will make steals and block shots. I expect him to be their leading scorer with 15 to 20 points per game.... Melvin Ely has a chance to be part of their long-term future because of his low-post game and his ability to play power forward and center.... Their point guards, Jason Hart and Brevin Knight, are poor shooters, and neither one provides a change of pace or style. They'll be asked to defend full-court to force turnovers and generate scoring in transition. As a team they must run as much as possible.... I don't see Bernie Bickerstaff as the master motivator who will keep these guys at a high pitch. He's known for being more comfortable with veterans and not overcoaching."
The only Bobcats to average more than 15 minutes last season were Eddie House (19.2 with the Clippers) and Brevin Knight (18.5 with the Bucks).
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003-04 statistics
First season for expansion team
Coach: Bernie Bickerstaff
EMEKA OKAFOR (R)
G BREVIN KNIGHT
G EDDIE HOUSE
C-F MELVIN ELY
G STEVE SMITH
C JAHIDI WHITE
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college season) *PVR Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 86)