VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – MAS felt quite guilty seated on press row at a recent Charlotte-Portland NBA contest, courtesy of the home team Bobcats.
You could even say he was on a literal guilt trip that had taken him across three U.S. state lines to North Carolina’s Queen City.
Indulge me, please, while I explain.
Last season, I found myself walking that thin line between impartial sports columnist and hardcore fan.
That tippy-toeing took place as the Bobcats were drawing ever closer to having the worst record — in terms of winning percentage — in the history of the league.
Should I cheer for Charlotte to break the mark or remain neutral?
MAS was conflicted because the ballclub already owning the dubious distinction of “Worst NBA Team Ever” was his hometown Philadelphia 76ers.
Thus, on the one hand there was the columnist in MAS that calmly said:
“Retain your objectivity; don’t root against Charlotte.”
But there was also the 76ers fan in him that screamed “Yeah, you go Bobcats; keep losin’!”
Which Charlotte did, setting a new mark for futility (just seven victories and a .107 percentage). And MAS sort of exulted, as if a burden had been lifted.
The Sixers had set that unwanted record way back in the 1972-73 season, during my time as a suburban Philly history teacher/head football coach.
The 76ers’ most-horrendous 9-73 (.110) log had been a source of civic embarrassment ever since — a hoops albatross ’round our collective neck, if you will.
I still remember hanging posters of that team’s players on my classroom walls — and my students mocking me for it (as in “Yo, Mr. Wiggins, the Sixers suck!”)
Those 76ers also set a then-record for consecutive losses — 20. I was at Philly’s Spectrum the night the streak was snapped against — of all people — the Milwaukee Bucks with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
You would have thought the Sixers had won the title — the fans stormed the court and everything.
But I digress.
So, here I was a week ago being given the red carpet, all-access pass treatment by the Bobcats. This, after I had rejoiced in their displacing the Sixers in the dubious distinction department.
Maybe you can see why I felt guilty professionally, if not personally.
But now I was seeking redemption of sorts for the columnist in me. MAS was in Charlotte to do a piece on the Bobcats’ admirable turnaround from last season’s disaster.
The Cats had already won as many games in the first month of this season as they did ALL of last campaign.
“We brought in some rookies and veterans who had an impact right away,” explained holdover guard Kemba Walker, the Bobcats leading scorer.
Those rooks would be Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a forward from national collegiate champ Kentucky who was Rookie of the Month for November, and guard/forward Jeff Taylor (a second-round pick). The pair give the Cats energy and versatility.
Vets added include guard Ben Gordon, the ex-Chicago Bulls sharpshooter, and Brendan Haywood, center and inside presence.
“They’ve filled roles and provided leadership,” offered Walker.
Said LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland’s All-Star center, “Charlotte’s playing more as a team this season and they’ve improved defensively.”
That night against the Trail Blazers, the Bobcats built up an 18-point lead with five minutes left in the game, thanks in large part to Gordon’s team-record eight 3-point field goals.
But, almost unbelievably, they blew that seemingly insurmountable bulge and lost in overtime.
Afterward, I asked first-year Cats coach Mike Dunlap if the loss was due to his youngish ballclub not knowing how to handle a big lead.
“Probably,” answered Dunlap. “All of our wins have been close and we’ve had to come from behind a lot.”
“Down the stretch, we were feeling our oats and throwing up a lot of threes instead of being patient and working the ball inside more for easier baskets,” he explained.
“That helped Portland come back.”
Gordon said of the defeat, “We’ve got to learn to step on their neck when we’ve got somebody down and finish them off, don’t let them up.”
But the loss to Portland was a learning experience that should pay dividends down the road for Charlotte. At least the Bobcats have turned things around and appear headed in the right direction.
Meanwhile, Charlotte’s NBA ignominy may not last as long as Philly’s.
The Washington Wizards, with just three wins nearly two months into the season, look like a viable candidate to eclipse the Cats’ worst-ever record.
The Bobcat players and organization were so gracious and accommodating, MAS might now cheer for the Wizards to replace Charlotte in infamy (followed by a D.C. guilt trip, of course).
Or the incorrigible fan in me may just say, “Ah, never mind, anybody but the Sixers will do.”
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