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Bobcats Hope to Score as Charlotte's Second Shot

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2004; Page D01

Ed Tapscott, the Charlotte Bobcats' executive vice president and chief executive, can remember when he stepped into his Charlotte offices for the first time in January 2003. He had no phone, no furniture, no staff and only an inkling of the magnitude of the job he had ahead of him -- building the NBA's 30th franchise in a city still healing from one of professional sports' ugliest divorces.

Tapscott plopped on the floor in his suit and began dialing people from his cell phone. "I made a lot of calls that day," said Tapscott, a Washington native. "I can't remember who I called first, but I probably said, 'Help!' "

A star for the NCAA champion Connecticut Huskies last April, Emeka Okafor has become the building block and public face for the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. (AP)

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Almost 22 months later, Tapscott isn't exactly worry-free anymore but his office resembles an office, with furniture, phones and a staff of about 170 people. The Bobcats resemble an NBA team, with Bernie Bickerstaff serving dual roles as coach and general manager and rookie Emeka Okafor serving as the most recognizable face on a roster filled with relative no-names. The team will debut tonight against the Washington Wizards at the Charlotte Coliseum.

"So far, we've been selling a concept and a snazzy logo," Tapscott said. "Now it's time for the actual product."

The city of Charlotte staged a pep rally last night, and there likely will be a full and lively crowd at the game. But Dell Curry said it won't compare to the Charlotte Hornets' first game in 1988, a 133-93 loss to the Boston Celtics. "No way we can match the excitement we had with the Hornets," said Curry, an original Hornet who is the Bobcats' director of player programs. "We lost the first game by 40 points and left to a 20,000-plus standing ovation. They stayed until the buzzer went off."

Building the proper buzz for the Bobcats would have been much easier if the expansion team wasn't coming to a city that watched the Hornets abandon it for New Orleans in 2002. The scars are still apparent from a 10-year romance, in which the fans kept the Charlotte Coliseum filled almost every night, then faded into four years of apathy and angst.

Charlotte gradually fell out of love with its first sports franchise after dealing with the embarrassments of several indiscretions -- the owner, George Shinn, was caught up in sexual harassment suits that were never proven but damaging; the team let talented players such as Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson and Kobe Bryant leave with limited returns and acquired others such as Derrick Coleman and Anthony Mason with shaky reputations.

The greatest tragedy of all came in 2000, when popular guard Bobby Phills was killed while drag-racing with David Wesley after a practice. Shinn and his partner, Ray Wooldridge, became the ultimate villains shortly thereafter, when they threatened to move the team. The city responded by giving the owners a less-than-half-empty building and a push to go away.

"Charlotte is the type of city where you have to earn your way and keep a commitment," said Pat McCrory, serving his ninth year as mayor. "The previous ownership earned their way and didn't keep their commitment to its citizens and the citizens turned on them."

Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television, bought the Bobcats franchise for $300 million to become the first African American owner of a major pro sports team. Johnson quickly reached out to the people of Charlotte, donating money to the community, buying a home in the city and establishing a regional television network to broadcast sports in North Carolina and South Carolina. "All of it is part of my philosophy that we have to be more than a sports team," Johnson said. "We have to be a force. Economic force. Social force. That's what we try to do."

Said McCrory: "Bob Johnson has done everything to make that commitment and he has done it with a handshake. That's the Charlotte way."

A brand-new, 18,500-seat uptown arena -- its design and construction financed mostly by the city of Charlotte but its operation falling under the responsibility of the team -- will be ready in time for the 2005-06 season.

Until the Bobcats leave the Coliseum, however, there are too many reminders of the Hornets. They still work and play on Hive Drive. Fresh coats of orange and blue paint have been brushed across the building, covering the old Hornets teal and purple, and an orange mascot named Rufus dances around the court where Buzz once did. But the arena is still filled with 23,000 teal seats.

"It's almost like starting a new family but still living in the old house," McCrory said. "I don't want to relate it to a second spouse, but you almost have to move into a new house to reestablish a new relationship. It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be a continuous transition.

"It's a great step for both the NBA and Charlotte that the NBA returned," the mayor, a Republican, said. "It was a good partnership in the past and I believe it will be an even stronger partnership in the future."

The first step for the fans is to learn who they are rooting for. The Bobcats don't possess personalities such as Muggsy Bogues, a onetime Hornets star. But they made a shrewd deal prior to the NBA draft, trading the No. 4 pick and a second-round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers to land Okafor, giving the expansion team a rare big man from which to build around. "When I say big, I say 'big' in an expansive way," Tapscott said. "He's obviously a big player. He's a presence. He's a real, real good character guy. A very, very bright man. Sort of like central casting opening their doors for us."

The Bobcats have plastered Okafor's face throughout Charlotte, placing his picture on vans and buses, stamping out orange and blue signs that read, "Okafor in '04." "Everywhere where you go, they say, "You have my vote.' It boosts the ego," Okafor said with a laugh. "It's cool."

Bickerstaff wants Okafor to be the team's defensive anchor, but he plans to shield his star. "I don't want the finger always pointed at Okafor," he said. "The sum is what's important."

The sum also is obscure. The Bobcats passed on big names and bigger contracts of players like former Wizard Jerry Stackhouse during the expansion draft and selected the likes of Gerald Wallace and Jason Kapono, inexpensive young players who hadn't been given the opportunity to play much in the NBA. They later signed little-known free agents such as Tamar Slay and Jason Hart. The purpose, Bickerstaff said, was to build a core for the future, avoid a quick fix and quicker fall.

"Somebody has to emerge from this locker room as a known," said guard Steve Smith, a 13-year veteran who noted that playing for an African American owner was a major reason he signed with the Bobcats. "They're all unknowns. Now, they have their chance."

And the Bobcats have a chance to win back a fan base. "As an organization, you would make a mistake if you ever thought your work was done," Tapscott said. "We're here for the long haul and over time we feel we'll have people excited about NBA basketball all over again."


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