Sports Arena

Dead Men Playing

Charlotte's cagers play out the season while their Clintonite owner packs for the Big Easy.

4.24.02

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Early in Saturday's first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets star forward Jamal Mashburn leaned over at courtside and vomited. It was an altogether fitting gesture, since it appeared as if the Hornets' fans were calling in sick that evening.

Just 9,505 were on hand in the cavernous 23,000-seat Charlotte Coliseum to see the Hornets defeat the Magic in game 1, and only 10,323 were in the stands for last night's contest, an overtime battle won by Orlando to even the series.

It's not all that surprising, considering the Charlotte Hornets have been Dead Men Playing since early in the 01-02 campaign. The team is poised to ditch Charlotte -- its home for 14 seasons -- for New Orleans and luxury-box riches during the summer break.

Charlotte fans, shying from bedside duty with this terminal patient, have stayed away in droves. And the crowd that showed on Saturday was even 10 percent smaller than the season average of barely 11,000 -- second to last in the NBA.

It's a shame, because the Hornets are gearing up to make a strong run for the NBA Finals. The basketball playoffs can be a grueling road to go down, but the Hornets have a couple of advantages. They are healthy (other than Mashburn's touch of the flu). And though they are the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, the relative weakness of the East and an impressive road record (23-18) afford them about as good a shot as the top-seeded New Jersey Nets.

All of which begs the question: If the Hornets go far in the playoffs, will anyone in Charlotte care or show up?

The absence of so many of Charlotte's wide asses in the seats for Hornets games amounts to a very determined protest. It's not that Charlotte's a bad sports town. Far from it. The Hornets have been a success story since setting up camp in the late 1980s. So successful were they that they led the league in attendance for seven straight seasons. Sellouts were the norm, and "the Hive," as the Coliseum is referred to, was a feared destination for visiting teams.

No longer. Most people assign the blame to team owner George Shinn, arguably the most loathed owner in sports (fierce competition is supplied by Peter Angelos and Daniel Snyder).

"The dislike, the hatred, for George in this town right now is incredible," one former Charlotte city council member was quoted saying recently. And this was from a loyal Shinn supporter.

Not long ago George Shinn was the local boy made good, the rags-to-riches entrepreneur who delivered a major professional franchise to his hometown and helped bring Charlotte into the Big Time.

But it turns out he had what is known as a Clinton problem. And the folks in western North Carolina are a lot less understanding about such matters than the New York and Washington press corps to whom marital infidelities are charming facets of a public figure's character.

In 1997, Charlotte was shocked when Shinn was accused of sexual assault. Criminal charges were never filed, and he was acquitted in a civil trial. But he was far from exonerated. In the course of the civil trial it was revealed that Shinn thought of the Charlotte Hornets organization as his harem. A team cheerleader and another front-office worker came forward with similar claims of sexual harassment.

Plus the franchise committed several unpardonable acts. They let stars like Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, and Rex Chapman leave for greener pastures. And Shinn refused to put up a modest amount of money ($13 million) to guarantee the city would build him a brand-spanking new $100 million arena with enough skyboxes to fill the coffers.

Boneheaded moves coupled with a boner-sporting owner turned Charlotte off to the Hornets in a big way, a seemingly impossible feat for the first decade of the team's existence. A subsequent referendum to pay for a new arena went down to defeat, and Shinn made it clear he wanted out of the Queen City. As if to spite Charlotte, he spurned numerous offers to sell the team to high-profile individuals who would keep the team in Carolina, notably Michael Jordan and Black Entertainment Television mogul Robert Johnson.

Once the season ends, the team will ship on down to the Big Easy, an ironic destination in more than one way. Charlotte and New Orleans couldn't be more dissimilar. One is virtue, the other vice. If Ned Flanders were to move from Springfield, he would go to Charlotte. Plus, the franchise is deserting one city desperate for a love affair with its team for another that flunked its previous stint in the NBA. The Utah Jazz, if one recalls, fled New Orleans several decades ago and, to be honest, haven't really been missed.

If Charlotte does win the up-for-grabs Eastern Conference title, they would likely face the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. And they would most certainly lose to Shaq and Kobe Bryant. Which is ironic, too, since Charlotte drafted Kobe Bryant out of high school despite his professed refusal to play in such a cow town. In an embarrassment to Shinn and the city of Charlotte, Kobe won the standoff. The Hornets were forced to trade Bryant, and have watched from afar as he has led the Lakers to several titles. Nothing would be more fitting in this sad, bitter season than for the executioner's blade to be wielded by yet another of George Shinn's bungles.

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