CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gerald Henderson chuckled when asked, but only because of the absurd reality of the question.
“Yes,” he said, before pausing for a second. “It’s like that. It’s a different atmosphere. But there’s no doubt we have some of that spirit.”
The spirit Henderson acknowledged is one he knew all too well playing three seasons at Duke. But it isn’t because of regular home experiences in front of Duke’s Cameron Crazies, the school’s fabled student section known for their passion, theatrics and noise level.
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It has more to do with how coach Mike Krzyzewski has his team play on the court. Watching Duke or an average ACC game differs significantly in the eyes of most fans from the NBA game. That is why fans of one version often don’t spill over onto the other.
Along Tobacco Road where college basketball is essentially a religion, the Charlotte Bobcats took a risk in hiring a coach whose career had mostly been as a college assistant until taking over a team last spring that had just put forth the worst season in NBA history. The Bobcats went 7-66 and had become an adjective in this region, so the organization took drastic measures and brought in little known Mike Dunlap.
Dunlap’s most recent job was as the interim head coach at St. John’s while regular Red Storm head coach Steve Lavin was battling cancer. Prior to that, Dunlap was an assistant at St. John’s, Arizona, Oregon, and he spent three seasons with the Denver Nuggets from 2006-08. In the 26 years before landing that post, Dunlap was an assistant at several college programs but he also served a few years as a head coach of a pro team in Australia and led Metro State to a pair of NCAA Division Two titles.
On paper, Dunlap is the antithesis of most NBA hires. And on the court, his team is a bit out of the ordinary, too.
The Bobcats primary focus is defense, and Dunlap enforces it. No matador defense with an organization mantra of scoring to let the stars take over so the seats will fill. Quite frankly, the Bobcats don’t have the firepower to play that way, but even if they did, this is the lens through which Dunlap sees the game.
In addition to executing various defenses, including various trapping sets, a match-up zone, and hard core man-to-man, Charlotte plays with a passion and intensity most nights as if a college rival is in town and the band relentlessly plays the fight song at every timeout. It is the culture Dunlap is trying to instill, and given that the Bobcats equaled last season’s win total by the 12th game, it appears to be working.
“We want to try to be as tough to beat at home as we can,” Dunlap said. “So there’s two wins there:
“One, saying defense first, and they’re getting some results from it and second is just trying to make sure that the fans of Charlotte come back and see a good product and see players that care and will get a little bit dirty in terms of getting on the wood, taking charges and doing the little things that I think the Charlotte fan really appreciates.”
Henderson said he sensed something was different about Dunlap from the moment he met him. His sincerity was a plus, and his belief in himself but also the players was, too.
“I think him being unusual from what might be the norm in the NBA is a plus,” said Henderson, who was projected to lead Charlotte in scoring but has been out with a sprained left foot. “He has a way of communicating that makes it easy for the guys to respond.”
Dunlap can preach and preach about what he wants, but unless the players are willing participants, it won’t work. And that’s where the other part of this puzzle has fit in nicely.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has given the team an injection that only a fun-loving 19 year old can. The second overall pick in the draft last summer, “MKG” plays with that same collegiate skip that helped him serve a vital role in Kentucky’s national championship run last season
Kidd-Gilchrist has started every game and is sixth in scoring at 11.4 minutes per contest. He’s also at 6.6 rebounds and leads the team in blocked shots despite standing just 6-foot-7.
Then add veteran newcomers Brendan Haywood, Ramon Sessions, and Ben Gordon, and the team not only gained some needed gravitas, but players willing to buy into Dunlap’s approach.
“I think it’s fun,” said Haywood, who played at North Carolina from 1997-2001. “The atmosphere is light, it’s fun, and were relaxed.”
So much so that after a home victory over Washington on Nov. 13, Henderson and Kidd-Gilchrist were going at it in the locker room while their college teams were battling on a massive high definition television on the wall.
When Seth Curry hit a long jumper for Duke, Henderson looks at MKG and barked, “That’s my boy, I know his daddy.”
UK responded with a tough rebound drawing a foul, and MKG snapped back, “That’s how we do it.”
The teammates that had already showered got a kick out of the back-and-forth, including Kemba Walker, who led Connecticut to a national title in 2011 and has become Charlotte’s most important player.
Dunlap saw the 6-foot Walker up close in college and managed to convince him to play with the confidence he did in the Big East, which meant taking more control of games and looking more for his shots.
“He really gave me confidence,” Walker said about Dunlap. “It was like a light went on.”
Walker averages 16.6 points and nearly six assists per outing as the primary point guard a year after sharing duty with D.J. Augustine as a rookie
The Bobcats aren’t likely going to push for a division title this season, and bumps in the road are surely ahead. But it’s clear that Dunlap’s style, strengths as a man and communicator, not to mention his collegiate hoops savvy, are assets to an organization that barely had a pulse last spring.
Dunlap is a teacher, motivator and in some respects a capable mentor. And while that might not be for every franchise in the NBA, it’s working on Tobacco Road.