Michael Jordan and Lance Stephenson are hanging out together in Las Vegas around 1 or 2 a.m. I could stop right now and this might be the most intriguing sports story of the summer based on assumptions about His Airness and Born Ready. However, the two were not throwing down at the craps table with half-naked chicks replenishing their glasses of Malbec or whatever the hell Lance Stephenson drinks. Instead, they are surrounding a table somewhere in private while negotiating contract terms.
I picture it like a police interrogation. Law & Order, if you will, because that show is exactly how it goes down in the precincts and courtrooms. There is Lance sitting at the metal table looking straight ahead while his agent stands behind him resting his hand on Stephenson’s shoulder. On the other side of the table, Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho leans back in his chair with a wry smile after he slides a piece of paper over to Stephenson. You can see the orange embers of Jordan’s cigar floating in the dark behind Cho’s magnificently bald dome. Jordan doesn’t speak. His presence is always felt.
"Walk away from this and there is no deal," Cho calmly says.
The tension builds as Lance and his agent realize the deal is for two fewer years and just $200,000 more per year than an offer to Stephenson from the Indiana Pacers. Will he walk away? The agent whispers in Lance’s ear. On one had, Lance wants to escape the shadow of Paul George and star on his own team, but on the other hand the Pacers are a legitimate NBA title contender. It’s decision time.
"What the hell," Lance says. "Let’s do it. I got to hop a plane to the ESPY’s, anyways."
And that is exactly how the Hornets landed their newest free agent acquisition, Lance Stephenson.
I’m kidding of course, but it’s probably not far off. Reports said Cho and Jordan did not give the Pacers an opportunity to counter their offer, indicating it was a take-it or leave-it offer. Stephenson elected to go with Hornets, and a fan base which was beginning to experience a bit of a hangover from the name change and playoff appearance due to a lack of offseason moves and a rookie shooting guard with a penchant for questionable life decisions was suddenly rejuvenated.
Yes, Hornets fans. I am going to address how Lance fits in with the Hornets next week, but for now I want to address the Hornets fans. They are a unique breed. Not a mutt, but far from a purebred. More a stew of fascinating eras of the NBA in Charlotte. There are the revisionist Hornets historians that choose to only remember the good times and the days when the Charlotte Coliseum was sold out nightly and the crowd as loud as any in all of sports, much less the NBA. To them, Lance is the Larry Johnson to go along with Kemba Walker as Muggsy Bogues and Al Jefferson as Alonzo Mourning. Everything is perfect in the mind of this ingredient in the Hornets fandom pot.
You also have the apprehensive Hornets fan, still scarred from being spurned by the league when the original Hornets left in 2002 and wary of everything NBA. They remember the half-empty playoff games in the early 2000’s and George Shinn’s sexual assault case more than they do Glen Rice’s All-Star Game MVP performance or a young, athletic and springy Baron Davis. These fans view Stephenson with similar caution. On one hand he is a good, potentially great player but his antics and troubled off-the-court past could lead to similar public relations nightmares caused by the likes of Shinn and Derrick Coleman. On the flip side, who is to say Stephenson won’t leave or be traded after he grows his star in Charlotte, much like Mourning and the franchise itself?
Next, there is the beaten down yet creepily optimistic Bobcats fan. This is easily the toughest and meatiest portion of the mixture. They’ve been witness to the worst team in NBA history, one of the worst owners in professional sports history and some horrendous, and I mean really horrendous, uniforms. They saw a starting lineups that featured Byron Mullens, Dasagna Diop, Derrick Brown, Matt Carroll and a very fat Boris Diaw, and tried to justify them. That’s how optimistic they are.
Through it all they maintained their faith like any good sports fan should, experienced the bottom and are on a ride to what they hope is somewhere near the top. I think that’s a Drake line. Nothing in sports beats going on a journey from worst to first alongside your favorite team. Nothing. And while the Hornets aren’t at the top and are unlikely to ever reach the top due to the NBA’s power structure, this feels similar to those fans. This is a finely aged ingredient that took a while to finally blossom. Stephenson to them is the piece that brings the team to another level. If Al Jefferson turned the ship around, Stephenson will speed it up. They have the upmost confidence that his antics will be embraced by Charlotte fans, much like those of Steve Smith, and that his play on the court will win out in the end.
Finally there are the bandwagon fans. Full disclosure, I despise bandwagon fans, but when you’re a Bobcats / Hornets fan, you take whatever you can get. These are the spices and herbs that go in the blend. They make things more exciting. They viscously scour the Internet like pirates to attack those who speak ill of the Hornets name. They destroy mentions of beat writers and columnists on Twitter. Everybody hates them, except their own. They are a reprehensible alone, but necessary ingredient for the whole. To them, Lance Stephenson is pretty much the next Michael Jordan and if you question that, you’re just obviously just a hater.
In the end who knows how this mixture will turn out. It could sour and blow up in everybody’s faces or it could marinate into a meal fit for, say, a Queen (City). Either way, it is exciting and the most important factor is that all of the ingredients are now in the pot. Every piece of the fandom puzzle is interested, involved and cares one way or the other. This was demonstrated by the reaction to the Lance Stephenson acquisition. When people care in all directions, the ingredients are all there. It’s now just a matter of how well the team can stir them together.
Go Heels Go America