Bobcats Winning Games, Fans in Charlotte
Well, that is one reason the NBA is looking better these days in Charlotte.
Since Michael Jordan last month was officially approved as owner of the Bobcats, he's been on a mission to upgrade the Bobcats in many ways. And that includes game operations.
So at a recent game at Time Warner Cable Arena, two fans were selected to come onto the court to see how many free throws each could make in 30 seconds. The winner and the victor's entire row would win a pair of Air Jordans.
That's right, the entire row. At each game now the Bobcats allow for up to 20 pairs of shoes to go to a winning row, and then they're mailed out. At $170 a pair, that's $3,400 if the row is full.
"I'm sure he can afford to give a few pairs away,'' Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins quipped about Jordan.
When Charlotte's Stephen Quintana, 18, recently won a shooting contest by hitting eight foul shots to six for Bobby Harris, 28, of Raleigh, N.C., he was greeted by high fives upon returning to his row. Considering Harris, dressed head to toe in Brand Jordan gear, is a former college basketball player, being beaten by a high school lacrosse player made it an upset quite worthy of celebration.
But Quintana was hardly the only recipient of high-fives on this night. Plenty are being seen as the Bobcats work to bring basketball excitement back to a city that once regularly led the NBA in attendance during the days of the Charlotte Hornets before everything began to crash down about a decade ago.
"This is a lot different than any other year,'' Quintana said about the team that last Wednesday clinched the first playoff berth in its six-year history. "Everybody's really into the Bobcats.''
Quintana might not be old enough to remember much about the Hornets, in Charlotte from 1988-2002 until moving to New Orleans. But he sure knows that Bobcats games weren't much of an event for years after they entered the NBA 2004.
The Bobcats never have finished higher than 22nd in the NBA attendance, including three finishes of 26th or worse. But now the Bobcats (43-37) are bound for the playoffs as well as having secured their first winning season.
Attendance still needs some work, with Charlotte ranking No. 22, but at least the team's current average of 15,783 is up from last season's 14,526. And Jordan, who had been a part owner and the top player personnel man from 2006, has added some additional excitement now that he's the owner. He replaced Robert Johnson, who lost gobs of money trying to bring hoops hysteria back to Charlotte.
"Things are looking great,'' forward Gerald Wallace, the only player remaining from the team's first season, said of the current state of the Bobcats. "The whole six years I was here, when we were first starting out and trying to figure out how things were going to go and what direction the organization was going to go, to see how far we've come is amazing. It's just fun. It's one of those situations you just sit back and smile and enjoy the ride.''
There were plenty of smiles last Wednesday at New Orleans when the Bobcats beat none other than the Hornets to secure a maiden playoff voyage. Fans still remember what an ugly departure the Hornets had in 2002.
Hornets owner George Shinn, who used to have a prayer recited before home games, had alienated fans in the family-oriented city late in the 1990s with his involvement in a sex scandal. The married Shinn was found not liable but admitted to having sex with a woman who filed a civil suit against him. Shinn also admitted to a two-year affair with a Hornets cheerleader.
All of that played a role in Shinn being unable to get a new arena to replace the Charlotte Coliseum, soon out of date after opening in 1988. And, having a lame-duck team about to move, the attendance average was a dismal 11,286 in 2001-02, about half of what the team, which led the NBA in attendance four straight seasons from 1991-95, once drew.
The city went two years without the NBA. Then it was a hard sell after the Bobcats arrived in 2004, playing their first season at the since-imploded Coliseum before moving to Time Warner Cable Arena in 2005.
"I think it first started getting away when they started to get rid of quality core guys, myself included,'' Bobcats television analyst Dell Curry, who played for the Charlotte Hornets for their first 10 years before being traded in 1998, said of Charlotte beginning to slip as a basketball city. "Not trying to toot my horn, but myself, Alonzo (Mourning, dealt in 1995) and Muggsy (Bouges, traded in 1997), guys that were staples in the community. They had quality players they let go and they didn't replace them with those type of players.
"The city went the expansion franchise thing before with the Hornets, and they were at a point where they were used to having a good team on the floor and winning. And they're waiting to get to that level again. But I think it's gotten better since the Bobcats started winning. I think fans have been just waiting to get back to that status.''
Curry said it also didn't help the city's NBA fortunes when the NFL expanded to Charlotte in 1995 and the Carolina Panthers became the city's second major pro sports franchise.
"You had other sports competing for fans' resources,'' Curry said. "It definitely makes a big difference. When you're the only show in town, you can do what you want and people are always going to come out.''
At least the Bobcats can now be called the better pro team in town, with the Panthers failing to make the playoffs last season. A big reason has been coach Larry Brown, having extended his own NBA record by steering an eighth team to the postseason.
Brown is in his second season in Charlotte. With Brown working with Jordan and Higgins, the Bobcats have made several savvy maneuvers over the past 1 1/2 years to beef up the roster.
Last season's big move was the December 2008 trade in which Jason Richardson went to Phoenix, with Raja Bell and Boris Diaw the key pieces coming back. Then last November the Bobcats used Bell and Vladimir Radmanovic in a deal in which they got guard Stephen Jackson, who leads the team in scoring with a 21.2 average.
"I think I was just one player that these guys needed to come in and provide leadership and another guy who has the playoff experience,'' said Jackson, who won a title with San Antonio in 2003. "It's exciting being part of something for the first time. I think we can play with anybody in a seven-game series. It doesn't matter who it is.''
While Jackson is the scoring leader, Wallace does a little of everything. He's averaging 18.3 points and 10.1 rebounds in a season in which he earned his first All-Star berth.
The Bobcats have another versatile performer in Diaw, a forward averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists. And point guard Raymond Felton, in his fifth year with the Bobcats, has been steady with averages of 12.2 points and 5.6 assists.
"We generally try to play hard every night, and it's fun to be around a group like that,'' Brown said. "Having Michael in charge, the things he's done to help us get better, I think have been real positive. I think it will only continue to get better. He wants to win, and I think he'll do anything he can to give us that chance. So it's fun being around him.''
A request to interview Jordan was turned down by the Bobcats. Since it became apparent in February that Jordan was on the verge of being named owner, he's attended more games than in the past, when Jordan often remained at his Chicago-area home.
The legendary Jordan, who led the Bulls to six NBA titles in the 1990s while the Hornets were busy winning attendance titles, sits next to the Charlotte bench at home games. He regularly offers pointers to players.
Still, the Bobcats want to be known for more than being the team owned by basketball's greatest player.
"We don't want (the fans) to be excited about the Charlotte Bobcats because Michael Jordan is the owner,'' Wallace said. "We want them to be excited about the Charlotte Bobcats because of the product we put on the floor, the way we go out and compete every night and give them a reason to be cheerful about us.''
The fans are slowly returning to NBA games in Charlotte, but consistency is still sought. The Bobcats in late March have three home games out of four drawing less than 15,000, but they've followed that with three straight April crowds in excess of 18,000.
"I think the energy in terms of the city is starting to get that feverish pitch as everybody is looking forward to the playoffs right around the corner,'' said Higgins, who often played against the Hornets in Charlotte during a 13-year NBA career that ended in 1995. "Michael has talked about those goals for us to create that buzz they had with the Hornets here. It's been proven (Charlotte can draw fans). So that's our goal to try to put as many fans in this building as we possibly can and playing a winning brand of basketball.''
Of course, while "buzz'' is an appropriate term for the Hornets, perhaps the Bobcats are looking for a growl about town. Regardless of the terminology, Felton, who is a free agent this summer but says he wants to re-sign with Charlotte, is pretty excited about the future.
"We're trying to gain that respect around the league that we can be one of the elite teams in the league and in the East,'' said Felton, who arrived in Charlotte for the Bobcats' second season of 2005-06. "The fans have gotten better. It was a bitter taste when the Hornets left but it was a thing that happened. But the fans have gotten better each year I have been here.''
The Bobcats are doing enough to get Harris to drive to some games from Raleigh, two hours up the road. Harris used to attend Hornets games.
"North Carolina is much more excited now about having an NBA franchise,'' Harris said. "It's reminiscent of the Hornets.''
And this comes from a guy who lost the contest to win Air Jordans. Imagine how excited he would have been had he and his row won shoes.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson