For those who remember the fates of Asheville Altitude basketball, Asheville Smoke hockey, the strange tale of the Carolina Ghostriders football team and basically any professional sports franchise in Asheville not called the Tourists, it’s a bit odd to find an NBA game being played in town. There are, of course, reasons for the Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks playing a preseason game at the U.S. Cellular Center. The Bobcats — a notoriously poorly run franchise — are finally, after nine years of existence, attempting to make inroads through the rest of North and South Carolina, areas that have gotten the short end of the Bobcats’ cable broadcast deal and who still wax nostalgic over the heyday of the Charlotte Hornets in the ‘90s.
In playing their first preseason game last night, the Charlotte players gave fans got their first look at a team that, come April, will be a strange NBA curio as the Hornets name will be returned to the franchise (the original Hornets franchise moved to New Orleans in 2002, but became the Pelicans this year). Seeing as how this game is as much a P.R. move for an unpopular franchise as it is a warm-up exhibition for the players, I expected to see the Hornets name bandied about more, perhaps acting as a promise to would-be fans that things will be changing — or perhaps returning to normal — soon. Strangely, besides exactly two T-shirts and a ballcap at the souvenir stand, there was no mention of the name change. Perhaps there are rights issues still at play here; perhaps there are concerns it’d just be too confusing.
Nevertheless, this was exactly what one might expect from a Bobcats game in Asheville, combining a team that’s never been able to attract a strong fanbase with a city that’s just never really cared about sports, especially professional basketball. Even with the Bobcats holding their last two training camps at UNC Asheville, the unfortunate fact is there’s just not a ton of interest in Asheville, an unfortunate reality for those of us who’d like to see more sports in town.
While the lower level of the U.S. Cellular Center was mostly full, the upper level with the most affordable tickets was maybe half empty. The Bobcats tried their best to give the full NBA experience, right down to dropping the “Cha Cha Slide” over the PA and throwing their mascot — an orange, muscular, furry and somewhat mangy cat named Rufus — on the court on a miniature bicycle. If it wasn’t for a thankfully close fourth quarter that went down to the final possession, the loudest the crowd would’ve gotten all night was when the mascot and pep squad were chucking free towels into the crowd. (The Atlanta Hawks pulled away with a 87-85 win over the Bobcats.)
In everyone’s defense, this was a preseason game between two teams lacking big name stars, each trying to work off the rust, with this being the first organized game of the season for Charlotte and the second in two nights for Atlanta. Obviously, the play was sloppy, and finally fell into a groove somewhere in the second quarter; there was even a tense moment as the all-male pep squad had trouble getting the wave organized.
Preseason basketball, unfortunately, does not exist to win over new fans. They are, after all, meaningless exhibitions meant more for installing offensive and defensive systems, getting players back to playing speed and evaluating new additions.
This last point exists mostly for the more the more devout NBA fan who wants to see if controversial top pick Cody Zeller can hold up professionally (athletically, yes; strength-wise, not any time soon) or if last year’s top pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has fixed his jump shot (dear Lord, no). And if you want to be a real aficionado, it was an opportunity to see Atlanta’s flashy German rookie guard Dennis Schröder for the first time, who made some slick passes, made some bad mistakes, and eventually hit the game-winning shot.
It’s difficult to tell what kind of headway Charlotte made by playing here. Building a fan base takes time and is most easily accomplished when you’re winning. Let’s hope that the difficulty of selling out the U.S. Cellular Center won’t run the Bobcats or other professional sports franchises off from Asheville, a city whose sports fans are often overlooked.