CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For three months, the retired jersey of Bobby Phills hung alone in the rafters of the Charlotte Coliseum, the only remaining sign that the NBA ever existed in this city.
When the Hornets packed up and moved to New Orleans after 14 years in Charlotte, they left behind the tribute to Phills, a popular player and team captain who was killed in a car accident more than two years ago. Now it too is gone, removed recently and given to Phills' widow.
City leaders have moved on, too - already negotiating with the NBA in hopes of landing an expansion team.
The timing of the effort seems peculiar - the Hornets just left, after all, insisting they could not survive any longer in the market.
But city officials are adamant that the NBA can flourish in Charlotte and the Hornets only failed because of apathy - and antipathy - toward owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge.
"When George Shinn secured an NBA franchise against all odds, it began the upward movement in economic prosperity and positive name recognition for Charlotte," said Lynn Wheeler, head of the City Council's Economic Development Committee.
"In losing an NBA team, it's a definite black eye for Charlotte and ultimately could produce economic hardships that we want to avoid. Basketball can be good here, we just need a clean slate to work with."
Although attendance and support were down in the Hornets' final two seasons, there's no doubt Charlotte was at one time a fertile basketball market.
The Hornets led the league in attendance for seven years in their leanest times. Fans gave players a standing ovation following a 40-point loss in their first game and a parade at the end of that long, losing season.
But fans eventually tired of Shinn allowing top players to leave via free agency. And when he was sued on a sexual assault accusation, they tuned out permanently, even though he won the case.
"Charlotte, for a long time, was a very strong basketball market," said NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "The thought is that it can be once again, given the right circumstances."
So the city and the league are working on those circumstances and have apparently put their efforts on the fast track.
At least three groups have expressed interest in owning an expansion team in Charlotte. The NBA is trying to decide first whether the city is ready.
City manager Pam Syfert has met with NBA officials once and plans another meeting soon. Dates and locations are kept secret in an attempt to keep the negotiations quiet.
Everything was public - too public, some say - in the Hornets' on-again, off-again relationship with the city.
"I strongly think this needs to be done in a neutral location and in privacy because the feeding frenzy surrounding the Hornets was absolutely absurd," Wheeler said.
The number one thing keeping the NBA from coming back to Charlotte is a new arena.
Granik insists that no team will ever play in Charlotte unless the Coliseum, which lacks moneymaking luxury suites, is replaced.
But to hammer out a lease agreement, a solution must first be found to a $50 million gap in the city's arena-building plan.
The city is willing to build a $231 million arena for an expansion team, getting $100 million advance from Bank of America, Wachovia and Duke Energy.
City officials had hoped to take about $50 million in the first arena revenues - from suite and club-seat deposits, naming rights and beverage rights - to repay the corporations' half of their investment.
But NBA officials could insist that that money go to the new team. If that happens, the city will be hard-pressed to find the cash to repay the corporations because leaders are committed to not using property taxes to fund the arena or pay back the debt.
If the details can be worked out in the next month or so, the league could vote on expansion at its Board of Governors meeting in October. If expansion is approved, the NBA would present the agreement and expansion fee to potential owners and choose the group that will be awarded the team.
The NBA has indicated it doesn't want a new team in Charlotte until the 2004-05 season - a year later than potential owner Steve Belkin wants to see a team on the floor.
"I believe in striking while the iron is hot," Belkin said. "Basketball has been in Charlotte and the longer the city goes without it, the harder it will be to drum interest back up.
"I would still like to see a team on the floor in 2003, and I continue to hold out hope that it will happen. But it's looking more and more like '04 at the earliest."
Belkin, a Boston-based businessman, is head of a group that includes Hall of Famer Larry Bird and former Celtics coach M.L. Carr. The three have already gone to work building their case as the ownership group the NBA should choose.
Bird has been to Charlotte at least once to meet with city and business leaders, and Carr has been here for months as president of the WNBA's Charlotte Sting. But he split his time working the area, trying to drum up support for a new NBA team.
"This was not a summer vacation for me here in Charlotte," Carr said. "There will be basketball again here in this city and our group has put the work in to get it."
The early involvement from the Belkin group has given them the air of a favorite. The inclusion of Bird, who led the Boston Celtics to three NBA titles and coached the Indiana Pacers to an Eastern Conference title, only strengthens their chances.
Bird would be the team's director of basketball operations and Carr would handle community relations.
"The signal that the NBA has sent by making M.L. Carr the head of the Charlotte Sting is major, in my opinion, and I see it only as an indication that they are the front-runner," Wheeler said.
But the other suitors - Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson and Miami Heat investor Bob Sturges - can stand on their own merits.
Johnson, if awarded the franchise, would be the league's first black majority owner, and he has the financial ability to immediately buy an expansion team.
His net worth is estimated at $1.3 billion in the most recent Forbes 400 list. He tried to buy a piece of the Hornets in 1999, but Shinn chose Wooldridge as a partner instead.
Johnson tried again this year when it became clear that Shinn was intent on moving the franchise out of Charlotte. Johnson sent him a letter with a standing offer to buy the team.
"I wanted to put an offer on the table that if he was a willing seller then I was a willing buyer," Johnson said then. "Charlotte is a good town and great for the NBA."
And Sturges, a former Carnival Cruise Lines executive, already has NBA experience through his limited ownership of the Heat. He's been to Charlotte at least once to meet city leaders and talk basketball.
"One of the main reasons for visiting Charlotte is to have people understand how I see this franchise being run and to hear from people there what needs to be done," Sturges said after a recent visit. "The relationship (with fans) suffered some irreparable damage in the past. We need to make sure the next team starts off on the right foot."
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