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Summer 2005
Photo by Steve Exum  
Sweet Charlotte
Former Jumbo cager calms hornets’ nest as
president of NBA’s Bobcats

The clanging of pans and utensils can be heard in the background as Ed Tapscott, A75, talks by phone from his home. “I’m cooking my mother-in-law’s recipe for shrimp creole,” says the 51-year-old Tufts grad, between stirs of the pot. The dish is a history-class assignment for his daughter, who is required to bring in food representing her ethnic background. “These are the things you have to do if you want to be a good parent,” he says, “and have been one who’s been largely absent.”

Tapscott has had reason to be away from home lately. As new president of the Charlotte Bobcats—the latest expansion team in the National Basketball Association—the former Tufts basketball player and coach has literally had to build a basketball team from scratch. And along with it, he’s had to build bridges to a skeptical city.

Charlotte was once-bitten, twice-shy from its experience with its last NBA team, the Hornets, which was beset by scandal. Team owner George Shinn was accused and acquitted of sexual harassment in a televised trial that scandalized the conservative southern city. News on court was just as embarrassing, as the team dumped promising stars such as Kobe Bryant and Alonzo Mourning for temperamental bad boys like Derrick Coleman. The final straw was the death of popular guard Bobby Phills while drag racing his Porsche with another player. The Queen City had had enough—when Shinn tried to win support for a new, publicly financed arena, 57 percent of voters said no, and the Hornets packed up for New Orleans.

“We came into a market that was anywhere from ambivalent to almost hostile,” says Tapscott. “Making friends is a big part of what we are doing.” Upon arriving in Charlotte in January 2003, he spent the first six months simply soliciting opinions from city leaders on how to market the team and relate to the community. “One of the things we heard was that in Charlotte, people want you to be engaged with their community, so we said okay, that’s what we’ll do.” Tapscott joined nine local boards, including the Chamber of Commerce and the YMCA, quickly earning a reputation for his poise and professionalism. The local paper even named him “best dressed man” in town. “That was embarrassing,” jokes Tapscott. “Now I can’t go out without a crease.”

Building the team proved a more difficult task. “Charlotte wanted good guys,” he says. “They didn’t want guys who had difficulties in the past.” In a league like the NBA, where the best players are often the most flamboyant, that is more easily said than done. Tapscott and his management team resisted the urge to sign big stars, setting their sights instead on Emeka Okafor, a hard-working college student from Connecticut who led his team to victory in the NCAA. Tapscott and coach Bernie Bickerstaff worked a complicated series of deals that allowed them to trade up from the fourth to the second overall pick in the rookie draft. “It’s all about circumstance, and we were fortunate enough to find the right circumstances,” says Tapscott. The moves paid off this spring when “Mek”—as Okafor is known—was named Rookie of the Year after a whirlwind season. Now his jersey is one of the top sellers in the league. “Emeka Okafor is professional and smart with an incredible sense of humility,” says Charlotte Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell, “exactly the kind of person you want to build an organization around.”

The same could be said of Tapscott, who showed a solid work ethic of his own as a player at Tufts more than 30 years ago. “He was always in the gym,” former Tufts coach Tom Penders told Business North Carolina. “He worked hard at the game.” Tapscott earned a bachelor’s in political science in 1975 before becoming a coach himself, first at Tufts, then at American University (AU) while he earned a law degree. Upon graduation, he worked for a decade as head coach at AU, and then for almost another decade in the front office of the New York Knicks, eventually becoming vice president of personnel and interim general manager. Soon after, he got the call from Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and a friend of 20 years, who asked him to come to Charlotte.

Okafor’s success notwithstanding, last year was a tough one for the Bobcats, which lost 16 games by three points or less and finished with an 18–64 record, tying with the New Orleans Hornets for the second-worst record in the league. That’s to be expected from a first-year team.“They haven’t made any mistakes,” says Bonnell, “they’ve gone to incredible lengths here to bring in people of high character.” Even so, the sportswriter compares the Hornets experience with a bad divorce, which takes time to get over. “I think they are going to have a very hard time reaching the goals they are expecting in terms of tickets. This is going to be a long and difficult thing.”

One thing’s for sure: the Bobcats have bent over backwards to lure new fans, with high-energy soundtracks of hip-hop and rap, laser shows, male dancers, and a drum court called the Rhythm Cats. A fan appreciation night included a drawing for a Mercedes-Benz. Even more inspired, season ticket sales for next year come with a money-back guarantee. “We did that because we are so confident we won’t have any takers,” says Tapscott. Next year, North Carolinians will have more reason to attend games, with the opening of a state-of-the-art $265 million downtown arena.

“We’ve laid down some solid bricks,” says Tapscott. “The most important thing is to resist the temptation of a shortcut. We need to build this thing block-by-block.” As he finishes up the cooking, it’s clear that even amidst the pressure he’s a man who has not lost perspective. “I owe my daughter one,” he says. “This is payback. I just hope I’ve executed as well with the creole as we have with the Bobcats.”