Charlotte Hornets

Bobcat at home in urban habitat

When Boris Diaw emerges from Time Warner Cable Arena into the cold bundled in a navy peacoat, a wool cap, grey sweats and casual black sneakers, he appears to be nearly 71/2 feet tall.

He's only 6-foot-8, but the platform of the Segway x2 Diaw is piloting adds 9.5 inches. This would seem to be an odd sight: the Charlotte Bobcats starter leaning slightly forward on his two-wheeled electric vehicle as he shoots up the Fifth Street sidewalk. In fact, several lunch-bound bankers cock their heads in surprise.

But the truth is there's nothing terribly unusual about this at all.

Since being traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Bobcats two years ago, Diaw has lived just blocks from work, walking to games and practices, frequenting restaurants and other uptown establishments. He's living the lifestyle of a professional basketball player who earns $9 million a year, without question, but he's living it in plain sight.

"It's the first time in my life that I'm ...walking distance from anything," Diaw said in his French-accented English while sipping Perrier at Mortimer's Café & Pub, an EpiCentre establishment in which he owns 15 percent. "In Phoenix, you had to take the car anywhere you go. Same thing when I was in Atlanta (he played for the Hawks from 2003-05). I was in a gated community; you had to drive if you wanted to go anywhere, any restaurants or anything. So it's like the first time I've lived downtown, and I love it."

Diaw (pronounced DEE-ow) lives about four blocks from the arena in The Trust, a luxury condo above Chima Steakhouse on Tryon Street. Bobcats owner Michael Jordan lives in the penthouse.

A Bobcat and his dogs

Up until this past fall, he walked almost everywhere he went despite owning an Audi SUV and a Mercedes. He didn't need to walk far. He said almost everything he needs is at the EpiCentre, which is located between his condo and the arena. Mez for movies. Strike City for bowling. Revolution when he needs a new shirt. A variety of cuisines.

But Diaw, 28, was looking to expand his bubble a couple of months ago - not just for him but for his two Huskies, who aren't nearly as fond of the EpiCentre.

"I always heard about the Segway, see the cops on them, and I thought it was a good idea, especially when it's cold and don't necessarily want to walk," Diaw said. "Because I had two cars...and I wanted to sell one anyway, I sold one and got a Segway instead.

"For short distances it's the best, and then I just take my car when I've gotta go to the airport. ... In everyday life, just take the Segway because you can go anywhere, go in the arena, and it's better than parking in the parking deck."

His Segway has a top speed of 12.5 mph, perfect for wearing out dogs, and Diaw can easily hold the leashes while driving, since the vehicle is controlled by shifting one's weight and doesn't necessarily require hand-steering.

On pleasant days, he might zip along behind his dogs on Little Sugar Creek Greenway, which starts near the midtown Target and leads through Freedom Park in Dilworth. ("I take the greenway, but halfway through they're already done, they're already tired.")

When asked why he lives relatively openly while most of his teammates live less publicly in SouthPark, the Carmel Road area and Myers Park, his answer is essentially "because I can."

"It's so convenient," he said. "But (the other) guys have family. They're living in SouthPark in a nice family community, and it's just different. Guys that got family, I don't think they're looking for the same lifestyle."

A city transformed

Ten years ago, Diaw's lifestyle wouldn't have been possible.

Before the Charlotte Hornets defected to New Orleans in 2002, the city's NBA team played its games at the suburban Charlotte Coliseum, near where Tyvola Road meets Billy Graham Parkway. The Bobcats, who started play in 2004, called that building home until moving to the uptown arena for the 2005-06 season.

Uptown was changing, too. Plans made years before, combined with good economic times, generated nightlife, entertainment and restaurants. Residential options, fueled by a mid-decade condo boom, were drawing adults of all ages and price ranges. In 2000 there were 4,400 people living uptown; today there are 13,500.

Diaw's lifestyle choices also may have something to do with his background.

He was born in Cormeilles, France, to Élisabeth Riffiod, who stands 6-foot-2 and is regarded as one of the best players in French women's basketball history. His father, Issa Diaw, is a lawyer in Senegal and was a high jump champion for the African nation.

Summers in France

Riffiod now lives in the port city of Bordeaux in southwest France, and every summer - after a visit to Phoenix, where he still owns a home - that's where Boris Diaw lives during the offseason. The Bobcats' starting forward also spends a couple of weeks in Senegal, where he runs a basketball camp for children.

Describing the differences between life in Bordeaux and life in the U.S., Diaw said: "It's a different atmosphere over there. I've sat on the patio at a café and our lunch is like four hours. So it's different than here, where you just try to get people in and out in 45 minutes. We just stand there and hang out and talk about life with my friends that I've known for a long time. ... People are more relaxed there."

There are certainly things Diaw wants to keep private. He politely declined a reporter's request to visit his condo, and when asked if he was dating, he paused before saying, with a slight smile, "I'm seeing somebody right now ... but you probably don't need to write that down."

But he's generous with his time, whether it's offering up Mortimer's and himself as host for a Thanksgiving feast for homeless women and children, or giving two Observer journalists a Segway-driving tutorial in a parking garage, even though he had every opportunity to head straight home after lunch.

"It's all about balance," he explained - and he could have been talking about either the vehicle or his life.