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Tom Talks: Do the Charlotte Hornets have a way out of this dilemma?

Nicolas Batum (5) shouldn’t be blamed for signing a lucrative contract with the Charlotte Hornets.
Nicolas Batum (5) shouldn’t be blamed for signing a lucrative contract with the Charlotte Hornets. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte Hornets won three straight games last week. They won a game they weren’t supposed to, beating San Antonio in San Antonio. They came home and won two games they were supposed to, beating Sacramento by 19 and Phoenix by 20.

It wasn’t that so much that the Hornets won; it was the way they won. They were selfless and smart. They moved the ball. They played effective defense. They played with purpose.

Many lament the absence of center Cody Zeller. But Bismack Biyombo and Willy Hernangomez gave Charlotte a tough presence inside. Hernangomez collected six fouls against the Suns, and he earned each of them.

The Hornets followed those three victories with a road loss Sunday to a good Indiana team. The Hornets are two games below .500 going into their game Wednesday on the road against struggling Memphis.

Here’s the dilemma for Charlotte.

The Hornets are better than they’ve been all season. They might be a .500 team. If the season ended after Monday’s games, .500 would be good for seventh place in the Eastern Conference. (At 22-24, their record after the Indiana loss, the Hornets would be the eighth seed.)

They’d make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons and the fourth time since the Charlotte Bobcats were formed in 2004-05.

The dilemma is that although the Hornets are good enough to make the playoffs, they aren’t good enough to win a playoff series. If they stay on their current trajectory, they’ll open the playoffs on the road against Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana, Philadelphia or Boston.

So, what do the Hornets do? I wrote before the season that they should trade their lone all-star and their lone star, Kemba Walker. Nobody who knows basketball wants Walker jettisoned. He’s a go-to guy on the court and in the community. Through will and work, he has learned to hit jump shots and to lead. Walker is a guy you want on your team and in your town, and he wants to be here.

The trade deadline is Feb. 7. If the Hornets don’t trade him, he’ll be free to leave when the season ends. To retain him, the Hornets will have to spend big money. If they do, they’ll be even more burdened by big contracts.

I tire of fans blaming Nic Batum for the five-year, $120 million contract he signed. Is the contract an albatross? Yes, Sherlock, it is. But Batum didn’t break in and steal it. Charlotte offered Batum the contract, and he signed it. You would have, too.

Batum, 30 and 6-foot-8, was thought to be the great connecter, scoring and passing and playing defense. He was once, and some nights, you can see those skills. Other nights, he leads the league in lethargy. His contract makes him almost untradeable.

If the Hornets don’t trade Walker, how do they escape the lower-middle class Eastern Conference neighborhood in which they seem not to rent, but live?

I believe in Charlotte coach James Borrego. I think he has a gift for developing talent, and that rookie Miles Bridges has an opportunity to emerge as Charlotte’s second-best player.

If Charlotte retains Walker, patience will be required. Young players will have to emerge, and veteran guard Tony Parker will have to continue to thrive in his role as Yoda with a jump shot.

Our reward will be that we get to watch Walker, whom at least once a night puts on a move that makes us exclaim aloud even if we’re watching the game alone.

Our punishment could be that the Hornets forever compete for a seventh or eighth seed, and a playoff series they are unlikely to win.

Tony Romo: Simply the best

Rare is the television commentator almost everybody likes. The late Frank Gifford, who joined Monday Night Football in its second season and worked with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith, once held the title.

Tony Romo holds it now. Almost everybody likes Romo, a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback who works with Jim Nantz. Romo’s allure is such that even fans that hate Dallas like him.. A week from Sunday, Nantz and Romo will do the Super Bowl for CBS in Atlanta.

What I like about Romo is that he knows football. He is almost prescient, telling you what will happen before it happens, and why. Wouldn’t you love to go to Las Vegas with the man? Tony, the dealer’s face card is a seven. Do I hit on 15?

What I also like about Romo is that he doesn’t make his comments about him. Find me a moment during any broadcast in which his actions announce: “For the love of all that’s holy, notice me!”

The game is the star. Romo merely enhances it. He can be funny and he can tell stories, and he’s so at ease with himself and his role that it’s as if he lives next door and is telling the story over the backyard fence.

But if the game is taut, Romo provides insight yet gets out of the way. He is a superb color analyst. And Nantz, who does play by play, obviously likes working with him, setting Romo up the way a point guard sets up a scorer.

Who is Romo’s competition as an analyst? I like Troy Aikman. I even like the Aikman-Joe Buck team. I’m the one who does.

I like Cris Collinsworth, although probably not as much as Collinsworth does.

The best NFL studio team is Fox’s Curt Menefee, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Michael Strahan and Jimmy Johnson. Greg Olsen of the Carolina Panthers made a guest appearance before the New Orleans-Philadelphia playoff game, and fit seamlessly.

What distinguishes the Fox group is that the knowledge and laughs are real. Nothing is forced. These guys know the sport and how to accommodate each other. They are really good.

Also good is NBC’s Football Night in America team with Mike Tirico, Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison, Mike Florio and Peter King.

The best studio show in sports is TNT’s Inside The NBA. Charles Barkley simply is a star, funny and original. He sees what others don’t, and just slings it, no thought required, no holding back. Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal are the co-stars, and Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber play a role.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas is great. He’s smart, obviously, knows basketball, and in his spare time functions as the NCAA’s conscience, or would if the NCAA wanted one.

Also talented is Brendan Haywood, the former North Carolina Tar Heel and Charlotte Bobcat.

I did Charlotte’s WFNZ with Haywood, and he was good immediately, smart and quick, understated and funny. Haywood works with ESPN, CBS and NBA TV.

At the moment, there often is a network emphasis on loud voices and loud suits. But no matter how they loudly commentators dress or talk, some of them have a lot to say.

We’ll hear one of the best on Super Bowl Sunday.

Charlotte’s Dream Fields

On Tuckaseegee Road, near West Mecklenburg High, are five baseball fields that have fallen into disrepair. A big-time baseball site in the 1970s and ’80s, there’s as much dirt on the fields as there is grass, and almost buried are boards, rocks, and discarded pieces of machine.

Last week, as airplanes flew low overhead, men and women wearing white hard hats dug their shovels into the ground for what will be the Tuckaseegee Dream Fields.

It’s the start of an ambitious project. The Knothole Foundation, a non-profit whose mission is to promote baseball in underserved communities, is a sponsor. So is Baseball Tomorrow, a project organized by Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. So is Queens University of Charlotte.

Singing the Star-Spangled Banner at the groundbreaking was Queens baseball coach Jack McDowell, a former Cy Young Award winner and three-time Major League Baseball all-star.

If you want to reduce the Tuckaseegee fields to a single sentence, McDowell said it.

“What have I left behind?” he asked.

McDowell got to play a sport he loved. He’d like to give back, and to give his Queens’ players the opportunity to give back. Those players will work with neighborhood kids on the diamond and in the academic complex the dream fields will include.

The first field, scheduled to open in August, will be for kids 10-13. Ultimately, there will be three fields, including the field on which Queens will play. Already 1.5 acres have been acquired, and there is an option to purchase 9.5 more. There will be stadium seating and a press box.

At the groundbreaking were Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles, and city council member Braxton Winston. Former Major Leaguers were all over the field, among them Morris Madden, who pitched for the Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates. Representing the Knothole Gang, like Madden, was Jeff Schaefer, a former Charlotte O and Charlotte Knight and Major League infielder who played 14 seasons of professional baseball.

I asked Schaefer about what McDowell said about giving back.

“Everybody here feels that way,” Schaefer said. “We’d like every kid to have the opportunity we had. That’s a goal. We are so happy to have the chance to do it.”

There’s nothing like Dream Fields in West Charlotte. I’m not sure there’s anything like it in any part of Charlotte.

What distinguished the groundbreaking, whether it was Lyles or Winston, Madden or Schaefer, McDowell or Tommy Viola from the Charlotte Knights, was the enthusiasm. This can be so good, and that feeling was palpable.

As if to prove it, two kids with baseball gloves appeared, and one brought a baseball. One kid always brings a baseball. As the adults stuck the ceremonial shovels into the ground, the kids played catch in left field. When the adults finished talking, and the event ended, the kids were still there.

A great day in NFL was marred

If the Carolina Panthers lost the NFC championship the way the New Orleans Saints did, how would you react?

Two Saints’ fans have sued the NFL. They’ll get some attention, but what a waste the suit is. It’s like ordering hot coffee from McDonald’s, and then suing the restaurant because the coffee is hot.

Both litigants are lawyers. They know they can’t win. But perhaps the publicity will be good for business. If they are willing to take on the NFL, imagine what they can do for you.

I like the Saints fan who instead of filing a self-indulgent suit is renting billboards in and around Atlanta, site of the Super Bowl. His intent is to remind the world that one of the teams that ought to be playing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium a week from Sunday has been banished because of a blatantly terrible (non) call by an official.

A team plays all season to represent its city and region in the biggest game in U.S. sports. Because of a missed call, and a resilient opponent that took advantage of it, the Saints are out.

Some New Orleans bars and restaurants will refuse to show the Super Bowl. The game starts at 6:30 p.m. Pregame already has begun. If the big TVs in the bar don’t show the game, what will they show?

Counter programming has included several blitzes of repeat TV shows, among them the Walking Dead, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Beavis and Butt-Head. Let’s see: Should we watch New England’s Tom Brady or Beavis, the Los Angeles Rams’ Mark Barron or Butt-Head?

Look. If you’re a fan of the Saints, you can’t watch the game without envisioning your team in it. If the Patriots handle the Rams, you’re entitled to think, “They wouldn’t do that to us.” If the Rams handle New England, you’re entitled to think, “We’d handle them even more.”

Last Sunday should have been one of the great days for the NFL ever. The league should be luxuriating in the quality of play, the back-to-back overtimes, and the ratings -- ratings that have been strong all season.

But in the first game, the NFC championship, officials missed one of the most obvious calls in the history of organized football, a call that, made properly, almost certainly would have ended any chance Los Angeles had to upset New Orleans.

In the second game, the Kansas City Chiefs and New England jogged onto the field for overtime and the Patriots won the coin flip and thus the game. They win the flip, they get the ball, the end.

True, the Kansas City defense couldn’t stop New England from driving for a touchdown on the first possession.

But in this, the season of the great offense, who would have expected the defense to intercede? All the Kansas City offense and marvelous quarterback Patrick Mahomes could do in overtime was watch. They had no more influence on the outcome than you did.

The league has to find a way to give both teams an opportunity to touch the ball in overtime, and to review pass interference no-calls.

The former will be a challenge. Players are exhausted going into overtime. Now we ask them to put in more overtime?

The latter is a larger challenge. How do you review subjective calls without slowing down the game and interrupting the flow?

I don’t know the answer. Perhaps if the league asks the question on a billboard, somebody else will.

Short takes: Keep steroid users out of baseball’s hall, Davidson’s potential

▪ If you had a Baseball Hall of Fame vote, would you have voted Barry Bond or Roger Clemens in? I wouldn’t, either. Membership includes – and it is written – an ethical component. Steroids attest to an absence of ethics…

▪ I was pulling for the Saints on Sunday, and watched the end of the game with my kids in a hotel lobby. The guy at the table next to me was loudly pulling for New Orleans, and announced that the game was fixed. Please, not that. I hear enough from Panthers fans about how the NFL is biased against teams from mid-major markets. (It’s not.)

The Saints’ fan was so obnoxious I almost changed my allegiance. But I don’t get to be so fragile…

▪ Don’t you love ACC basketball this season? Duke and Virginia have been superb and North Carolina is coming. When N.C. State gets Markell Johnson back from injury, we’ll get a feel for how good the Wolfpack can be.

Davidson, meanwhile, is business as usual, 13-5 overall and 4-1 going into Wednesday’s Atlantic 10 game against George Washington. Here’s how good Davidson is. The Wildcats lost last week on the road to Saint Joseph’s by a point, and at the end they did not play with their usual poise. I’ve come to accept that poise as permanent. The game is close therefore the Wildcats will win.

That they did not, that they rushed some shots and took shots they shouldn’t have, is a testament to how spoiled fans of Davidson have become. It’s Davidson’s fault, not ours. Coach Bob McKillop is one of the best anywhere. The Wildcats have a chance to, again, be very good…

▪ I did something stupid. Imagine. I decided that I would answer every phone call. I didn’t care if I was familiar with the number of the caller. The calls came from, allegedly, Monroe, Wadesboro, Cullowhee, Shelby, Chattanooga and Russia.

Every call but one was positive. They wanted to help me with medical insurance, tell me that I won a trip, tell me that the warranty on my car, which I bought new in 2009, had expired, sell me a home security package. When I told the woman I had security, and was happy with it, she hung up on me. That has to be a tough way to make a living. One woman said cops – her word – were looking for me because of an IRS misdeed and might be outside my house. I envisioned a SWAT team. The woman was concerned. But I looked out the window, and nobody was there. Stealth SWAT, perhaps. I told the woman that the IRS deals in mail, not phone calls. She hung up.

About the experiment: I don’t recommend it…

▪ I brought my four-year-old granddaughter to the Hornets-Suns game. Among the popcorn and dancers and dance cam and Super Hugo and dunks and cheers – the crowd was excellent -- she was mesmerized. I failed to convey the significance of the Bismack Biyombo-Willy Hernangomez platoon. But she got Kemba Walker. Everybody gets Kemba…

▪ I’ve been to 10 Super Bowls and, unless there’s something special about the game, I need not go to another. At first, I was mesmerized by Media Day. And then I wasn’t. Performance art doesn’t work for me the second time. There are many performers, some of whom played in the NFL. But, OK, it was cool once.

The periphery of the game is jammed with stars of music and screens big and small. The parties are outrageous and outlandish, thousands of people trying to get in or merely get a look at the stars.

If I ruled the world, every serious football fan would get to go to one Super Bowl.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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