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Hornets Haven’t Created Much Buzz

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s back to work they go: Hopefully everyone got their rest because it’s not easy these days, even with giants walking the earth.

The Lakers and Boston Celtics of the ‘80s revived the NBA, the Chicago Bulls carried it to its zenith in the ‘90s, but the modern Lakers just won three titles while the league waits for a halo effect.

The salary cap just shrank -- meaning revenues fell -- for the first time. With the ‘90s arena boom receding into history, most of the openers failed to sell out.

After 16 years without a move, two franchises have relocated in two seasons, with Michael Heisley forsaking Vancouver for smaller Memphis (and an arena-deal payoff from FedEx) and Hornet owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge, who alienated Charlotte, fleeing to New Orleans, which has better ambience but worse demographics.

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Charlotte has a vibrant economy. New Orleans is so small, the NFL Saints say they struggle to sell 40,000 season tickets and they play only eight home games.

The Hornets listed their opener as a sellout, despite empty seats in the lower bowl of New Orleans Arena. Meanwhile, ebullient co-owner Shinn, long dormant in North Carolina, resurfaced, crowing he was “back where I belong, at the lead role of this franchise.”

You could get an argument about where he belongs. In basketball-mad Charlotte, they sold out their 23,000-seat arena for 10 seasons in a row. In party-mad New Orleans, the streak was expected to end at one game.

Of course, Shinn suggests the team might have worked things out with Charlotte officials ... were it not for Wooldridge.

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“With me and all my baggage ... it seemed like the reasonable thing to do so I just turned it completely over to Ray,” Shinn told the Charlotte Observer, referring to his being accused of sexual assault but found not guilty in a long-running civil trial.

“I got feedback that Ray was upsetting people, handling things wrong, showing up late to meetings, not showing up at all. I was told that. I know that Ray has a strong personality that some people find abrasive.... I was convinced that he was just doing a good job, that he was a better negotiator, that he was outmaneuvering them and that therefore they were disliking him because he was successful....

“Do I think things would have been different if I had been doing the negotiations? That’s hard to say.”

Shinn’s new marketing strategy includes hiding Wooldridge and becoming “the only team, I think, in professional sports that will have a prayer before every home game.”

The first was delivered not by a member of the clergy but by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who appeared to be unfamiliar with the usual protocol.

“We ask two things, Heavenly Father,” intoned Nagin, “that the Hornets beat the Jazz tonight and that New Orleans wins an NBA championship this year.”

This embarrassed visiting Commissioner David Stern, who had already been obliged to acknowledge his doubts about the city. (“You have to be skeptical. You can lay out the demographics of New Orleans, talk about corporate presence, income, education.... ") Now Stern had to take a position on prayer (he thought it should be personal).

As if to make it up to Charlotte, or compounding the shame, Stern awarded it yet another expansion team, although not at the 1988 price of $35 million.

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This time the tab will be more like $350 million.

Yes, when there’s a $10.2-million windfall for each of the other 29 teams -- including the Hornets -- you bet your sweet life you can go home again.

“I wouldn’t [vote against it] for a lot of reasons,” Shinn told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “One of them is a $10-million reason that we’ll get if they get an expansion team. So I’m not stupid. I want the thing to work.”

Of course, everyone has ratings/franchise issues. Los Angeles is in its eighth season without an NFL team. Fox Sports’ Ed Goren just predicted the World Series would, at least, beat last spring’s four-game NBA Finals, after which the Series went seven games and posted its lowest all-time rating.

Better times await someone, presumably.

Rough Week in Paradise

* Locally, where everyone has been spoiled by the Laker dynasty and the rise of the exciting, young Clippers, things were a little bumpy. The entertainment (Randy Newman, Santana, Michelle Branch) was top-notch, but the teams started a combined 0-3.

Fortunately, they met Friday night, meaning someone had to get a win.

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The victorious Lakers, of course, will soon be the team of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant again, but until then, have some problems.

At full strength, they have (just) enough role players, but they have never found the big man to back up O’Neal. Nor are they getting warmer.

Jelani McCoy (now starting in Toronto), Greg Foster and John Salley were all better than Soumaila Samake. Actually, since Salley gets $600,000 from the Lakers this season, they could call him. He’s only 38 and would love the attention.

After escaping Sacramento last spring, the Lakers talked privately about Charles Oakley. Then they stomped the New Jersey Nets and their sense of urgency seemed to dissipate, along with their appetite for a mouthy tough guy on his last legs.

Meanwhile, big men went every which way, especially to rivals who knew they had to attack in waves. The Kings got Keon Clark for the $4.5-million exception. The San Antonio Spurs added Kevin Willis and Mengke Bateer on minimum-salary deals.

Last week Phil Jackson, exuding calm, as usual, joked about going 0-7 but it was more like advance notice just in case, hoping to avert panic in the streets.

Of course, by now Phil can handle these things in his sleep.

“We played the last year ... in Chicago without [Scottie] Pippen until January and we anticipated the same thing,” said Jackson. “We started off slow. We ended up still tying Utah for the best record in the league.”

Pippen got back so late because he was angry with management, which wasn’t going to re-sign him, and postponed his surgery until just before camp.

The spring before, Jackson, also estranged from the front office, was given a window to entertain offers from other teams and actually did -- while the Bulls were still playing.

The Bulls started that last season 12-9 while Pippen called owner Jerry Reinsdorf a liar.

Now that was a mess.

On the other hand, the Eastern Conference didn’t have challengers as good as the Kings or Spurs. You remember how hard it was for the Lakers to get out of the West last season? It hasn’t gotten any easier.

Of course, problems are one thing. Hopelessness is another.

The Clippers, composed mostly of young players inevitably fixated on long-term contracts, was dismayed en masse when owner Donald T. Sterling failed to re-sign Michael Olowokandi or Elton Brand.

Time will tell if they can get past it, and not much time either. Their season is two games old and already teetering.

Faces and Figures

Not that Bill Walton isn’t capable of saying something that hurt O’Neal’s feelings, but weight is the wrong issue to get defensive about. It’s true that even at 350 to 360 pounds, Shaq can play at pretty close to his usual level, suggesting to him that it’s OK. However, there’s no way that the extra stress on his feet and joints can be anything but destructive. This isn’t likely to be the last time he’s hurt.... Hello, Dark Ages: The New York Knicks, who ran their sellout streak to nine seasons by whatever accounting means necessary, now have tickets available for all games. The end of the streak -- 433 after Saturday’s home opener -- is expected Monday.... Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time: These days, it takes a few games before all the guys who were suspended over the summer are back. Dallas Maverick Coach Don Nelson and his assistant/son Donnie, had to miss the opener for watching draft-ineligible players work out in Yugoslavia. While the team cruised in Memphis, owner Mark Cuban sponsored a party at a Dallas restaurant, which the Nelsons attended in black-and-white-striped prison suits.... The Knicks’ Antonio McDyess suffered his season-ending knee injury with 1:55 left in an exhibition, after playing 38 minutes. Said Net Coach Byron Scott: “I’d just never play my guys a lot of minutes in the preseason. If that’s going to happen to my guys, it’s going to happen in the first quarter because they’re not going to be in it in the fourth.” Fumed Knick Coach Don Chaney: “I run this team the way I run this team.”

That’s so both of you: In a Utah Jazz intrasquad game, Karl Malone, claiming his team had been short-changed, harangued a PR aide into putting two more points on the scoreboard. Then John Stockton, playing on the other team, got so upset, the aide gave his team two more points too.... At a symposium of commissioners, the NHL’s Gary Bettman praised his owners, at which point his old boss, Stern, joked, “Quit sucking up to your owners.” Replied Bettman: “I learned that from the master.”


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