Queen City Quagmire
April 26, 2012 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
It's said that every young boy remembers his first baseball game. I don't. I know it must have been at Charleston, South Carolina's old College Park stadium where the Class A Charleston RiverDogs played their home games until 1996, but I can't remember the year or the experience.
I do, however, remember the very first professional basketball game I ever attended. It was on January 27, 1995 when the Charlotte Hornets hosted the New York Knicks. I was visiting my grandparents for the weekend when my uncle surprised me with Hornets tickets. I didn't care that he bought tickets in the next-to-last row of the 24,000-seat Charlotte Coliseum's upper level, because I was going watch my NBA heroes, Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, and Muggsy Bogues, live and in person.
At the time, my 7-year-old self even thought the rest of the Hornets were something like the Carolinas' Beatles. In 1995, the Carolina Panthers (indisputably the Carolinas' most beloved pro team nowadays) were still six months from playing their first game, and the Whalers had yet to move from Hartford to become the Hurricanes. The attitude of Charlotteans toward the Hornets then was what I imagine Oklahoma City feels today about the Thunder: a rapidly-growing, somewhat under-appreciated city that was finally getting its due in the form of a quality pro sports franchise. For each of the Hornets' first 10 seasons, attendance averaged over 23,000 per game and the franchise won the attendance title for eight of those seasons.
It didn't matter that the Hornets never won more than 51 games or one playoff series in the mid-'90s, because they were our pro basketball team in an area of the country that had always loved basketball. There was no reason to think that by 1997, the Hornets would be entering their final five years in Charlotte.
George Shinn brought the expansion Hornets to Charlotte triumphantly and against all odds, but also took the team to New Orleans in a most disgraceful manner. In 1999, the supposed family man went on trial for sexual assault. He was acquitted in December of that year, but the man who read a prayer over the public address system before each home game admitted to multiple infidelities in his marriage. Afterwards, the rags-to-riches businessman had the hubris to demand Charlotte taxpayers fund a new arena for the Hornets, claiming that the barely-teenaged Charlotte Coliseum was outdated. Attendance fell dramatically, the residents of the Queen City refused to accede to Shinn's wishes at the ballot box, and the franchise was moved to New Orleans in 2002.
I eventually moved on from the Hornets. I moved with my family to the Dallas area around the time Shinn was acquitted. While I watched the Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn-led teams in the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, it was clear the gig would soon be up. I changed my NBA allegiances to the Mavs, and haven't been disappointed since.
While the Hornets were in the process of preparing their move, David Stern promised an expansion franchise to Charlotte should the team be taken away. The commissioner kept his promise and Charlotte got a new arena anyway after city politicians raised a tax. The Bobcats debuted in 2004. In every subsequent visit to Charlotte I've had to visit family since the Bobcats have been around, I've seen no passion about the team. The Bobcats don't have 'Zo and Grandmama, they don't play in the Hive (which was imploded five years ago at the age of 19) and they aren't wearing the teal and purple. Everyone in Charlotte knows it and most everyone seems to be alright with ignoring the team.
Now, after eight years of incompetent leadership, moronic draft decisions, and embarrassing attendance, professional basketball in Charlotte has reached the ultimate nadir. Barring an unlikely win on Thursday night against New York, the Bobcats will go down as the worst NBA team of all-time.
It's not just that the Bobcats will almost surely end the season on a 23 -ame losing streak and win just 7 of 66 contests for an .106 winning percentage. For the whole season, Charlotte has been outscored by 13.9 points per game. The next worst point differential team for 2011-12 is Cleveland, outscored by "just" 6.8 points a game. While the Bobcats won't touch Dallas record from 1992-93 of a negative 15.2 scoring margin, one has to factor in that the league played faster in the early '90s, to the tune of five extra possessions a game.
There's been a lot of hot air sports chatter about whether or not this year's Kentucky team could beat Charlotte. I think almost all "college team X could beat crappy pro team Y" conjectures are inherently useless and wrong. This one is no exception. Even bad pros have the only real responsibility of playing basketball. If you choose to be cynical and say that the Kentucky players did as well, the Wildcats were still a team that only played six players for real minutes in big games. The pro team's depth would wear down Kentucky, especially if played under NBA rules with 12-minute quarters and a 24-second clock.
But what about professionals at levels just below the NBA? Take, for example, the Austin Toros of the D-League, who have players like Brad Wanamaker, Julian Wright, Luke Zeller, Ronald Murray, Justin Dentmon, and Terrance Woodbury and are currently in the NBDL Finals. Is that collection of bodies at a substantial disadvantage against Gerald Henderson, D.J. Augustin, Byron Mullens, Bismack Biyombo, Derrick Brown, Kemba Walker, and Tyrus Thomas? Perhaps, but one has to think that the D-League team could at least win a game or two in a best-of-seven series. There are also some pro teams in Europe, such as Barcelona and CSKA Moscow, that have quality international and American talent and could stand a good chance against the Bobcats.
A Basketball Prospectus piece by Kevin Pelton details the perfect storm that enabled the Bobcats' 2012 futility. After making the playoffs in 2010 under Larry Brown, Charlotte chose to, in essence, "bottom out" under new General Manager Rich Cho after missing on draft pick after draft pick for years. However, this season has to be beyond Cho's worst nightmare. Three veterans who were at least supposed to keep the current dumpster fire scenario from happening in Thomas, Boris Diaw, and Corey Maggette all played massively below expectations.
Conventional wisdom and basic logic says it can't get any worse for the Bobcats. I'm not sure myself or anyone else writing about Charlotte's futility is doing a great job of conveying how completely improbable losing 90% of your games in an NBA season. Yet the franchise has still not shown any reliable competence in drafting or trading (I'm not totally buying that rookies Walker and Biyombo are future stars). Despite being the worst team in the league by a wide, wide margin, Charlotte still has a 75% chance of not receiving the first pick in the draft and Anthony Davis.
Then there's the absentee ownership of Michael Jordan, whose legendary competitive fire and penchant for success have disappeared as he has become majority owner of the league's laughing stock. On Monday, as his team was on the wrong side of one of the season's most embarrassing results, he was in Chicago at a Blackhawks playoff game. As long as his current attitude and game plan towards the team continues, former Charlotte pro basketball fans such as myself will only be able to shake their head and remember what once was.