NBA basketball lost a legendary executive when Bob Bass died over the weekend.
An ESPN story mentions first that Bass spent 20 years with the Spurs, but he left San Antonio before Tim Duncan was drafted and the glory days of that franchise. Rather, what Bass should be remembered for is the marvelous run he had with the Charlotte Hornets.
Here’s really all you need to know about Bass’s nine years with the team: before he joined the team, the Hornets overall won-loss record was 231-343. In his nine seasons as general manager, the team went 399-307.
The team made the playoffs in seven of the nine seasons and had the only two back-to-back 50-win seasons in Charlotte history. For one of those seasons (1997) he was named NBA executive of the year.
Making this more remarkable is that he joined the team at a time when it was just looking like a contender for the title, but was really on the verge of collapse.
In 1993, the Hornets made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Chicago Bulls and put together an entertaining series with the likes of Larry Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry, Kendall Gill, J.R. Reid, Johnny Newman, Tom Hammonds, Mike Gminski, Kenny Gattison, Tony Bennett (the future Virginia coach) and a rookie named Alonzo Mourning.
The team gave Larry Johnson by far the longest and biggest contract in NBA history at 12 years and $84 million.
So how could Bass go wrong with that lineup? Right before Bass arrived, Johnson missed 31 games with a ruptured disc in his lower back.
When he returned, Johnson said he had lost a lot of muscle mass from his left leg and some of his explosiveness. He wasn’t the same player anymore — and he still had that massive contract on the salary cap.
Muggsy Bogues was having knee pain and had torn cartilage removed. Later he would say that so much padding was taken from the joint that when he ran and jumped the bones were banging together, causing bone bruises. He would end up missing the whole 1995-96 season, then trying painkillers and acupuncture to survive four more years (only one with Charlotte).
Then there is the case of Mourning. There were rumors coming out of Charlotte that the big man wanted to go to a major market city where he could be a big fish in a big pond. Multiple Hornet officials said the team was offering him a deal as big as Johnson’s, and he wasn’t interested. One official said the contract amount eventually reached $111 million over 10 years.
When Mourning’s agent said no, Bass started calling around to see who might be interested in a trade. You can’t blame the guy for that. What was he going to do? Watch him walk out the door for free?
So Bass traded him to Miami for Matt Geiger (a serviceable center), a first-round draft pick and a big-time scorer in Glen Rice.
When Bogues went down with his injury, Bass traded Kendall Gill for Kenny Anderson to have a point guard. That left the team needing a shooting guard, which might have been okay, but first-round pick Scotty Burrell missed three-fourths of the season with a shoulder injury himself.
Without ever having a losing season, Bass reloaded the roster with the likes of Anthony Mason, Eddie Jones, David Wesley, Baron Davis, P.J. Brown, Vlade Divac and Bobby Phils. In a decade the team made the Eastern Conference semifinals four times.
The team hasn’t made it out of the first round since starting over as a new franchise in 2004, just as Bass was retiring after seeing the former team move to New Orleans.
Some might remember Bass as the only GM to ever trade Kobe Bryant, but that was another situation like with Mourning where he didn’t have much choice.
Going into that draft, the news was all over ESPN that Kobe and his agent were telling people that he wanted to go to a big market and preferably the Lakers.
Bass flat-out told Kobe’s team that if the high school phenom was sitting there at the 13th pick, the Hornets would pick him. Rick Bonnell, of the Charlotte Observer, recalled that this set off a barrage of cursing from Kobe’s agent.
That is how it came to pass that the Lakers offered Divac for Bryant’s draft rights. Bass knew there was a chance Kobe might not play, possibly even hold true to his threat of going to Europe to play for a year since he grew up on foreign military bases and reportedly spoke Italian and some Spanish.
Just like with Mourning, Bass got the best he could out of a tough spot.
Obviously, nobody knew the 1996 draft would be one of the greatest in history and that the Hornets could have just stayed put and drafted either Steve Nash, Peja Stojakovic, Jermaine O’Neal, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Derek Fisher, Malik Rose, Othella Harrington or Shandon Anderson. Or they could have packaged the 13th and 16th picks together and moved up to get the likes of Ray Allen, Antoine Walker or possibly Stephon Marbury.
Former owner George Shinn once told a story about how Bass disagreed with co-owner Ray Woolridge in the draft one year. Ray wanted a tall forward from the Midwest, and Bass wanted a little point guard from Europe.
The Hornets ended up drafting Kirk Haston, who was out of the league in two years, while the little point guard fell down to the Spurs, who were happy to snatch up Tony Parker.
If only the current Hornets had a man as savvy as Bob Bass in charge today.
Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.