If you care anything about the NBA, you can't like what's going on in Charlotte.

Just a few years ago, the Hornets were a thriving franchise. For eight of their first nine seasons they led the NBA in attendance. Their 23,000-seat arena was packed as folks came out in droves to watch young stars like Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson.

But everything went sour when it became obvious that fans had far more commitment to the team than ownership.

Tight-fisted Hornets management allowed good player after good player to depart via free agency, refusing to spend anymore money on payroll than was absolutely necessary.

These were guys in it not to win, but to squeeze every dollar possible out of the operation.

Once fans realized what owners George Shinn and Ray Woolridge were up to, once they realized there was little desire to do anything more than just make the playoffs — if that — they started losing interest.

The next thing fans knew, the owners had the gall to ask them for — via the ballot box — a $200-million outlay of tax dollars for a new arena.

The "old" arena, which opened in 1988, didn't have enough luxury boxes, the owners moaned. Take a flying leap, voters responded.

So now Shinn and Woolridge are packing their bags and heading to New Orleans, which makes only slightly more sense than moving to, say, Kabul.

New Orleans had an NBA team once. They were called the Jazz, although few people in New Orleans remember this fact, since even fewer of them actually saw the team play.

In five seasons in Louisiana, the Jazz never once had a sellout. Their first season, they drew fewer than 5,000 fans per game.

New Orleans fails in other comparisons to Charlotte, too. The Big Easy is the nation's 43rd largest TV market, which would make it the NBA's smallest. Charlotte is 27th. New Orleans' median household income is $38,800, Charlotte's is $51,000. New Orleans has little corporate base.

A former general manager of the Hornets, Carl Scheer, told the Winston-Salem Journal, "I know New Orleans . . . and New Orleans can't support professional basketball. I don't care how many guaranteed dollars they put up, you can't make people attend games."

The good folks of Louisiana are saying they can do exactly that, however. They've offered all sorts of financial inducements to the Hornets, and they already have a 17,500-seat arena, complete with suites.

NBA commissioner David Stern has always been a believer that communities need to support their teams when it becomes obvious a new arena is required. But he also apparently recognizes that New Orleans is not an entirely appealing option.

"It seems that in the absence of some groundswell that doesn't seem to be gathering, Charlotte and the NBA are going to suffer mutual losses," he said.

But this doesn't have to be. The problem in Charlotte isn't the fans, or the arena. It's the owners.

Last season, the Hornets still ranked 21st of 29 teams in attendance. In the playoffs, only three of 16 teams had better average turnouts.

That's impressive support for a franchise that hasn't done much to deserve it.

Clearly, fans in Charlotte—who held a ticker-tape parade attended by 50,000 people when they were awarded a franchise in 1987—want a reason to go to the arena, and it's not about luxury suites or club seats.

It's about feeling the franchise is as loyal to them as they've been to it.

Charlotte's move eventually has to be approved by a vote of team owners. The best thing they could do is offer the Hornets' carpetbagging owners a resounding "No."


E-mail: rich@desnews.com