But down here in the land of obligatory gun racks, college basketball, and NASCAR, Cowens's resignation was greeted largely as another numbing Hornets moment. By mid-afternoon yesterday, the all-sports radio station in town was too busy with UNC-Charlotte and the NCAA Tournament to be concerned about something as trivial as the resignation of the most successful coach in the brief history of the NBA franchise.
Cowens's timing has never been his strong suit. He retired as an NBA player during the exhibition season of what would be a Celtics championship campaign. He slept on a park bench after one Boston title and abruptly quit during another season because he had lost his spirit.
This most recent move was surprising only for its timing. He was in the final year of his contract, as jughead owner George Shinn reneged on an extension because Cowens wasn't appreciative enough of being the lowest-paid coach in the NBA. Cowens had talked openly in the past few weeks of being underpaid (which he was), underappreciated (which he probably was), and unlikely to be around next year (which he definitely was).
Nevertheless, when he broke the news to his assistants, it was unexpected. "I was in total shock," said assistant Paul Silas, who now is the "interim" head coach, which is sort of like the Hornets' version of Alexander Haig in the Reagan White House. "I immediately tried to talk him out of it."
Just listing what's happened to the Hornets recently makes the M.L. Carr years in Boston look Auerbachian by comparison. As bad as it seemed for the Celtics back then, they still didn't have an owner who deliberately moved out of town, was embroiled in a saucy civil suit, and is so hated by the business community that it won't even consider building an arena until he sells the team.
That's the Shinn legacy. He was one of the most popular men in town when he secured an NBA franchise for Charlotte, but his penury and idiocy make Ted Stepien or George Steinbrenner a palatable alternative. We'll pass on the civil suit, except to note that it doesn't bode well for an owner who ran the only NBA team that got a religious blessing before each game.
This was the same guy who agreed to an extension for Cowens, then did the Lucy-with-the-football thing because Cowens didn't grovel enough. But coaches come and go. Unfortunately in Charlotte, so do the best players. Their latest best player, Glen Rice, may be in Los Angeles by Thursday.
Shinn wouldn't pay Alonzo Mourning "market value," so what looked to be a terrific young team was rent asunder when Zo was dealt to Miami. This, of course, came after Shinn agreed to what many NBA general managers still think is the single most destructive and stupid contract of the decade: the $84 million deal for Larry Johnson.
Last summer saw Shinn at his best. Given the lack of centers in the NBA, the Hornets had a veritable cornucopia in two: Vlade Divac and Matt Geiger. They were both free agents and they both signed elsewhere because the Hornets wouldn't pay. Can you imagine how someone like Rick Pitino, who's looking under rocks for big men, must have felt when he saw a team with two big men not even bother to keep one?
Then, of course, the Hornets turned around and signed Derrick Coleman, whose chief contribution to the game has been the phrase, "Whoop De Damn Do." And he's not a center.
The Hornets then lost Rice and Anthony Mason to injuries and the season went right down the tubes. Cowens almost acted as if he wanted to be fired, knowing the season was a waste and the future was bare.
He was called in Sunday to discuss the possible Rice deal with the Lakers, which has been on the back burner for more than a month. The Hornets won't pay Rice the maximum when his contract is up, so the reasoning goes that they had better deal him, the way they dealt Mourning. The Hornets would get the two Lakers on the verge, Elden Campbell and Eddie Jones. When asked by general manager Bob Bass what he thought, Cowens said it really didn't matter.
"I felt awkward even giving my opinion," he told the Charlotte Observer in his only post-resignation interview, "because, yeah, I'm here this year and a trade might help now, but what about the future?"
One thing led to another and Cowens decided to resign. Silas said yesterday that the sole reason he came to Charlotte was because of Cowens, a former Celtics teammate. He also said he wasn't aware of the franchise history. He certainly is now.