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Mark Heisler ON THE NBA

A Tangled Web Is All That's Left in Charlotte

January 17, 2002|Mark Heisler

Give David Stern's regards to Billy Graham Parkway, remember him to that office park near the arena where visiting teams stayed, far from downtown Charlotte, which few on the NBA circuit ever laid eyes on.

Hello, French Quarter!

Another of the NBA's bright lights from its 1990s glory days flickered Wednesday when Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory announced the Hornets, once attendance kings of the NBA, will apply to move to New Orleans, lowering the curtain on the team's stumbling search for a new home, not to mention its bumbling 14-season history in North Carolina.

Arriving as the first link to the "major leagues," playing in an arena that would be expanded to 24,042 seats, the Hornets had a 10-year sellout streak, leading the league in attendance from 1991 to '97. Those days are long gone.

Now, as owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge fought with civic leaders and traveled the country visiting potential venues, attendance has dropped more than 50% from its peak, to No. 28 in a 29-team league.

Shinn and Wooldridge never meant for that to happen, trying to keep a low profile, swearing officials in other cities to secrecy. However, in Louisville, Ky., each owner arrived in his corporate jet, both of which were parked in plain sight, giving the game away and causing the Gaston Gazette's Richard Walker to christen them "Dumb and Dumber."

Not that the Hornets were ever much slicker.

Admitted to the NBA in 1988, they managed to become respectable, helped in no small part by their luck, drawing the 1991 overall No. 1 pick, Larry Johnson, and the 1992 No. 2, Alonzo Mourning.

After that, however, came their clinic in mismanagement.

In 1993, after their first playoff appearance, Shinn handed Johnson, who was still under contract for four years, a $75-million extension, then an unheard of figure. An incredulous Stern asked Shinn if he realized that was more than twice what the league had charged him for the entire franchise.

Shinn paid no attention to Johnson's back troubles, which had begun that summer.

It turned out that Johnson would never again be the same player.

Now strapped, Shinn would be hard-pressed to pay other players, starting with Mourning, whose agent, David Falk, forced Shinn to trade Mourning to Miami in 1995. Johnson went to the Knicks a year later.

So much for the good old days.

In all, the Hornets would lose 27 free agents in a row before finally re-signing Jamal Mashburn last summer. (Mashburn then went out 16 games into the season because of an abdominal muscle injury and hasn't played since.)

The Hornets also traded the draft rights to Kobe Bryant to the Lakers for Vlade Divac, who would ultimately leave as a free agent. In light of all the players who were passing through, the miracle was that the Hornets stayed as competitive as they did.

By the end of the '90s, Shinn and his new partner, Wooldridge, knew a cavernous arena wasn't enough if it didn't have enough luxury suites and began entreating local officials to build a new downtown arena.

This didn't go over well, the old arena having opened so recently. By this time, the Hornets were no longer the only team in town or even the local favorite, the NFL Panthers having moved in and taken over.

Besides that, Shinn, who had titled his autobiography "Good Morning, Lord!" was in a long-running civil suit with a former employee who claimed he had sexually harassed her, although she eventually lost in court.

Last spring, the Hornets made a surprising run, entering the playoffs seeded No. 6 in the East, sweeping No. 3 Miami, then taking a 3-2 lead on Milwaukee in the second round, and a 15-point lead in Game 6 in Charlotte, before collapsing.

Showing how poisoned the atmosphere had become, days after the cheering stopped, voters rejected a bond initiative for a new arena by a crashing 57% to 43%.

By now, Stern was trying to salvage a deal in Charlotte by bringing in new owners, since the presence of Shinn and Wooldridge was considered the problem. But they refused to sell.

Then came this season's tour of cities: New Orleans; Louisville; Norfolk, Va., and, of course, the obligatory stop in Anaheim.

The Hornets' application to move to New Orleans will probably be accepted, since Stern is out of ideas. He has raised no public objection to the idea of the Hornets leaving, as he did firmly and quickly this week with the Orlando Magic, when owner Rich DeVos announced he'd sell the team.

So it looks like it will soon be goodbye, Carolina. It's been, uh, memorable.

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