Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Losing a favorite player is always hard to do

Kemba Walker has left the Charlotte Hornets and signed as a free agent with the Boston Celtics
Kemba Walker has left the Charlotte Hornets and signed as a free agent with the Boston Celtics AP

There might be a precedent for Kemba Walker’s sad departure from Charlotte, but I don’t know what it is.

I suspect therapists spent the week talking fans off ledges. One of the city’s all-time favorite players was leaving, and fans felt terrible about his departure and angry about the incompetence that led to it.

Walker wasn’t incompetent. The Charlotte Hornets were.

Charlotte has lost favored players before. Muggsy Bogues played nine seasons for the Hornets and was traded two games into the 1997-98 season to the Golden State Warriors. Dell Curry played 10 seasons for the Hornets, and left for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1998. Neither was in his prime.

By the time Alonzo Mourning and then Larry Johnson left, neither wanted to be in Charlotte. The Hornets had overpaid Johnson, and didn’t have enough money left to pay Mourning, the better player.

Mourning more or less forced a trade to the Miami Heat in 1995 after three seasons in Charlotte. Johnson left a year later after five seasons in Charlotte in a trade to the New York Knicks.

Because they wanted to move on, we didn’t feel the connection we do to Walker.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme was in his 13th NFL season and slumping when he left for the Cleveland Browns. Linebacker Thomas Davis was let go by the Panthers after last season, and it will be tough to see him in a Los Angeles Chargers’ uniform.

But Davis is 36 and came to Charlotte in 2005. As good as he undoubtedly will be next season, he no longer is in his prime.

Walker, who will be a Boston Celtic, is 29 and in his prime. All the good work he did in Charlotte, he will do elsewhere. We know how good he is. That’s what hurts.

Charlotte drafted Walker, who led Connecticut to the NCAA championship, in 2011. That was the same year the Panthers drafted Cam Newton, who had led Auburn to the national championship.

Every player has a Welcome to the NBA moment. Walker’s lasted 66 games. The Hornets went 7-59 during his lockout shortened rookie season. The next season, 2012-13, the Hornets went 21-61.

As beloved as Walker is now, he was criticized as a younger player. He got blasted for his shooting and I got blasted for defending him. But couldn’t you see it? Couldn’t you see that at about 6-feet, and lean, he was willing to tangle with anybody between him and the basket no matter how big they were?

The theory was that he did not pass enough. My theory: To whom did you want him to pass? After the Hornets drafted Walker, but before he played a game, I walked out of the John Boy & Billy Big Show studio and ran into Stephen Curry. I mentioned Walker and Curry said: “He’s going to be good.”

Players know who can play? Do former players know? I’ll address that in another segment of this column.

When the Hornets played the Heat in the playoffs in Walker’s third season, they lost their best player, big Al Jefferson, in the first quarter of the first game. I remember watching the team bring the ball up after the injury. Waiting at the other end of the court were LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

As Miami fans, almost all of them in white, screamed, probably because they had been told to, two Charlotte starters remained fearless. They were Walker, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Walker has played fearlessly since he was a rookie. He also added a weapon – a jump shot. He came to town with a New York jump shot, a shot developed on windy New York playgrounds. Going to the hoop is so much safer.

As a rookie, Walker shot 39.2% from the field. Last season, he shot 49.4%. As a rookie, he shot 30.5% from the 3-point line. Last season, he shot 35.6%. We saw him evolve. We saw him an annual trajectory of improvement during his eight seasons in Charlotte.

Those of us who watched knew that such marked improvement happens only because of Walker’s work ethic and will.

Even if we never met the man, we felt as if we knew him. Walker was great on the court, in the locker room and in the community.

He’d pick up his pizza at a restaurant in southeast Charlotte, hoodie on, introspective but courteous. He never acted as if being a special basketball player made him a special person.

No matter how bad the Hornets are next season, they are assured of two sellouts. Fans will show up when Walker’s Boston Celtics come to town.

Hornets: No hope, no plan

The Hornets have to have a plan. They have to. They employ full-time people with basketball backgrounds. They have meetings. Notes are taken, theories challenged and theories explained.

But there are times when the plan appears to be so super-secret that even the team’s upper echelon employees aren’t aware of it.

This is one of those times. The Hornets had one asset, Walker, an all-star game starter. And they were in a position where they’d lose if they let Walker walk or if they kept him.

Why were the Hornets in such a position? They were in that position because or serial incompetence. They drafted poorly and overpaid mediocre players.

People blame former general manager Rich Cho. But the lone constant all these years has been owner Michael Jordan. I don’t think that Jordan makes the picks. But he certainly has input. And he certainly hired the people that theoretically make them.

Last week’s draft struck me as uninspired. Should the Hornets draft another solid player from a solid program or gamble on a player who could be very, very good? They choose solid. Again.

A man I respect says Jordan owes fans an explanation. I disagree. If he has something to say, talking would be smart. But there’s no obligation. If the owner doesn’t talk to the people, the people might talk to him. During lopsided losses next season, Jordan might hear: “Suit up!”

The business side of the Hornets’ operation is run well. Yet if all the people who say they are not going to show up for games next season don’t show up for games next season, Spectrum Center will feature rows, and even sections, full of empty seats.

The Hornets don’t owe fans victories. They owe fans hope. Fans are entitled to a reason to be optimistic. Show them one.

Were the Hornets going to retain Walker if he failed to make an all-NBA team and thus forfeit supermax contract eligibility? If not, why didn’t they trade him? Also, we didn’t they draft a potential replacement?

The Hornets did acquire point guard Terry Rozier in a sign and trade with Boston, and paid him $58 million over three seasons. Rozier’s numbers aren’t pretty. He’s never shot as high as 40% in the regular season. In two seasons at Louisville, he never shot above 41.1%. Rozier didn’t have games. He had moments.

But he sustained those moments in the 2018 playoffs. With starter Kyrie Irving injured, Rozier started nine playoff games. He shot 40,6% from the field, and averaged 16.5 points and, importantly 5.7 assists.

To pay Rozier the money Charlotte did, it has to believe that he can be the player he was in those nine playoff games a season ago. Rozier is 25. That makes him a veteran. The average of the players on Charlotte’s roster is 24.6.

When the Hornets go bad they can remind us how young they are. Yet it’s the people who run the team that we want to see grow up.

The hot dog Olympics

We all have can’t miss sporting events. I can’t miss the NBA or NFL playoffs. I can’t miss Carolina Panther games, and rarely miss Charlotte Hornet games. I can’t miss Christy Martin’s local boxing cards.

And I refuse to miss Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. You know what the 12-minute hot-dog eating contest at Coney Island is? It’s the fastest 12 minutes in sports.

Joey Chestnut is an athlete. You couldn’t accomplish all that he has without raw athleticism. He dethroned the great Takeru Tsunami Kobyashi at Coney Island in 2007 by eating 66 hot dogs.

Last year, Chestnut set a world’s record by eating 74. That’s 6.1666667 dogs per minute. Chestnut also holds competitive eating records in the following cuisines: apple pie, chicken wings, deep fried asparagus, funnel cakes, glazed donuts, shrimp cocktail, and the three T’s -- tacos, tamales and Twinkies.

Don’t want to be crude. But in Chestnut’s California home I suspect he has his own bathroom.

I sat down with Chestnut at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when the track was publicizing a new menu. Chestnut is courteous, and unpretentious despite being the greatest eater of all time.

Also, he’s not big. He’s 6-1 and 230 pounds. If he were a sportswriter, people would say, “Son, you best put some meat on those bones.”

He’s trying.

Chestnut also holds world records in eating grilled cheese sandwiches, jalapeno poppers, and pulled pork.

Yes, I’ve played the hot dog game. Fourth of July qualifiers are held around the country, and one was at Concord Mills. In the parking lot, on a sweltering afternoon, we were summoned to the stage.

Some of the competitive eaters had nicknames. I had yet to earn one. But that day I would.

Next to me was a woman who weighed no more than 120 pounds. She dunked the dogs in a special sauce, and consumed them. Was I intimidated? Nope. I was working.

Let’s see how many dogs Chestnut can eat if he’s writing down sights and sounds, everything from cheering fans to gurgling stomachs. Between notes, I consumed. When the qualifier ended, I had taken nine pages of notes and eaten four hot dogs.

I was known as Wuss, and never invited to another qualifier.

In 2009, I was coming back from chemotherapy, had lost 27 pounds, and was trying desperately to avoid a feeding tube. But everything I ate and drank hurt -- except milk.

So when the July 4 hot dog eating contest began, I tried to keep up, drinking a glass of milk every time Chestnut ate a hot dog. I failed.

But I avoided the feeding tube.

The women’s competition is Thursday at 10:45 a.m. on ESPN3 and the ESPN App. Defending champ is Miko Sudo, who ate 37 dogs last year. Sudo has won the prized Mustard Belt five times.

The men’s competition is at noon on ESPN2. But tune in early to both. The event is promoted like a wrestling match, the MC entertaining, the crowd yelling and the eaters strutting.

For me, it’s a tradition like no other.

Jordan’s to-do list

Nine things I do if I’m Michael Jordan:

(1) Meet with the media, not because the media is wonderful but because they’ll deliver the message to fans. Supplement the meeting by appearing on sports talk radio, where there’s no middleman, where fans can address you directly. But wait. The longer you own the team, the more reclusive you become. Why put yourself out there and risk the wrath of fans? Because you believe in your team’s plan.

(2) Come up with a plan.

(3) Summon all the people who make personnel decisions, put them on a plane and fly to a retreat. Some will say that you’ll be on the plane by yourself, but I don’t believe that. Turks & Caicos is said to be nice this time of year. Hold a meeting near the water and at the front of the room set up a giant dry-erase board. On it write: What we do does not work.

(4) After the three-day meeting, allow onto the plane only the people who agree that what the Hornets do doesn’t work.

(5) Fans are angry, but anger is good. Angry people care. Fans also are frustrated and disillusioned, and the next phase for them is apathy. For some, apathy already has arrived. Many feel as if they’ve been abandoned them. Some believe that because the Hornets have made Jordan so much money (this is a great time to own an NBA team), you don’t care if you win. Announcing through your general manager that you won’t pay the luxury tax does not enhance your credibility.

If fans leave, you’re going to have to give a powerful reason to come back. Figure out what that reason is.

(6) Continue to work in the community. Lost in the Walker saga was last week’s annual Day of Service, in which Hornets’ employees fan out and work with six non-profits. The work benefits so many. But the anger and frustration with the basketball end of the Hornets’ operation is such that people other than the beneficiaries seemed not to notice.

(7) Stop being safe with your first-round picks. Stop drafting players who max out at solid. Nassir Little, the wing out of North Carolina, was available when you made your first pick last week in the NBA draft. He might not be as good as P.J. Washington, the Kentucky forward you chose. Little is more likely than Washington to fail. But he has much more potential to succeed. Little could be a star. You saw flashes of his ability at North Carolina and on his high school all-star tour. Yes, most of your staff went to North Carolina, and some fans will shout “Nepotism!” But if Little can play, their opinions are of no consequence.

(8) Stop being safe with your second-round picks. You could have gambled and selected Bol Bol in the second round. Of course, he might wash out; he sustained a season-ending foot injury last season as a freshman. But he’s 7-2, his wingspan stretches from the gym door to the free-throw line, and he can torch the 3. If his foot recovers, he could do so many things Charlotte’s other big men can’t.

(9) The Charlotte Bobcats opened for business during the 2004-05 season. Jordan became head of basketball operations after the 2005-06 season, and bought the team in 2010. The then Bobcats, and now Hornets, are 15 seasons old. Three times they’ve finished above .500. Their finishes in the 15-team Eastern Conference: Sixth, seventh, seventh, ninth, 10th, 10th, 10th, 11th, 11th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 14th and 15th.

They’ve made the playoffs twice, and won three playoff games but never a playoff series.

The one thing Jordan has to do: Figure out why, season after season and halfway into the team’s second decade, winning games is so utterly difficult.

Short takes: Klay Thompson’s (successful) surgery

ESPN reported that the surgery to repair Klay Thompson’s torn ACL was successful. But I wonder: When the last time ESPN reported that ACL or any other kind of surgery was not successful? I like Thompson and I like his game and I was happy to hear surgery was a success. But I expected it to be a success. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that an athlete’s surgery was an abomination, and I hope I never do…

I kind of like the imaginary teacup that Alex Morgan of the U.S. Women’s National Team held to her lips after scoring a goal against England in the World Cup. The U.S. beat England 2-1 in the semifinal and will advance to Sunday’s championship. If the score had been reversed, and an English player had held up an imaginary Starbucks cup or a fast food burger or a Budweiser, I wouldn’t have been offended. Athletes get to have fun, and as long as they’re original, let them.

The teacup wasn’t nasty. It was funny. If Morgan had mimicked Deion Sanders high stepping into the end zone, the way a thousand football players have, then give a yellow card…

CBS Sports ranked its top 10 NFL quarterbacks this week. Why? It’s summer. We have baseball, NBA free agency and the Women’s World Cup, beaches, mountains and great escapes. What’s going on in the NFL? Absolutely nothing. Newton received top 10 votes, but did not make the top 10. Do you care? Tell me that you don’t care. Thank you…

Went to Rocket Man last weekend, 4 p.m. show. On the screen there were pre-movie warnings not to use cell phones. I saw four people in the theater open their cell phones and check or send messages. But they’re the same people who park their truck or SUV in spaces reserved for compacts...

You can’t follow the players without a scorecard. Players changing NBA teams next season include: Grayson Allen, Harrison Barnes, Jimmy Butler, Wilson Chandler, Mike Conley, Jae Crowder, Seth Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Frank Kaminsky, Kyle Korver, Jeremy Lamb, Julius Randle, J.J. Redick, Terry Rozier, Ricky Rubio, D’Angelo Russell and Kemba Walker.

Players are as entitled to move around as coaches and general managers are. Yet, as noted elsewhere in this newsletter, it’s tough to lose a player that you enjoy watching and greatly admire. All you can do is admire him from afar. Charlotte will.

I wonder how many of Walker’s Charlotte fans will subscribe to the digital Boston Globe...

The Los Angeles Lakers signed Jared Dudley to a one-year, $2.6 million contract. Next week, Dudley turns 34. Do you remember him as a Charlotte Bobcat?

He was fresh out of Boston College, and the Bobcats took him with the 22nd pick in the 2007 draft, one pick in front of Wilson Chandler, and one pick after Dequan Cook.

Dudley could play. He made the rotation as a rookie and averaged 5.8 points and 3.9 rebounds, and shot 47.7% from the floor. He knew where he was supposed to be, always.

Dudley has been a lot of places since Charlotte. The Hornets traded him in 2008 to the Phoenix Suns. The Bobcats sent Dudley and Jason Richardson west, and received Boris Diaw, Raja Bell and Sean Singletary. Dudley played for seven teams before signing this week with the Lakers. He’s still smart, which is why he still is playing…

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer sports columnist.
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