Andrew Unterberger has a proposed fix for teams with attendance issues, Charlotte included. Read this…

No offense to the fine people of the Queen City, but whenever I was talking about my trip to someone and the reasons why I was taking it, and how I found every NBA team fascinating and looked forward to seeing a home game of theirs for one reason or another, I always allowed “Well … except for the Bobcats.” Nothing personal against the Bobbers, I’ve just never really dug ‘em as a League Pass team — combination of Larry Brown’s slow-down style, the general lack of star power on the team, and recently especially, the depressing feeling that they’ve already hit their max potential as a team and are now stuck in an far-too-overpriced holding pattern. Plus the team name is weak, there’s no franchise history, the colors are uninspiring and the logo is absolutely ridiculous. (Really, up there with the Wolves’ demure growler as the biggest “Seriously? This is supposed to be intimidating?” representative team visual — at least the Bobcats don’t have the fans growl at free throws though.)

Still, I set out to do this trip as if God had created all NBA teams equal, and I tried to keep an open mind as I headed to Time Warner Cable Arena. Had some time to kill in Charlotte beforehand, so I took a gander at the newly-instituted NASCAR Hall of Fame. Not exactly the biggest racing fan — my accomplishment for the afternoon was decisively understanding the difference between Bill France Sr. and Jr. — but they had some nice displays, and they let you drive a car simulator and test you and your friends’ speed as a pit crew, which was definitely sporting of ‘em. Still, I was looking forward to getting back to a sport I actually understood, and so even a game between the Bobcats and Pistons was looking pretty good to me.

The Stadium: The TWCA (ugh, talk about an acronym-proof NBA arena — might just call it the TWC from here for aesthetics’ sake) is basically located in the heart of the downtown Charlotte area, only a couple of minutes from the previously-mentioned Hall of Fame and from seemingly most other area destinations. The arena definitely gets points for me on a personal level for not only offering me use of the media parking lot, which not many teams are terribly forthcoming with, but offering a shuttle taking media and employees from the lot about a quarter-mile away right up to the front door of the stadium. Now that’s service, especially on a miserable 30-something-degree (but luckily, completely dry — missed the East Coast blizzard almost entirely) day in Charlotte.

The building’s outsides were unassuming, but the insides were definitely interesting — you no doubt remember my constant raving about the rustic, old-school, historic feel of the Pacers’ Conseco Fieldhouse? Well, the TWC came the closest of any of the other stadiums I visited to copying that feel, with an earthy, red-brick structure and a huge emphasis on city hoops culture. “The building is truly wrapped into the heritage of the basketball of the region,” Charlotte writer Steve Goldberg kept reiterating to me in the press row. Truly, as there were Carolina HS basketball jerseys on display, as well as murals of Davidson hoops stars and an entire wall timeline of NC hoops history viewable on the escalator ride up to the second deck. (The coolest part might have been the diorama-looking city skyline above the scoreboard — nice little touch.)

Unfortunately, there’s a very fine line between rustic and run-down, and a couple times the TWC found itself on the wrong side of it. There’s an entire quarter of the lower deck that just has nothing — no displays, no concessions, nothing — and without cool stuff giving it some sort of context, the building’s brick layout and low-key design can just look like an over-sized high-school gym. I think a lot of it has to do with attendance — when it’s packed, the TWC probably looks retro and a little artsy, when it’s empty, it probably looks cheap and depressing. Perspective and all that.

The Game: Can’t say I was expecting great things from this one, two lousy, low-octane teams on display. But there’s a new sheriff in town in Charlotte, and from early appearances at least, it seemed like Paul Silas’s claims about wanting to get the team to run was more than just lip service. It started off a little awkward — I can’t remember the last game where I’d seen so many turnovers in transition before the team even crossed halfcourt — but as the game picked up, so did the play, culminating with a second-quarter no-look alley-oop between Shaun Livingston and Derrick Brown (seriously!) on a semi-break that was as dangerously close to a legitimate NBA highlight as anything I’ve ever seen from the Bobcats. “Phoenix East,” Steve kept calling them, and as ridiculous as the comparison would’ve sounded just one game earlier, he might not have been far off that night.

And as foreign as an up-tempo style might seem for a squad who spent the last two-and-a-half seasons under the steady-as-she-goes guiding hand of Larry Brown, watching the Cats that night, it really seemed like it might not be such a bad fit. Two players in particular seem to benefit from a go-go pace : point guard D.J. Augustin and power forward Tyrus Thomas.

The former is a lot faster end-to-end then you might realize, and has a syrupy-sweet stroke from deep — playing in the open court like that, he looked like a hybrid between Ty Lawson and Stephen Curry, potential I hadn’t seen from Deej in a while. And no one has ever doubted Tyrus Thomas’s athleticism on defense, or his abilities as a finisher, making him an ideal candidate to both start and end team fast breaks. Both ended with nice stat lines — 27 points for D.J., 14 and five blocks for Tyrus — and I wonder if that in this system, the duo can blossom into the exciting young core that Charlotte has so badly lacked in their franchise history.

Despite getting up by as much as 20 in the first half, Detroit was able to battle back to make it a game, largely thanks to a deadly shooting night from one Charlie Villanueva, who went 5-5 from deep on his way to 25 points for the evening. (“He always kills us,” Steve bemoaned, even before the threes started raining in.) But a hook-up between Augustin and Thomas (appropriately enough) sealed things in the final minute, as Thomas slammed home either an Augustin air-ball or an alley-oop pass, depending on how charitable you’re feeling, and Ben Gordon missed a pair of potentially game-tying threes at the other end. Final score: Bobbers 105, Pistons 100.

The Fans: Only in Charlotte and Memphis did I legitimately start to panic about an hour before the game that maybe somehow I had showed up on the wrong night. The place was still absolutely empty up until about a half-hour before tip, and I wondered if it was just going to be me, a handful of players and about 100 of my closest Queen City friends in attendance at the game. Luckily, the place did start to fill up a little bit as the first quarter went along — a traditionally late-arriving crowd, I was told — at least keeping its final numbers out of Memphis territory. Still, the place was disturbingly silent for most of the game (“When we’re way up here and you hear them yelling switches, you know it’s quiet,” someone in press row aptly remarked) and only really got into it at the end, and for the Livingston-Brown connection, which seemed to surprise the rest of the crowd as much as it surprised me.

“The crowds this year have been quite comparable to the years past,” Brett Hainline of ‘Cats blog Queen City Hoops told me. “A little light, kind of quiet, and always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Sounds about right, though at least a couple people I talked to seemed more optimistic (albeit cautiously so) than that. “We’re excited about the new change of coach, the up-tempo style,” fan Kurt told me, pointing out “It’s already paying dividends.” Fan Steele agreed that it was time to go for Coach Brown, saying that it was a chance to “give the team a new face. Obviously what was going on wasn’t working, and something needed to change.” Brett explained that the change “gave fans a reason to think there is a reason for optimism. With the current roster, a coach can only do so much and Larry Brown did not seem to be making the best of the bad situation.”

Though it was tough for the fans I talked to to identify much in the way of greatness to come for the team — when I asked Steele which Bobcat gave him the most hope for the future, he stammered for a few seconds before calling in his friend to help with an answer — at the very least, they’ve still got #23 overseeing things from the front office (though unfortunately, not in attendance at the TWC that evening). “Anywhere he goes, he’s going to bring a certain energy that comes with being the greatest player of all-time,” Steele said in favor of MJ as an owner. Kurt wisely qualified his support of Jordan: “So long as he lets someone else decide who to draft.” Brett simply pointed out that he was boosted by comparison to past owners: “Bob Johnson and George Shinn … Mike doesn’t have a lot to live up to when it comes to NBA ownership in the Queen City.”

Most Popular Jerseys: Well, the Bobcats seemed to have the highest percentage of personalized fan jerseys sold of any fanbase I’d visited. I guess that’s what happens when your marquee guys have been Gerald Wallace and Emeka Okafor. Crash was probably still the best represented, though I was amused to see some poor kid saddled with a Gerald Henderson jersey (which I assumed was another personalized until I remembered the ‘Cats did in fact have someone named Henderson on their roster, who was in fact starting in the game that night). Don’t recall much in the way of retros, though I saw at least one guy rocking the Felton #20.

Celebrities in Attendance: A big Carolina welcome for presumed Charlotte resident Ric Flair. Nature Boy looking good at 61 years young.

Also Worth Noting: All right, crackpot theory time, inspired by the pin-drop quiet of the game’s first quarter: Let’s say you’re a depressing franchise currently only pulling in the single-thousands in attendance. Let’s say you have one night that’s particularly bad, where lousy weather, inconvenient time-slotting and a crummy opponent add up to near-season-low numbers. Why try to force the atmosphere of a well-attended NBA game when that’s clearly not going to be in the cards? Why keep up the pretense with the loud music, the PA guy trying to get the fans on their feet, the flashing lights and the cheerleaders and the graphics inaccurately measuring audience response? Why not go entirely in the other direction?

So here’s my idea: When you know you have one of these games coming up, announce day-of that tonight is going to be a special, intimate evening of basketball, and present the game more like a theater piece than a pro hoops contest. Cut out all the music and PA hype, discourage fan chatter and hold applause until quarter breaks (like theatrical intermissions) maybe dim the lights a little, and give attendees the unique experience of a basketball game without all the modern-day bells and whistles. NBA Unplugged, if you will. Wouldn’t that be kind of cool? You’d actually get to hear everything go on on the court, too — all the screen-calling, the defensive coordinations, the huddle discussions, and of course, the trash-talking (meaning perhaps that fans under a certain age would not be allowed in without adult accompaniment).

Tell me why this isn’t a great idea. All of a sudden, you turn the conversation from “Isn’t this depressing? Only 2000 people showed up!” to “Isn’t this awesome? There are only, like, 2000 people here to see this!” Mark my words, some NBA team will be desperate enough to try this in the future, and they will be happy they did so. (And that team will be owned by me.)

Swag Acquired: A Bobcats sharpie for $4. I know, I’m sorry, I promised myself I wouldn’t cop out with anything lame like that for any of the teams, but nothing else the ‘Cats were selling (which of course included a ton of MJ stuff) was speaking to me. And I do kinda need a Sharpie.

2010 Jam of the Day:

The Drums – “I Need Fun in My Life” Yes, it’s true that these guys basically only have one song. Yes, it’s also true that that one song is so good that eleven different variations on it is enough to make up one of the most enjoyable albums of 2010. It happens. Live with it.

Only three stadiums left — off to our nation’s capital now for a sure-to-be epic Wizards-Pacers game. With a W I can clinch a winning record for my trip. Home court advantage, bitches!!