Over the past few years, I rarely was able to convince anyone to watch Charlotte Bobcats basketball. But one evening last season, while visiting a friend who grew up attending Hornets games, I saw on my phone that the Bobcats were tied late in the fourth quarter. When we turned the television on, we watched only two late Charlotte possessions. First, a Bobcats bench player who was trapped along the sideline dribbled the ball off his own foot and out of bounds; the next trip down the floor, they were hit with a shot-clock violation. I’d seen it so often it barely fazed me, but my friend couldn’t take it. The game went to commercial and he changed the channel. “Watching that is masochism.”
He wasn’t wrong, either. Though successful overall, last season’s Bobcats were dreadful on offense, 24th in the NBA. A fan who watched them with any frequency could be easily convinced they were dead last. Charlotte’s slow-paced approach would be called methodical if its methods didn’t produce a team that was in the bottom third in 3-point percentage, 2-point percentage and offensive rebound percentage. Only a league-best turnover rate kept the offense afloat.
The Bobcats instead rode a stellar defense to a winning record and the playoffs, the franchise’s first in four seasons and the second in the Bobcats era. Local fans weren’t along for the ride, though: Time Warner Cable Arena showed almost no change in how many people showed up over the previous season, with the Bobcats coming in 25th in attendance. The Bobcats may have been moderately successful, but they were decidedly not sexy. They made opponents take difficult shots, they didn’t foul, they collected defensive rebounds … and that was about it. Fans apparently wanted something flashier.
This season, Charlotte should get just that. The team’s big offseason signing, Lance Stephenson, should space the floor and create shots like Charlotte hasn’t seen in over a decade. If that happens, expect fans to find their way to Charlotte basketball again. Sure, Stephenson has a well-earned reputation for questionable decisions. He has repeatedly demonstrated poor judgment on the court, in the locker room and perhaps most concerning, off the court. On multiple occasions, he thought it wise to goad the best player in basketball. Teammates reportedly took offense to his actions in Indianapolis. And if Stephenson’s domestic assault arrest had occurred in 2014 instead of 2010, who knows when he would see the court again.
But the 6-foot-5 New Yorker also may be the best guard to wear a Charlotte jersey since Baron Davis. He alone should help make the Hornets' offense easier on the eyes. As should P.J. Hairston, who is quite Stephensonian himself: A spotty off-court track record forced him out of college at North Carolina, but his shooting skills -- especially from behind the arc -- made him worth the risk at pick No. 26 for Charlotte, which ranked in the bottom third in the league in 3-point percentage last season.
Like any fan base, Charlotte will quickly overlook past indiscretions if Stephenson and Hairston make the team’s offense worth the price of admission. But that doesn’t mean the two will receive full pardons from Hornets fans, either. The trust that characterized the 1990s team/fan base relationship is gone, and there’s reason to think it won’t be back for years. Justified or not, local fans feel they have been betrayed more than once. The hurt and loss felt when George Shinn moved the team to New Orleans never totally went away, though the recent Hornets rebranding helps. When the Bobcats arrived, already-distrustful fans were paired with inept ownership and unexplainable front-office decisions. The result was bad basketball that only compounded fan skepticism. More recently, watching Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson use the threat of relocation to force Charlotte taxpayers to foot the bill for millions in unnecessary stadium renovations only furthered fan distrust.
Now, not even the best get adulation mixed with guarded skepticism. Michael Jordan, North Carolina’s basketball Jesus, was seen as a questionable presence even before he became majority owner. Cam Newton, the Panthers’ star quarterback with the perfect smile and otherworldly potential, is routinely blasted on local sports talk radio for perceived immaturity and inability. If Jordan and Newton can’t generate unqualified adulation in Charlotte, baggage-laden free agents like Stephenson have no chance to be welcomed with open arms.
Regardless of fan wariness, rolling the dice on players such as Stephenson and Hairston was the right decision. The only thing that can reasonably bring fans back to Hornets games, both at the arena and on television, is making Charlotte’s offense something worth watching again. Even if the fans never fall in love with Stephenson, he should at least make them show up and cheer. And after everything Charlotte fans have been through, that alone is a welcome change.