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While a risky hire, 49ers find straight shooter in new coach Mark Price

Last April the Charlotte Bobcats opened the playoffs against the Miami Heat. The first Charlotte player on the American Airlines Arena court in Miami was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and the first coach was Mark Price.

Price, among the greatest shooters in NBA history, worked with Kidd-Gilchrist on his jump shot that afternoon, as he had since training camp. When the then-Bobcats drafted Kidd-Gilchrist from Kentucky, his shot was so awkward that it was as if Kidd-Gilchrist was guarding himself.

Under Price’s tutelage, the shot ceased to be awkward and started to go in. If Price can fix Kidd-Gilchrist’s jump shot, he ought to win basketball games for the Charlotte 49ers.

The 49ers desperately need a coach, and Price, 51, has accepted their offer.

The 49ers are gambling. Alan Major, whom they released last week in a parting the school says was mutual, had never been a head coach before they hired him. He was woefully overmatched.

Price has had one stint as a head coach. In 2006, he was the first coach of the now-defunct South Dragons of the Australasian Basketball League. It’s not his fault they’re defunct.

Price has worked as an assistant coach or a shooting coach for the Memphis Grizzlies, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors, Orlando Magic, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and, for the past two seasons, the Hornets.

Price was a four-time NBA All-Star, a tremendous point guard. This won’t hurt when he walks into the house of a recruit who since sixth grade has dreamed of playing in the NBA.

And there is a precedent.

Thirty years ago, Charlotte’s program was in worse shape than it is now. In three seasons Hal Wissel won only 22 of 84 games.

In 1985 the 49ers hired Jeff Mullins. He had less coaching experience than Price and he was only a three-time NBA All-Star.

Yet Mullins conferred instant credibility with fans. He attained credibility with basketball insiders by packing his staff with assistants who could coach and recruit.

If Price succeeds, it won’t be because of who he was but because of who he is. The staff he hires will be essential. He could use a former head coach and he needs a recruiter.

The conference in which the 49ers play, Conference USA, offers little help. No Charlotte-area kid grows up saying: “Daddy, when I grow up I want to beat FIU!”

But victories supersede conference affiliation.

Can Price sell his program to an apathetic and skeptical city? He’s not a dynamic be-here-all-week teller of jokes. But he is Mark Price, and he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. The humility is real. If you’re looking for a team to make yours, how do you not respect that?

Athletics director Judy Rose missed badly on Major. But she hit on football coach Brad Lambert and on former basketball coach Bobby Lutz, who won more games than any coach in the program’s history.

If she wanted to play safe she could have hired a retread, a big name fired by a big school.

Instead she hired a man the school believes can take it where it needs to go.

I like the risk. It’s difficult for me to envision Price failing at anything. And if he’s right for the job and Rose is right about him, Halton Arena could be what it once was. This wasn’t the school’s team. It was one of Charlotte’s teams.

I’ve spent some time with Price. To talk to him is to trust him. He’ll shoot as straight with players, fans, administrators and boosters as he once did from 22 feet.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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