Four years ago Michael Jordan took majority control of the Charlotte Bobcats with the expressed intent of recreating the passion the city once had for the original Hornets.
It took a while but now this team has the right coach, better players and even the old nickname and teal-and-purple colors back. The new Hornets play their first regular-season game Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, and the players recognize unprecedented expectation.
“You can sense the tension in the air,” shooting guard Gerald Henderson said Tuesday. “To bring back a name that was so important to the city.”
Or as newcomer Lance Stephenson put it: “This is a new beginning. Change the name and create a new atmosphere.
“I know it’s going to be rumbling out there. We just have to come and win games.”
Stephenson, the prize free agent signing of the off-season, has been hampered lately by a groin strain. He says he’s playing Wednesday. But the final determination on that won’t come until after morning shootaround, if not game-time.
“If there is not a lot of soreness, then he’ll play,” coach Steve Clifford said. “The last thing anyone wants is for him to be out for a month or something.”
Various injuries threw off the continuity Clifford hoped for in the preseason. He has yet to establish a true rotation because so many core players have been nicked up.
But he’s confident these Hornets are more talented – particularly on offense – than the Bobcats roster he coached to a 43-39 record and a playoff berth last season.
Stephenson is a big part of that. The Hornets lured him away from the Indiana Pacers with a three-year $27.4 million contract. Clifford expects him to be both a scorer and a distributor who can play either shooting guard or small forward.
Stephenson’s preseason numbers were modest at 10.8 points and 2.8 assists, but that in part was about his injury. He was acquired as the complement to center Al Jefferson’s inside scoring. Jefferson was the breakthrough free-agent signing in the summer of 2012.
Jordan personally recruited Stephenson at a dinner meeting in Las Vegas in July. Jordan told Stephenson he could do without the ear-blowing antics, but “I like your competitive drive and the way you challenged LeBron (James). Because if we’re ever going to get out of the East, you have to get past LeBron.”
“He’s a winner; he’s a champion,” Stephenson said of Jordan. “We can all learn a lot from him.”
“I’ve got to get his fadeaway” jump shot, Stephenson said. “When I get that, I think I’ll be unstoppable.”
The Hornets have the pieces – Jefferson, Stephenson, point guard Kemba Walker – to return to the playoffs and perhaps win a round for the first time in franchise history. But the margin for error last season was small.
That team was built around defense and precision. They committed the fewest turnovers and fouls in the NBA. They committed to getting back in transition and guarding the rim.
The preseason suggested they’re not quite back to that precision. They committed 20 more fouls in the preseason than their collective opponents did in eight exhibitions. Clifford constantly brought up “needless fouls” as a correctable flaw.
Clifford said his team will be ready for opening night, and certainly the crowd will be. Season-ticket sales have topped 10,000 and Wednesday is a hot ticket.
This is what Jordan aspired to when he bought control from Bob Johnson. He said in an interview with ESPN that winning a ring as an owner would be as memorable, perhaps more, than the six rings he won playing for the Chicago Bulls.
Tuesday Jordan reflected on the past four years in an interview with the Observer.
“Four years ago we ventured into this process believing we’d make some sound decision, and yet we did not,” Jordan said of a 28-120 span over two seasons.
“Then we took a little more meticulous view, learned from our mistakes and chose a different path. I think we’re on the right path. All the evidence over the last year to year-and-a-half has indicated the right decision-making.”
Henderson gets that about his boss.
“This may be more difficult, not being able to control as much,” Henderson said. “He was the best player, so he controlled the game. Now he can only do his best to put the players on the team. Then it’s up to the coaches and players.”
Jordan used to play one-on-one with the players or even run full-court scrimmages. He hasn’t broken a sweat on the practice floor lately, but that doesn’t mean he’s not directly involved with the roster.
“He’s the most detailed basketball person I’ve ever met,” Henderson said.
“During the season he can go back three weeks to Tuesday in Orlando and ask me why I did something on a certain play. He’s very attentive. That’s part of his greatness.”
Attentive, but not overbearing, Clifford said. The owner and coach discuss the team constantly, but Clifford said Jordan never forces his views on the coaching staff.
“He wants to win badly, but his advice to the players and coaches always comes in a very constructive way,” Clifford said.
“He will make sure I know his opinions, but he always says, ‘You’re the coach. You do what you want.’ ”