Once jilted, Charlotte's fans size up new suitor

When the Charlotte Hornets moved away two years ago, few fans here expected to see NBA Commissioner David Stern anytime soon. Yet Mr. Stern was back in town earlier this month, arriving just in time to see the city's second expansion franchise, the Bobcats, make their debut.

The Hornets left for New Orleans after years of fighting over public funding for a new arena. Now the NBA has returned, armed with a big-bucks owner who is making history on his own and with a city-funded, $265 million arena set to open for the 2005-06 season. The question is: Can the new team overcome the bitter legacy of its predecessors?

"I always say, if you're going to spend $300 million on a sports franchise, make sure you do it in Charlotte," says owner Bob Johnson, cable TV executive and the first African-American majority owner in big-league sports. "This city is one of the most sports-minded cities that I can think of."

His assertion will be put to the test in coming months, as the Bobcats try to woo fans with a typically thin expansion-team roster. Other than first-round draft pick Emeka Okafor, who starred at UConn, few recognizable faces are on the roster. The team lost its home opener, 103-96, against the Washington Wizards in front of a sellout crowd.

The team rebounded two days later, with a convincing win over Orlando, before losing its next four games - two of them on the road.

How to woo back the fans?

The franchise also faces the challenge of how to revive interest in the NBA. North Carolina is a hoops hotbed when it comes to college ball, especially among fans of nearby powers Duke, North Carolina, N.C. State, and Wake Forest. The pro game, though, is another story.

The Hornets led the NBA in attendance during eight of the team's 14 seasons in Charlotte, once posting 364 straight home sellouts. In later years, though, interest plummeted as off-court player behavior worsened and the owners became embroiled in a string of feuds with local business and political leaders.

Since Mr. Johnson won the new NBA franchise, fan response has been uneven. The parades and season ticket sales have been enthusiastic, but not on a par with the Hornets' early days.

When the Bobcats began training camp last month, Johnson took to the practice floor, shooting free throws while waiting for interview sessions to begin. He missed 31 of 36 attempts, but little else in Johnson's life story points to failure.

The owner's tale

With a master's degree in international affairs from Princeton, Johnson hoped to become an ambassador but instead entered the cable industry. In 1979, he hatched the idea of a cable network aimed at African-Americans. With a $500,000 loan from cable executive John Malone, Black Entertainment Television, now known as BET, was born.

Johnson sold BET to media conglomerate Viacom for $3 billion in 2001, reaping $1.4 billion. An ardent sports fan, Johnson was enlisted by Hugh McColl Jr., then chairman at Charlotte-based Bank of America, to try to buy the Hornets. The subsequent offer was rejected, but Commissioner Stern told Johnson the city might get an expansion franchise in the future.

Soon after the Hornets left, Stern began negotiating for a new arena in Charlotte - and taking bids from prospective owners. By December 2002, Johnson had his franchise, and Stern had generated a $300 million expansion fee for owners of the other 29 NBA franchises to share.

Mr. McColl, now retired, has invested in the Bobcats as a minority shareholder. Comparing the Hornets with Johnson's franchise is difficult, he says, since the Bobcats "are better at everything by a staggering margin." Johnson has sold 35 percent of the franchise to a wide spectrum of investors, from a local clergyman to national rap star Nelly.

Observers say it's hard to tell how the city will take to professional basketball the second time around. The league lacks the star power it had during the Hornets' run, a golden age that included Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.

The Bobcats have sold an estimated 9,000 season tickets at the 23,000-seat Charlotte Coliseum, the same building where Hornets tickets couldn't be had during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some industry experts say average attendance above half-capacity would be an achievement for the Bobcats this season, with anticipated gains in the new arena the following year.

NBA executives remain optimistic. "I really think the fans in Charlotte understand that they had particular issues with the ownership at the time that really don't have anything to do with Bob Johnson and the new management," says Russ Granik, NBA deputy commissioner. "As far as NBA basketball in general, they know the sport is as good as ever and they understand the league went out of its way to put another franchise back there."

Johnson plans to put his entertainment background to good use, promising fans high-energy basketball and ample ambience. He says energetic music and occasional star cameos will entice fans to Bobcats' games time and again.

Johnson says he has told his players to forget the track records of past expansion teams. "We're going out to play every minute like we are going to win every game. Winning to me is what you do with your effort and your commitment. It's not the end result."

He hopes fans agree.

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