- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 4, 2004

Coach Bernie Bickerstaff stood outside the Charlotte Bobcats’ locker room at MCI Center to face reporters recently following a particularly heinous preseason loss by his expansion team.

“Turnovers and … we couldn’t defend those 51 free throws,” Bickerstaff said.

It was a dismal scene that likely will be repeated many times this season for the Bobcats, who begin their first season tonight when they play host to the Wizards at Charlotte (N.C.) Coliseum.

Losing is a way of life for most expansion teams, and this rag-tag group doesn’t figure to buck that trend.

The NBA’s return to Charlotte comes just two years after an ugly divorce sent the Hornets to New Orleans. Sure, there will be plenty of hoopla when the Bobcats come out in their shimmering orange-and-white uniforms. And beyond the return of basketball to the city, there’s plenty for the franchise — owned by Black Entertainment Television founder and D.C. business tycoon Bob Johnson — to look forward to, including an arena due to open next season.

But history suggests the Bobcats will lose at an epidemic level this season.

“Getting over the fact that everywhere we go we are supposed to lose is the primary challenge,” said Bickerstaff, who doubles as the general manager. “It is a detriment to the positive thinking of the players.”

The Bobcats are made up of retreads, players who never lived up to expectations elsewhere. The notable exception is Emeka Okafor, a rookie who led Connecticut to the NCAA championship last season and was the only collegian on the U.S. Olympic team.

Hence, it’s no surprise Charlotte turned to Okafor for identity on a largely anonymous roster. The marketing slogan reads “Okafor in ‘04.” The Bobcats selected the 6-foot-10 center with the second pick overall in the NBA Draft, and it’s pretty clear the team has tabbed him as its franchise player.

“I often say it was as if central casting opened its doors for us,” said Ed Tapscott, the Bobcats’ president of basketball operations. “We also got a terrific person and player to arise as the face of the franchise.”

The face likely won’t be so youthful by the time the Bobcats become playoff contenders. No expansion team has made the playoffs in less than four seasons.

“I have no idea what to expect,” Okafor said. “No one wants to lose to you. That is going to make us stronger and make us a better basketball team.”

None of the seven expansion teams in the past 25 seasons has posted more than 22 wins — Minnesota went 22-60 in 1989-90 — in its first season. The 1980-81 Dallas Mavericks, the 1988-89 Miami Heat and the 1995-96 Vancouver Grizzlies tied for the worst first season at 15-67.

Charlotte built its team mostly through the expansion draft, in which the 29 existing NBA clubs protected eight players and exposed high-priced veterans and benchwarmers. The Bobcats also signed a few free agents, notably 35-year-old Steve Smith, who will be playing for his sixth team in 14 seasons.

“[Playing for an expansion team] is sacrificing a lot,” said Smith, who toiled for playoff teams the last 11 seasons. “In a way, though, it is what you want as an individual out of life. It is good for me to see how can I help these young guys. You always have a chance [to win].”

For its first game tonight, Charlotte is expected to start center Primoz Brezec, a 7-foot Slovenian who sat on the bench in Indiana last season; Okafor; swingman Jason Kapono (3.5 points for Cleveland); shooting guard Gerald Wallace (2.0 points in Sacramento); and point guard Brevin Knight, a former first-round pick playing for his seventh team in eight seasons.

“I think people underestimate just being in the NBA and being around,” Bickerstaff said. “Even though they are journeymen, they are pretty doggone good basketball players. And I think people sleep on that.”

Bickerstaff himself is the ultimate NBA journeyman, with stints in Seattle, Denver and Washington before this one. He hasn’t coached in the NBA since he was fired by the Wizards after they began the 1998-99 season with a 13-19 record, but he recently coached the St. Louis Swarm to a pair of International Basketball League titles.

“I thought in this situation I was probably the best guy for the job,” said Bickerstaff, who has a .492 NBA winning percentage. “I don’t think it would be a good situation for a young guy to come in. I don’t think it would be good for his career. For us trying to build, I think experience is important.”

And the coach/GM is taking a realistic approach as the Bobcats begin play as the 30th NBA team.

“We’re not into moral victories,” Bickerstaff said. “The reality is, are we good enough? I think it is too soon to make that assessment. As we stand now, we are not good enough as a basketball team.”

And that seems unlikely to change anytime soon.

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