Tyler Mann is not a hard guy to spot. First, as he'll happily admit, he's blessed with height and girth. Second, there aren't many people in Time Warner Cable Arena for the game between the Charlotte Bobcats and the Memphis Grizzlies anyway. And third, Tyler wears a giant pair of striped blue-and-orange overalls that make him the most visible man in the building, players included.
He's the fearless leader of the Cat Crazies, the only official fan section of the worst team in the NBA. Armed with thunder sticks and thick skin, they've spent 31 home games in their seats behind the basket trying to lift spirits in the otherwise depressed building.
I'm here in Charlotte for the first time, but it's not just because the Bobcats are the worst team in the NBA. That's not special; every year one team holds that honor. I'm not even here because they've lost 18 straight games. That's a bit rarer, but last year's Cleveland Cavaliers set the all-time record with 26 straight losses. I'm here because there's history at stake. If the Bobcats drop their last five games, starting tonight against Memphis, they will finish with the worst record in the NBA's 63-year history. And who could be more interesting than the people who actually go to the games played by the worst team ever?
Charlotte's Deflated Black Market
I lived in Charlotte for a month last summer, and though the city sometimes takes a bad rap, I managed to discover its charms before I had to leave. Still, I get a nauseous feeling whenever I travel south on I-85 from Chapel Hill. It's a very ugly drive, but it feels appropriate because I'm set to witness some very ugly basketball. Not since the 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers (9-73, .110) has the NBA witnessed such a dismal team, and the Bobcats have those famous underachievers squarely in their sights. This story is technically a Tankonia piece, but the truth is that the Bobcats aren't tanking at all. They wrapped up the league's worst record long ago, and now they want to win a game — desperately, in fact — to avoid the crushing weight of history. After a loss to the Bulls last week, which moved Charlotte to 7-54 on the season, Gerald Henderson had this to say:
"We don't want to set that record. That's something that we're thinking about and we've talked about. We just want to win. That's my sole goal. We've set goals for ourselves at the start of the season and haven't accomplished hardly any of them. But with these last five games, that's one that we've set and we want to accomplish that one."
Henderson is tied with Corey Maggette for the team lead in scoring with 15 points per game, but Maggette is out for the season with a strain in his right Achilles. That leaves Henderson as head coach Paul Silas's team leader. And Silas needs leaders. The 68-year-old with the unenviable job let the frustration get to him last Sunday, when he shoved 6-foot-10 forward Tyrus Thomas into a locker after he saw Thomas chatting amiably with members of the Boston Celtics after the game. The Celtics sat Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, and still won easily.
Finally I get off the highway in Charlotte and I wonder, What's the scalping scene like? Is it possible to make any money selling seats for a team nobody wants to see? Since I didn't buy a ticket in advance, I go to Trade Street, duck past the cops, and find the first scalper on the sidewalk outside the arena. "$60 for lower level, $20 for upper level," he tells me. I ask if he'd take $10 for the cheap seat, but he shakes his head.
I move on and find a man who calls himself Noodles. He's wearing bright-white sneakers and jeans that look brand-new, and he quotes me $70 for upper, $30 for lower. I make the same $10 offer, and he counters with $15. Deal.
"You got change?" I ask.
As we finish the transaction, I ask him about the pace of business.
"This is the bummest goddamn spot in the goddamn nation," he tells me. "Charlotte is the resting spot. This is where other teams rest their best players." And what about ticket sales? "People come out here, they buy the best goddamn tickets for $5," he complains. He doesn't seem self-conscious about the fact that he just tried to sell me the best tickets for $70, or that he did sell me the worst one for $15.
By the entrance, I watch about 150 people go by and count four Bobcats jerseys and two hats. Two Memphis jerseys pass by, along with a Texas Rangers T-shirt, a Wisconsin Badgers T-shirt, and one guy with a T-shirt that says: "Oregon: We've Got Beaver Fever."
A kid with a Derrick Rose Bulls jersey has a sign that he's proudly showing off. He flashes it my way: "What do you call a Bobcats player with a championship ring?" The punch line stands out in bold: "A thief."
A man with a thankless job stops him at the entrance and tells him he can't bring it in. Two staffers walk by, and the woman laughs at the sign. "You think that's funny?" the man asks, mock scolding.
"It is what it is," she says. "The truth."
A Bobcat Basketball Wife
Gerald Henderson starts out on fire, with 13 first-quarter points. Despite Kemba Walker's turnovers (a recurring theme all game long as he's dogged by Mike Conley), the Bobcats hold a 21-17 lead after one.
In the midst of the quarter, a pretty, younger woman with a jean jacket and a black Coach purse sits two seats over. Because she's alone, because of the way she's cheering for one player in particular, and because of the way she's dressed, I start thinking that maybe she's a player's wife. After some conversation, I find out I'm right. This is Sharissa Mullens, wife of 23-year-old, 7-foot Bobcats center Byron Mullens.
Mullens is a one-and-doner from Ohio State, and for the first two years of his career, he played for the Oklahoma City Thunder. That changed this December, when he was dealt to the Bobcats for a second-round draft pick in 2013. I have to admit that I knew none of this coming into the game, but I do my best not to let that slip as Sharissa tells me about the trade. "It was a week before Christmas," she says, as I nod along like this is old news. "That was hard. And the rest of his career might get harder." She doesn't go into the fact that he was traded from a title contender to what might be the worst team in NBA history, and I decide not to ask.
Her husband grabs an offensive board and slams it home as we talk, and the Bobcats are on their way to a 39-37 halftime lead. Sharissa is a good sport when I ask her about the team's record. She says she feels embarrassed when teams like Chicago and Boston pack the arena, outnumbering Bobcat fans. She really wants them to get that last win, and she says she likes Charlotte as a city, though she goes home to Ohio when the team is on the road. She gives me some wedding advice as the half winds down (she and Byron were just married last September), and her husband does his best to keep Memphis's Zach Randolph from scoring.
In the meantime, an ad on the video screen tells fans they can renew their season tickets for $2,500. In my head, I calculate that attending all 41 home games for $15 apiece and sneaking into the lower section, as I did today, would cost me $615 total.
When the buzzer sounds, Sharissa breezes past security onto the court, and my eyes wander around the crowd, landing, as they always seem to do, on Tyler Mann's bright overalls.
"I started out as a team dancer," Mann tells me, when I ask him how long he's been a fan. "We were a group of big guys called the Phat Cats. With a P-H." He smiles as he talks, and I can't help but like him right away. He welcomes me to stand between his pal LaMichael and him in a group of about 40 Cat Crazies.
He's 27, and he was born and raised in Charlotte. His mother used to take him to one Charlotte Hornets game per year when he was a kid, and the excitement and anticipation of that annual experience stayed with him. Along with his overalls, he's wearing two orange wristbands and Charlotte Bobcats sunglasses on his black Air Jordan cap. His long hair, his happy-go-lucky demeanor, and almost everything else about him is distinctive.
After his Phat Cat phase — Tyler tells me it started to feel like going to work, and the concept lost its luster when they started getting guys who had just come off heart surgeries, or would twist their knees, or were just too big to dance — he joined a smaller group called the Super Fans. Tyler only stopped coming to the games when he became disenchanted with Bob Johnson, the Bobcats owner (many blame Johnson for blowing the team's playoff chances in 2009 by hosting an equestrian event at the TWC Arena, forcing the team to play their final four games on the road), but even as the Super Fans began to fade, he led the efforts to bring them back together in 2010.
When the Bobcats made the playoffs for the first and only time that year, with Michael Jordan as majority owner, Tyler succeeded in reuniting the Super Fans. He still considers that postseason the highlight of his career as a Bobcat fan. "[The arena] was full," he says, making sure I appreciate the rarity of the fact. "It's the first time I've ever seen the place come together 100 percent for the Bobcats."
Despite all the ensuing losses, Tyler hasn't missed a home game in two and a half seasons. And it wasn't always easy — for the past two years, he's been on worker's comp with back problems; he has attended two games immediately following surgeries, and once while he was still wearing his hospital bracelet and an IV. When he goes to the doctor's now for checkups, they tell him he's not allowed to talk about the Bobcats when they take his blood pressure, or it skews the reading.
This year, Tyler was the beneficiary of a minor miracle. Gerald Henderson and Corey Maggette, both Duke grads, had attended a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. They decided they wanted an atmosphere like that in Charlotte, so they bought 50 season tickets to start a fan base. Henderson was already Tyler's favorite player — another minor miracle, since he's a UNC fan and developed a deep hatred for Henderson when he punched Tyler Hansbrough in the face in college — but this sealed the deal.
Tyler was an obvious choice to lead the group, and he began recruiting. Members have to audition for the new Cat Crazies to make sure they aren't shy, and the team has a say in their conduct. Tyler tells me they don't swear, because they want to try to keep things positive and make the experience fan-friendly. There's no drinking in the section behind the basket, and yes, he's had to kick some people out of the group when they got too rowdy.1
He shows me the official cheer sheet, most of which is his brainchild. It contains bits of advice — "Try and use Bam-Bams instead of clapping during cheers, makes more noise" — and cheers for every individual player — "From the HEN-DO, to the Wall!" for Henderson, which is a Lil Jon reference. When I ask him about the losing streak, he says it was totally unexpected, and that no, he doesn't want the team to set the record, even if it puts them in the history books.
After the PA announcer yells out "Here we go!," Zach Randolph hits a short jumper to give Memphis a 47-46 lead. "There we went," says a glum Cat Crazie behind me.
"There's a lot of jokes cracked up here," Tyler explains. "It lessens the pain." At that point, I can't help but ask him what keeps him coming back. He tells me he has a good time whether they win or lose, and coming from a guy who hasn't missed a game in two years, I have to believe him.2
By the end of the third quarter, Kemba Walker finally gets going. He hits a long jumper and a layup, and Charlotte ends the third quarter with a surge to take a 65-57 lead. I'm already imagining what it will be like with the Cat Crazies when they win, and you can feel the excitement starting to build, past results notwithstanding. If they can just contain Randolph for another quarter
When I ask Tyler about his worst personal moment, his expression turns bitter for the first and only time all day. It was during the Super Fans era, he says, when a small group walked by the court while the Orlando Magic were stretching. J.J. Redick saw them in their wigs and overalls and other paraphernalia.3
"You guys look ridiculous," he said. Once you meet Tyler and see the pride he takes in his identity as a Bobcats fan, this remark seems almost unimaginably cruel. His natural enthusiasm is gone while he tells the story. But then he gets to the part where Dwight Howard and a couple other members of the Magic came to their defense by saying, "you look ridiculous, J.J. Those are basketball fans," and the smile is back.
Despite that incident, he says his least favorite player is still LeBron James. "He likes to play with the crowd," Tyler says. "You can tell when he's got it over you."
After the excellent third quarter, Charlotte's lead vanishes almost immediately in the fourth. Within three minutes, Mike Conley hits two baskets and Memphis is within one. Three minutes after that, Marreese Speights throws down an emphatic dunk for the Grizzlies and screams at the crowd. It's now 77-71 Memphis, and we can feel it slipping away. Mullens can't handle a pass on the fast break, and behind me a Cat Crazie yells out, "Mullens cannot shoot a daggum layup!"
"He wasn't ready," says another.
"He's never ready!"
Gerald Henderson tries like hell to keep the Bobcats in it. He makes two foul shots and hits a jumper, and Tyler notes that this might be one of the few games where he actually loses his voice. When Mullens dunks off a Walker assist, it's 80-77. But then Memphis's Quincy Pondexter hits two free throws, and with 38 seconds left, the game feels over at 82-77.
After such a tantalizing near miss, there has to be an emotional climax. It happens after the next whistle, when Mullens drives baseline and steps out of bounds. Finally, the Bobcats' frustration boils over. Bismack Biyombo starts it off by getting in Rudy Gay's face, and Mullens and Speights start jawing too. The players from both teams come together, and it looks like a fight is imminent. Things are about to get good.
But here's how the game actually ends: Gerald Henderson nails a 3 and makes a brilliant steal on the ensuing inbounds play. The PA plays Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and church bells and electric guitar, and Henderson gets hacked as he drives the lane to pull off the comeback. But the refs choke on their whistles, and Memphis wins 85-80. Two days later, the Kings will crush the Bobcats, and the Wizards will do the same on Monday. At that point, only two difficult games — against the Magic and the Knicks — will stand between Paul Silas's 7-57 team and the NBA record for futility.
But it's the near-fight that stays with me on the long drive home. As Biyombo barks in Gay's face, the Cat Crazies are going wild. Biyombo's an imposing guy, and after a moment, Gay loses his will and backs down. Biyombo continues shouting as his teammates push him back, and it sounds, where I'm standing, like a full-house frenzy. Tyler and the 40 others are chanting, "Char-lotte Bob-cats!" I think to myself: These guys are out of their minds. But I also realize I've got goose bumps. Maybe I'm a sucker for the hopeless fan, but there's pride in Charlotte, and for a second that feels a little bit amazing.