It's hard to see, but Bobcats are a better team

The first half reminded me how much I miss the NBA. The Charlotte Bobcats were running and rebounding, sharing the ball and going to the basket, and at the break they led Orlando by 13.

Alas, Charlotte didn't come out for the second half, and the Magic came back. Orlando won 94-84. This leaves the Bobcats 0-4 in games that don't count. They play four more before the games do.

I boycotted the Bobcats last season. I didn't think much of ownership, management, coaching or the product. Other than that, they were great.

This season is different. As dismally as they played in the second half at Time Warner Cable Arena on Thursday, they look more like a team than they have in their previous four seasons.

They played like a team for Bernie Bickerstaff, the most underrated head coach in Charlotte sports history. But they were overmatched almost every time they stepped onto the court.

If they stay healthy, and if Larry Brown can do what he does one last time, the Bobcats are capable of winning half their games. If they do, they will contend for the playoffs.

To have even a chance to sell tickets, they have to contend. The Bobcats have gutted almost every facet of the operation that does not involve a bouncing ball, and that includes marketing.

Marketing is important. Executives can't always control how players perform. But they can shape the experience. Even if a team loses, they can make fans feel as if they were part of something.

This will be difficult since most of the people responsible for creating that feeling are gone.

In this economy, many businesses have eliminated jobs, including the one for which I work. But a source tells me the Bobcats cuts were so severe the NBA questioned Bob Johnson, the Bob in Bobcats, about them.

Johnson did not attend Thursday's game. (Few adults did; the game was a reward for students.)

Despite the wildly supportive fans, hard times were evident. The soft drink machine in the press room was turned off. When the lights in the Charlotte locker room dimmed after the game, I figured that in a cost-saving move somebody would show up with a candle.

Even in the twilight I could see the locker room refrigerator, which was stocked with Gatorade, water and protein drinks. Attached was a stop sign, and with it came a stern message: DRINKS ARE NOT FOR PUBLIC CONSUMPTION.

When the Bobcats return Saturday to play Atlanta, statistics might be housed in the kind of box in which we sell newspapers. Deposit two quarters, take one sheet and DON'T ALLOW THE PUBLIC TO CONSUME IT.

When I talk to personnel people and scouts from other NBA teams, they tell me Johnson is selling, or is about to sell, the Bobcats.

I don't know if he is. But I wouldn't blame him. He's losing money and he can't be having fun. One reason rich people buy basketball franchises is so fans can walk up and shake their hand and tell them how much they appreciate the team.

This works only if the owner is there.

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