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Nov. 17, 2008
Nov. 17, 2008

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Nov. 17, 2008

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With two titans atop the organization and a Hall of Fame coach on the bench, the five-year-old Bobcats should be a franchise on the rise. Instead, they remain ensnared in mediocrity

SAME AS it ever was for Larry Brown, same acid anxiety roiling in the pit of his belly before games, same toss-and-turn sleeplessness after them, same pursuit of excellence that is never attained, even in victory. There he was last week, alone in his Charlotte condo—wife Shelly, 14-year-old son L.J. and 11-year-old daughter Madison are still living on the Main Line outside Philadelphia, Brown's last place of employment before taking the Bobcats job in April—doing his laundry at 3 a.m. after arriving home from a frustrating 101--98 loss to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. ¬∂ "And I was up by six, thinking about how we can stop Chris Paul," said Brown, whose team did, in fact, beat Paul's New Orleans Hornets 92--89 at home last Friday night.

This is an article from the Nov. 17, 2008 issue

There are two others with whom the 68-year-old Brown might share his passion and pain, two masters of the universe who preside over a franchise that in its fifth season has yet to win more than 33 games, generates little fan enthusiasm in the downtown Time Warner Cable Arena and seems to have gone into a count-the-paper-clips financial M.O. They are owner Robert Johnson, the most successful African-American businessman in history, and a guy named Michael Jordan, the team's "managing member of basketball operations."

Brown has almost no interaction with Johnson, who spends much of his time tending to other business ventures in Washington, D.C. The founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), which he sold in 2001 for about $3 billion, Johnson has blamed some of his franchise's financial struggles (he told the CHARLOTTE BUSINESS JOURNAL that he has lost about $50 million since buying the Bobcats in January 2003) on the failure of local investors to come aboard. Johnson now owns almost 80% of the franchise, 15% more than he did four years ago. Just before training camp the organization fired 35 employees, and THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER reported that Johnson wanted to eliminate regional radio broadcasts of the team's games as a cost-cutting measure, a stratagem he was reportedly talked out of—in no uncertain terms—by the league office. (Johnson declined SI's interview request.)

Brown does talk often to Jordan, more by phone than in person. "Michael doesn't come to many practices," says Brown, "and I think it means something to the guys when he does. I'd like him here all the time." That, apparently, is not going to happen. Jordan's semiabsentee involvement in the franchise has been an enduring NBA leitmotif since he came aboard in June 2006 with a minority ownership stake and the role of über--general manager. He keeps his primary residence in Chicago and still chases the little white ball with as much fervor as he ever did. "We don't really see him all that much," says Bobcats small forward Gerald Wallace. In fact Wallace gazes upon Jordan more at home than he does at the arena, owing to the giant-sized poster of Jordan with Muhammad Ali that adorns a wall in his house. "When you open my front door," says Wallace, "it's the first thing you see."

Now, when Jordan is around, he is palpably around. He was in one of his four floor seats near the end of the bench last weekend, twisting and squirming as the Bobcats prevailed against the Hornets and then folded badly down the stretch two days later in an 89--79 loss to the Toronto Raptors. But it is a vast understatement to say that Jordan is an elusive face-of-the-franchise. He has final say on basketball decisions, but he does not do much in-person scouting, and rival executives routinely begin trade talks with Rod Higgins, Jordan's handpicked general manager. The Observer's Rick Bonnell, the lone beat writer who regularly travels with the team, says he talks to Jordan "only once or twice a season."

His Airness will surface from time to time to issue carefully worded state-of-the-franchise proclamations, as he did last week to Observer columnist Scott Fowler. (He said he would be willing to become majority owner should Johnson ever decide to sell the team.) Jordan is ever coy, ever seductive, ever in charge of setting the terms of the narrative. On Nov. 5 in New York City, with great bonhomie and much backslapping, he declined a formal interview with an SI writer he has known for 25 years, owing to an ancient gripe over a 1994 magazine cover line from his minor league baseball days. He did converse informally, insisting that it was not an interview, so only this small nugget is offered: Sounding rather like a grumpy old uncle, he says he doesn't like the music selections of his young players.

Jordan, in short, has no apparent concerns that as the franchise's Main Man he is perceived as a Shadow Man, a here-today-gone-tomorrow-might-be-back-the-next-day executive.

Which leaves Brown, ol' Larry Agonistes, as the one getting his hands dirty on a daily basis, charged with turning around an ailing franchise, not for the first time. If you're scoring at home, Charlotte is his ninth NBA team to go with two stops in the ABA and two in college. It's worth noting that he has yet to go on record as saying that this job is his last.

IT'S LAST Friday morning, and Brown has been up since six. It's now eight, and his favorite time of day is two hours away. That's when practice starts. "When I was out of coaching this last time [an interregnum that lasted two years after he was fired by the Knicks in June 2006], I didn't miss some of the other stuff, like talking to guys like you," he says during an interview in his office at the arena. "But I did miss practices. The games are hard, worrying about whether you prepared the team enough and for the right things. But practice is always fun."

Despite ongoing complications from left-hip surgery four years ago, Brown looks fit and at least a decade younger than his 68 years. His energy—perhaps it comes from his beloved 103-year-old mother, Ann, whom he visits often at her assisted-living quarters in Charlotte—amazes the players. "The only time I think about how old he is," says reserve swingman Matt Carroll, "is when he calls me Adam Morrison." (Brown's explanation? "I tell Matt and Adam [who shares Carroll's role] that I'm not used to coaching white guys," he jokes.)

In some ways the Bobcats are the perfect team for Brown in that they are so manifestly imperfect, a lump of clay waiting to be shaped by the master artisan. "The things they don't know boggle my mind," says Brown. Such as? "Like when you're on the weak side [on defense] and you have to see man and ball. Like talking on defense. Like denying one pass away. Or if a guy drives baseline on you, how you have to fold back and take the big guy off the board. Like throwing it to the first open free man instead of faking to that guy. There's a reason he's open, right?" The list goes on, but time is short.

In other ways, though, the Bobcats are exactly wrong for Brown, or at least wrong for his prescribed team template. Brown likes to have three guards, two of them natural points, whom he can play together. He likes two athletic small forwards, one of whom can swing to power forward, one of whom can swing to two guard. He likes four long players up front who can shuttle interchangeably between power forward and center. He likes gutty guys who enjoy playing a singular role, the grizzled vet, the underdog. And he likes the ultrasmart player over the ultratalented player. The Bobcats—32--50 last season under fired coach Sam Vincent and 3--4 after Sunday's loss to the Raptors—are small, young, not particularly versatile, mistake-prone and rather soft.

Brown can be blunt ("We have serious deficiencies on this team," he says), but the key to figuring out what he really thinks is to listen to what he does not say. For example, he praises rookie point guard D.J. Augustin of Texas for his ability to pick up things on the fly, which is his way of suggesting that starting point guard Raymond Felton does not. (Augustin says he takes care to be quick on the uptake "because what Coach Brown doesn't like is telling you something twice, and he likes it less and less the more he has to tell you.")

Behind the scenes Brown lobbies, as he always has, for personnel changes. He usually doesn't call Jordan first, but observes the chain of command above him that includes Higgins and director of player personnel Buzz Peterson. "Whatever I tell Buzz and Rod reaches Michael's ears anyway," he says.

At week's end, a three-way deal that would've sent Wallace to the Golden State Warriors and brought Knicks center Eddy Curry to Charlotte was apparently dead. But it's a near certainty that the Bobcats roster will not remain intact. Jordan said in his interview with the Observer that he believes his club as presently constructed is potentially a playoff team, but that is a stretch and he probably knows it. Wallace and shooting guard Jason Richardson are reliable scorers, but neither is a superstar who can carry a team. Emeka Okafor is a consistent double-double guy but will never be a dominating, elite center. The point guard battle between Felton and Augustin is unresolved. Brown seems to like both Morrison and Carroll, but neither has the length he prefers.

THERE ARE deeper questions about the franchise, however, than whether it will make the playoffs this spring. The relationship between team and fan base is tenuous; the attendance of 13,435 at last Friday's game carries with it the pointed adjective of announced. Six years ago, remember, the Hornets departed for New Orleans without much civic complaint. Does Johnson want to sell? Will local investors ever respond to his entreaties in this economic climate? Will Johnson sell to Jordan? Will the $100 million relocation penalty in the arena lease discourage an outside buyer?

And how committed is Jordan to the whole enterprise? Even before he reached out to Brown (North Carolina class of '63), MJ had turned the Bobcats into a satellite UNC alumni club, hiring former Tar Heels roommate Peterson ('85) and assistant coach Phil Ford ('78). Brown added Dave Hanners ('76), Ford's backcourt mate, to his staff. In addition, Jordan hired Fred Whitfield, a longtime buddy, as the franchise's president and CEO, and tapped Higgins, a former Chicago Bulls teammate. All that doesn't necessarily spell doom, of course. Higgins is a smart man, and no one has ever questioned the coaching bona fides of a Dean Smith product. But it does raise the issue of whether Jordan makes hard personnel decisions or whether his legacy will be having made personal decisions.

Still, NBA commissioner David Stern says he is optimistic about the Bobcats' prospects, not least because Jordan is "deeply engaged." Stern, it should be noted, is not above looking into a cyclone and defining it as a soft, warming wind, and he may be stretching the word deeply to its breaking point. But ... who knows? Perhaps Jordan will stick with it, viewing the Bobcats as a chance for redemption from his front-office failures with the Washington Wizards.

And who's to say that Brown won't figure out a way to reach .500, something he has failed to do only four times in 35 seasons as a coach. One hesitates to call Brown content, but despite missing his family he feels at home in Charlotte, with his mother and two older daughters from a previous marriage close by and so many old friends from his days at UNC and as coach of the ABA Carolina Cougars. He loves the fact that "Coach [Smith] is down the road" in Chapel Hill and available for counsel. And he loves those moments when he and Jordan share their bleeding-Tar-Heel-blue camaraderie, as when MJ called him in his New York City hotel room last week to say that he had registered as "Bobby Jones," a 1974 UNC grad and one of Brown's alltime favorite players.

Most of all, Brown loves the coaching, the daily dose of exquisite misery that has defined his life. But to what degree does Jordan share that love for his job? The answer might determine whether Brown and his team succeed in Charlotte.

"Michael doesn't come to many practices," says Brown, "and I think it MEANS SOMETHING to the guys when he does."
"Coach doesn't like telling you something twice," says Augustin, "and he likes it LESS AND LESS the more he has to tell you."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonHANGING AROUND? Wallace (3), one of two original Bobcats left, is on the trading block and could bring a significant return.PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonHELP WANTED Jordan (left) has not yet been able to give Brown enough tough, versatile players to suit his tastes.PHOTOPhotograph by Greg Nelson[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonQUICK PICKER-UPPER Rookie Augustin has impressed his hard-to-please coach with his ability to learn on the fly.