CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As you step onto the long, steep escalator that sends Bobcats fans to the upper deck of Time Warner Cable Arena, there is an overwhelming and inescapable sense that you are being carried to your doom at a tortuous 1.5 mph. Perhaps, as a way to distract patrons from this impending dread and keep them from bailing off the sides of the escalator, on the wall to the left is a massive mural that depicts the rich basketball history of the state of North Carolina.
While nothing special to look at from an artistic standpoint, the wall works rather well in this capacity, I must say. By the time you’ve taken in the photo of Dean Smith, the Duke and NC State game jerseys, the 38 Final Four appearances by North Carolina schools, the action shots, some women’s hoops history and the so-called "glory days" of the Hornets, you’re too far gone to turn back or try to escape.
At the very top of the timeline, beyond a structural beam and clearly added as an afterthought, is what we are supposed to believe is the final piece of the state’s illustrious hoops history: a large color photo from 2010 commemorating Michael Jordan's taking over as the Bobcats owner. The mural, however, abruptly ends right there with that single photo of MJ. The message is clear: Since Jordan began his disgraceful run as the largely absentee and seemingly clueless NBA owner in Charlotte, there have been no historical highlights of note to put on the wall.
As I took my seat inside the arena Thursday evening, however, on what was being impossibly billed as Fan Appreciation Night, I could only wonder if that was all about to change. If the mural-makers wouldn’t soon be hard at work painting some kind of unique fitting tribute to MJ’s 2012 squad, the sad, bumbling and heartless Charlotte Bobcats -- the worst team in NBA history.
One good thing about covering the Bobcats, I suppose, is you don’t have to worry about arena traffic. Less than an hour before tipoff the atmosphere outside the Bobcats building was so electric you could actually hear the birds chirping in the trees. (The parcel of land where the handsome arena now stands has a long illustrious history of being put to intelligent, industrious use, having once been home to the Confederate Naval Yard despite the slight inconvenience of being almost 200 miles from the nearest large body of water.) Inside the building, where they don’t bother to check your ID at the security gate -- because, really, who would sneak into a Bobcats game? -- down in the empty media dining room, a large bowl of cold Goulash sat untouched under a 4-foot color poster of a saggy, red-faced Ric Flair who, I must say, is looking more and more like the character Blue from "Old School."
Out in the cavernous hallways of the arena, booths offering 30 percent off team merchandise and 2013 season tickets (starting at eight bucks a pop) sat empty and deserted under a banner that actually read: "Prepare for today, OWN tomorrow." As the Bobcats and Knicks completed their warm-ups, kids played tag in the upper decks, chasing each other through rows and rows of empty seats.
But then, as I made my way down closer to the court, I was amazed at what I saw: people.
As I tweeted last night, you will never see better proof of the mind-blowing marketing power of a free $7 T-shirt than the 10,000 or so fans (most of them, yes, homesick Knicks fans) who actually bothered to show up for the Bobcats' season finale and record-setting 59th loss. Not that anyone was actually wearing the shirts. Instead, in a weird ritual I’ve never seen before, fans balled them up in their fists, or draped them around their necks, like scarves, or tucked them into the backs of their pants, trying anything to avoid actually wearing them -- a small gesture of protest that, in the end, would shockingly represent the sum total of outrage shown by Bobcats fans.
Oh, not to worry, there were plenty of other ignominious clues that let you know the Bobcats were about to lose their 23rd straight game (a fitting homage, of sorts, to MJ’s jersey number) and take their place next to the 0-16 Detroit Lions, the 1962 Mets and the 0-80 Prairie View football team among the pitiable pantheon of sports' greatest losers.
For starters, after scouting the Bobcats, the Knicks thought so highly of them they decided to rest half their starters. As the backups shot around before the game, the court was lit up with a spotlight shaped like the Jordan Brand logo. In a way, it perfectly represents Jordan’s shadowy leadership and presence this past month as his team spiraled down toward the strike-shortened 7-59 finish and the .106 winning percentage that would sink them below the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who finished 9-73.
In what will go down as one of the most clueless gestures ever by an owner (and that’s really saying something, isn’t it?) last week Jordan appeared at a Blackhawks game, mucking it up with Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull while, back in Charlotte, his helpless, hapless Bobcats were getting blown out 101-73 by the lowly Wizards. They should put that on the wall by the escalator; the single gesture that ultimately transformed Jordan from an untouchable icon of basketball excellence to, essentially, the NBA’s version of Washington Generals GM Red Klotz, the guy paid to lose 25,000 games to the Harlem Globetrotters.
Yes, I know, Thursday night they showed a TV shot of Jordan suffering in his owner’s suite during the Knicks game, but I’m still not convinced that wasn’t a Nike-sponsored hologram.
Now, at some point, I know, I’m required to mention what actually happened on the court during this historic game. Well, how’s this: The Bobcats opened with two shot clock violations in their first four offensive sets while the Knicks scrubs went, I swear, dunk, jam, layup, bunny, layup, dunk, slam.
Far more amazing than what was inevitably unfolding on the court, however, was the enormous lengths the Bobcats marketing team went to in order to honor (read: distract) their fans. They should win some kind of an industry award. I’m serious. Only, instead of accepting it on stage at some banquet, I hope they make them all dance on video first and then shoot it at them with one of those T-shirt air cannons.
In rapid-fire succession, as if a single moment’s pause would cause everyone to run for the exits, the Bobcats gave away chicken dinners, a car lease, towels, hats, a laptop computer, tickets, basketballs, Jordan Brand shoes, something from a casino and, I think, a voucher for a free organ transplant. At one point, with the Bobcats fading fast, they blasted Elvis Costello’s "Pump It Up" as a guy wearing pogo-stick legs used a lacrosse stick to rocket free shirts into the second deck, where fans, oblivious to the score or the record avalanche of losses, gorged themselves on free chicken fingers. Now, I never finished "Infinite Jest" (hey, at least I admit it, poser), but I’m pretty sure there’s a similar scene somewhere in that book.
Angry and confused, I began to jot down some notes about the deeper meaning of this scene. When did results, performance and effort stop mattering to fans? Are we all really this brain-dead and easily sated? When did the arena experience turn into an adult version of Baby Einstein, a mind-numbing kaleidoscope of sounds, shapes and lights? Are we all this sad and desperate? This needy?
And then, 100 free "NBA 2K12" video games attached to tiny, silk parachutes, like something from "The Hunger Games," were dropped down into the crowd and I lost my train of thought, giggling, oddly, as a tiny bit of spittle escaped from the corner of my mouth.
In the end, all the freebies were a fitting metaphor, since no one in NBA history has ever been better than the Bobcats at giveaways. They gave away their pride, they gave away a city’s support, Jordan’s legacy, the ball and, ultimately, 59 out of 66 games. Why not put that on the mural by the escalator? Down 13 heading into the fourth quarter, the dignified Paul Silas, perhaps the only innocent one in this whole sordid mess, turned his back on the Bobcats, not saying a word to the team during the entire break in the action as the arena DJ blasted the theme from "Rocky," the ironic remix version, I guess.
Later, Silas admitted, “It’s been tough; in reality, the guys we played with were second-stringers. God has been good to me, but, no, I don’t want my career to end like this.” About an hour after the game ended, crews were already tearing up the floor, putting it in storage and I was standing in a hallway under the arena talking to Kemba Walker when Silas walked by and playfully nudged the star from behind. It was one, final act of coaching from Silas, who was pushing Walker forward, toward the exit, where he – and everyone else – could finally put this season behind them. “I’m not ashamed of what happened. I’m really not,” Silas said. “We did the best we could.”
For a team like the Bobcats, that meant standing, feeble and flatfooted, in the fourth quarter as Amare Stoudemire stamped their ticket into the record books with one thunderous, uncontested dunk after another. As the lead moved from 13 to 16 to 20, I waited for the protests, the boos, the ugly gestures, the free half-eaten chicken fingers hurled back down onto the court as the frustration and embarrassment finally boiled over ... but to my amazement, it never materialized. Fans just continued to smile and stare up at the JumboTron, watching elderly fans dance to LMFAO.
I was expecting The Vet in Philly and, instead, I got a dinner party at Paula Deen’s.
Finally, I saw two guys sitting about 15 rows up near center court don paper bags over their heads. One simply said, "Bobcats Fan." The other: "Season Ticket Holder, MJ Refund?" I walked over, introduced myself and thanked them for, in some weird way, giving me hope about the current state of fandom.
“This is pathetic,” Matt Malone shouted over an AC/DC riff as fans poured past him to get out of the arena before the final horn. “What is Jordan doing? Half these guys out there couldn’t make another NBA team’s roster. This city, this state, will support basketball. This is my fourth year as a season-ticket holder and I’m not giving up hope ... but, we’re losing by 30 to the Wizards and you look up and see Jordan laughing around with the Blackhawks and even I was like, 'What the f--- are you doing, Michael?'"
Put that on the mural by the escalator.
Then I ask them, as a protest, if they’re canceling their season tickets.
“We re-upped at Christmas,” laughed his friend Phil Quatrale.
"OK then, well, how does it feel to be a witness to the worst debacle in NBA history?" I ask. Because, it wasn’t just the epic amount of losing by the Bobcats, who were annihilated by something like 18 points a game down the stretch. It was the way they did it. There was no Casey Stengel loveable loser aspect to this team. They quit. They tanked. They squabbled. They pointed fingers. They disappeared. This was ugly. Historically ugly.
“I’m hoping,” Malone says, “with the strike-shortened season and all the injuries and the fact that we don’t have, technically, the most losses in a season, that NBA history won’t look at us as the worst team of all time. They’ll just give us an asterisk or something.”
I reached out to re-shake his hand. "God bless you," I said with a chuckle, "You really are a fan."
Just then, though, watching the final seconds over my shoulder, Malone let out a loud, wounded groan as Stoudemire, I think, dunked again and again and then once more for good measure. Up by 20, the Knicks held the ball on their final possession. When the shot clock ran out, the Bobcats got it back, though, with just 4.4 seconds separating them from the history books. Instead of shooting, Cory Higgins did the only merciful thing he could on Bobcats Fan Appreciation Night -- he let the clock run out.
Out of relief, I think, fans actually cheered a little as the Bobcats made their finest move of the season, quickly and quietly leaving the court. And just like that, without the kind of ceremony you’d expect from something so historic, it was done: 104-84, 7-59, a .106 winning percentage, a new low, a new worst team in NBA history -- all for a measly 25 percent chance at the No. 1 pick in the draft.
“Thank God that’s over,” Quatrale muttered, almost to himself.
Technically, it’s not. It could get worse. A lot worse.
If, after all this, the Bobcats still don’t get Anthony Davis in the draft, they could start off the 2013 season 0-3 and surpass the Cleveland Cavaliers’ all-time record of 26 consecutive losses.
But, the truth of the matter is, I just didn't have the heart to bring that up.
These poor people have suffered enough.
They're the ones who deserve to go on the mural by the escalator.
Not Err Jordan.