No Fouls
By Frank Maley

To win in Charlotte, the Bobcats can't afford to take a page from the Hornets' playbook.

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Ed Tapscott has been waiting for this day almost 18 months. He stands stage left in Founders Hall, waiting for the show to start, decked out in a dark suit with a white hankie peeking out of the breast pocket. In his trade, he’s conspicuously short — just 5-10 1/2 . He’s also a little fidgety.

He rubs his hands together several times, straightens his fingers and puts them to his lips as if praying. With a shave and a halo, he could be a caricature of corporate saintliness in a city that loves its successful businessmen. But Charlotte also is a place that has turned on successful people who don’t behave the way it thinks they should. He knows this — so far, only from what he’s heard and read.

Tapscott is about to become a father of sorts, sire to the city’s second National Basketball Association team. In a few minutes, fans will learn the identities of the players from other NBA teams that the Charlotte Bobcats have chosen in the expansion draft. General Manager Bernie Bickerstaff, the head coach, put together the list with input from scouts and other staff, including Tapscott, president of Bobcats Basketball Holdings LLC. He’s Bickerstaff’s boss.

They have a tough enough job trying to build a team from scratch. But the Bobcats feel pressure to build it with players who are good off the court as well as on it. That’s because Tapscott and his charges inherited an unfortunate legacy from Charlotte’s first NBA team, the Hornets.

Its owner, George Shinn, alienated both the business community and the fan base with his behavior and demands. Though he won a lawsuit against a woman who accused him of sexual assault, his trial, played out on Court TV, embarrassed the city. So did a series of ugly events involving players. The team, unable to win voter support for a new, publicly financed arena, left for New Orleans at the end of the 2001-02 season.

But most of the pressure comes from Tapscott’s boss, Robert L. Johnson, the founder and CEO of the Black Entertainment Television cable network, who paid a $300 million franchise fee to start the new Charlotte team. He has said that he expects it to be profitable immediately — and that it will win a championship. Not only that, but when the team’s name, logo and colors were unveiled in July 2003, he vowed: “My organization, myself and my players will never embarrass or let you down.”

“Let me reshape what I think Bob actually said,” Tapscott says. “Bob has said we are committed to getting people here who will not cause issues. Nobody can guarantee anybody’s behavior on any given day, as we all know. However, that is a very important prime consideration in our selection process — the character and values of the members of our team.”

Sounds nice. But nice isn’t necessarily what wins in the NBA, and winning is what sells tickets. While Johnson is back in Washington, D.C., running BET for New York-based media giant Viacom, Tapscott is the man who must make it happen in Charlotte, a city the Bobcats are catching on the rebound just two years after its bitter breakup with the Hornets. Fans are unlikely to be as forgiving of on-court failure as they were during that team’s early years.

Facing that task is a 51-year-old who came into the job with little experience running an NBA club. Like Charlotte, Tapscott’s only other long-term relationship with a franchise started well but ended badly. After nine years with the New York Knicks, he was fired as vice president of player personnel. “It was a mess,” he says. “So we’re all better off having moved on.” He’s trying hard to make sure that he doesn’t one day have to say the same thing about his experience in Charlotte.

In some respects, he seems ideally suited to run the Bobcats. Even Jeff Van Gundy, the former Knicks head coach whose ire Tapscott claims caused him to be fired, has nice things to say about him. “He’s really bright,” says Van Gundy, who now coaches the Houston Rockets. “He’s hardworking, and he does have the type of character that Bob Johnson says he wants.”

To hear Tapscott tell it, you might think he grew up on Walton’s Mountain rather than in Washington, D.C. “I’ve just got the very best parents any one person could ever ask for,” he says softly, earnestly. “The interests of their children were always first. And they stressed all the correct values: Be unselfish, be hardworking, be modest, respect other people. All the correct values were seamlessly given to us.” The oldest of five kids, he swears he wasn’t a bossy big brother. “Sharing was a huge part of our family. We shared everything.”

Tapscott’s happy spiel might gloss over the unpleasant moments each life encounters — “You never stop polishing your image,” he says — but others attest that he was a hardworking, self-motivated youth, something Tapscott says came from his dad, a data-systems analyst for the National Security Agency. “The two things he always stressed were think independently, be accountable for your actions. That gave you a certain sense of your own inherent, internal discipline. I never wanted to disappoint him, so I imposed discipline on myself.”

On Tom Penders’ first day as head coach at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., he found incoming freshman Tapscott alone in the gym, practicing his ball handling and shooting. “He was always in the gym. He worked really hard at his game.”

After he became eligible for varsity play as a sophomore, Tapscott ran Penders’ club as point guard. Sharing the ball was a big part of his job, and Penders says he did it well. But despite his sharing-is-caring upbringing, Tapscott still seems a little disappointed he didn’t hoist more shots. He mentions it often, usually in self-deprecating jest. “I was one of those heady, coach-on-the-floor type of guys — which meant I got to shoot two times a game.”

After getting his bachelor’s in political science in 1975, he earned a master’s while working as an assistant coach on the varsity squad and head coach of the freshman team. He also met his future wife, Janis Thomas, in a history class. He returned to Washington and started law school in 1976 at American University, where he was an assistant coach. He continued coaching after getting his law degree, with a focus in communications, in 1981 and became head coach the following year. Thomas went to work for BET in 1981 as director of advertising and traffic. Johnson attended some of American’s games, and they became friends.

Tapscott left at the end of the 1989-90 season, when American went 20-9, to work at Advantage International, a McLean, Va.-based sports agency. His clients included former UNC stars Sam Perkins and Rick Fox. At the 1991 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in Charlotte, he sat next to Ernie Grunfeld, then the Knicks’ director of administration. They kept in touch. Later that year, Grunfeld was promoted to vice president of player personnel, and he asked Tapscott to take his old job.

Tapscott moved up to vice president of administration and scouting in 1995, then to vice president of player personnel two years later. The Knicks made the playoffs every year he was with the team and went to the NBA Finals twice. But the team didn’t win a championship, and Grunfeld was fired as president and general manager in 1999. Tapscott says it was because of friction with Van Gundy over a player trade, which Van Gundy denies.

Tapscott assumed Grunfeld’s duties, including responsibility for the rookie draft. For the team’s first-round pick, he took Frederic Weis, a center from France, over Ron Artest, who had played college ball at St. John’s University in New York. Tapscott says he discussed it with Van Gundy. Weis wound up returning to Europe without ever playing a game in the NBA. Artest is one of the Indiana Pacers’ top players.

Friction with Van Gundy over the pick played a role in his losing his job, Tapscott says. “They had had to fire Ernie because of the alleged schism between him and Jeff. So they said they didn’t want to revisit that.” Van Gundy says he wasn’t the reason — nor did he discuss the draft pick with Tapscott. “I’m a little disturbed that he hasn’t painted an accurate account of that short window of time. But, hey, that happens. It’s somewhat revisionist history, because if Weis turned out to be great, I don’t think anybody would have been saying that was my draft pick.”

Grunfeld, who had landed in Wisconsin as general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, hired Tapscott as an operations and personnel consultant for the 2000-01 season. The next season, Tapscott did similar work for the Phoenix Suns, then worked as a commentator for NBA games on the Fox Sports and Comcast Sports Net television networks. That’s what he was doing when Johnson called.

Charlotte wasn’t always a tough sell for the NBA. The Hornets started play in 1988. With the help of businesses eager to portray Charlotte as a big-league city, the team sold out every regular-season home game for nearly nine years. But the city’s elite never took to Shinn, who grew up poor in Kannapolis, made his millions peddling education to Vietnam veterans on the GI Bill and, early on, wore his religion on his sleeve.

Shinn, who originally owned 51% of the franchise, surprised and angered fellow investors by exercising an option to buy them out after the first year. And while wealthy, he didn’t have the deep pockets many other NBA owners had. That would come into play a couple of ways. He angered fans by failing to re-sign some key players, notably center Alonzo Mourning. He began lobbying city leaders in 1995 to help him build an arena to replace the Charlotte Coliseum, which was seven years old but had only a dozen of the lucrative private suites that were driving the league’s economics. The Detroit Pistons, for example, played at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which had 180 private suites.

In 1997, a woman accused Shinn of sexually assaulting her. He said that the sex was consensual. The district attorney’s office initially declined to file charges. But when the woman sued him two years later, the criminal case was reopened. This time, a grand jury declined to indict him. He won the civil case, but not without the televised trial. Later that year, center Derrick Coleman was charged with drunken driving after an accident that put teammate Eldridge Recasner in a hospital. In January 2000, guard Bobby Phills was killed while racing teammate David Wesley in their Porsches on a Charlotte street.

Winning is supposed to cure off-court ills, and the Hornets were winning — making the playoffs six of the team’s final eight years in Charlotte. But by the 2000-01 season, the Hornets had trouble filling even half the coliseum’s seats. By the time the team and city had reached an agreement on how to pay for a new arena, city officials were scared to act on their own for fear of a backlash in upcoming municipal elections. They put it, along with a package of other building projects, in a referendum, which was rejected by 57% of voters. The Hornets headed for New Orleans.

In January 2003, the NBA awarded a franchise for Charlotte to Johnson, making him the first black majority owner of an NBA team. It sweetened the deal by negotiating with the city for a $265 million, 18,500-seat arena downtown. The league took the heat off Johnson, but many residents are still irate over the city paying for a project that voters had turned down.

Johnson had hoped to curry favor by persuading former Carolina star and NBA great Michael Jordan to buy part of the team and become its president. He asked Jordan who should run the team as chief operating officer. Johnson says Jordan suggested Tapscott. “He said, ‘The guy knows the game. He knows the players. He’s got a good instinct about how to deal with people.’ ”

Tapscott was hired in January 2003. Jordan rejected Johnson’s offer to join the Bobcats that September. Eight months later, Johnson promoted Tapscott to president of Bobcats Basketball Holdings, which includes the Bobcats, the Charlotte Sting of the Women’s National Basketball Association, operation of the new arena and the Carolinas Sports Entertainment Television network, scheduled to start this month.

Tapscott heard early and often how Charlotte residents felt about the Hornets. “The biggest challenge,” he says, “was inheriting a marketplace that felt disregarded, that had a sour taste in its mouth.” He, his boss and their employees have made a point to get involved in the city and build an image as nice guys. “We might be losing,” Johnson says. “But if we’re losing, we’re going to have people say, ‘Y’know, they’re losing, but I know Eddie, and Eddie is really trying to make that a winning team. I know Bernie. Bernie is really coaching to make that a winning team. Let’s support them.’ ”

Tapscott, for example, sits on the boards of eight community organizations. “People on those boards tend to be influencers. If their perception of you is a positive one that says you buy into being a positive part of this community, they spread the message. None of us exist here in a vacuum. Without fans, we have no business.”

Johnson got an early introduction to how things work in Charlotte. “The first time I came to town, I got a call from [Wachovia CEO] Ken Thompson. He said, ‘Bob, we’re raising money for the YMCA. I’ve got guys giving this. I’ve got guys giving that. I need you to give some money.’ So I’m in town less than three weeks. The next thing I know, I’m writing a check for $1 million to the YMCA.” Tapscott joined the YMCA board. In return for the Bobcats’ support, Thompson introduced Johnson to his top executives and asked them to support the Bobcats. Wachovia also invested an undisclosed amount in the team and bought a private suite.

Shinn added a partner — from Atlanta — only after his image had tarnished. Johnson quickly brought in local investors, including Bank of America; Howard Levine, CEO of Matthews-based Family Dollar Stores; and Felix Sabates, owner of Top Sales Co., a manufacturers’ representative company, and one of Shinn’s original partners.

The support of the region’s businesses will be especially critical in selling private suites. The team will play this season in the coliseum and next year in the new arena. While the coliseum had just a dozen suites, the arena will have 60. Prices range from $95,000 to $300,000 a season — well out of reach of most individual fans. Single-game tickets run from $10 to $115. The Bobcats won’t say how many season tickets or private suites they’ve sold, but the team’s Web site reports that its three priciest tiers of tickets — a total of 5,444 seats — have sold out.

Until June, the Bobcats had nothing to sell except a logo and team colors. The team traded up from the fourth pick to the second in the rookie draft to ensure it would get Emeka Okafor, who played center on the University of Connecticut’s national championship team. He also was a finance major who graduated early — just the kind of player a city such as Charlotte might embrace.

To build the rest of the roster, the Bobcats opted for young players who will keep it under the league’s salary cap. The maximum Charlotte can spend on salaries its first season is $29.25 million, about two-thirds the league limit of $43.87 million. In late August, the team was about $5.5 million below its cap. Tapscott hopes to stay under the cap until the team can spend the full amount in its third season. One reason is the uncertainty of what will be in the league’s collective-bargaining agreement, which expires in 2005.

But the low payroll likely means the Bobcats won’t be very good or much fun to watch their first few years. The pressure to make the playoffs could grow quickly — more quickly than it did for the Hornets — and with it, the temptation to take a chance on players who might embarrass the Queen City.

Tapscott knows as well as anyone that good players with bad pasts can improve a team’s on-court product. While with the Knicks, he helped swing a deal in 1999 for guard Latrell Sprewell — who had choked his previous coach. With Sprewell playing a key role, the team went to the NBA Finals that year. But a deal like that looks like a no-no now. “My approach here in Charlotte will be far more conservative than it would be in New York,” he says.

Even so, the difficulty the team faces in avoiding embarrassment was evident in August. Jamal Sampson, one of the players the Bobcats announced in Founders Hall, was sued by a former roommate in Los Angeles. Christian Straughter claims that he suffered a concussion after Sampson pushed him down and kicked him during a fight over about $400. Straughter reported the incident to police, but the district attorney’s office declined to file charges.

The Bobcats, who haven’t commented on the case, could make a public example of the 6-11 center. Sampson wasn’t expected to be a key player, and the $695,000 salary that the team would have to eat if it cut him isn’t large by NBA standards. But the fact that the team didn’t act immediately indicates that it will have something more than zero tolerance for embarrassment. And that Tapscott might have to keep reshaping what Johnson actually said.