CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As often happens with Muggsy Bogues, the play evolved in a flash. First, he stripped Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the ball. As Abdul-Rauf tried to chase him down and block his layup, Bogues flipped an over-the-shoulder pass to teammate Rafael Addison for a dunk.
The sellout crowd at the Charlotte Coliseum erupted.
"Just like old times, Muggsy," one courtside fan said above the din.
"You're baaacckk," yelled another.
Bogues smiled, not only at the fans who were cheering this sequence in Friday night's victory over the Nuggets, but also at the irony of his own situation. It did seem like old times, those good times for Bogues and the Hornets the past few seasons. And, for that moment, things seemed to be right back where they were.
But something has changed for Bogues.
It took the first injury of his basketball life, as well as what he says was media-driven criticism by the fans last summer for his subpar performance in last year's playoffs, to turn this eternal optimist into a hard-core realist. The 5-foot-3 kid from Baltimore who beat the odds to become a full-fledged NBA star is clearly at the crossroads of his career.
"It was a big turning point for me," Bogues said of the leg injury, which forced him to miss the final week of the regular season last spring and affected his play in Charlotte's first-round playoff series vs. the Bulls.
"It made me stronger," Bogues said. "It made me sit back and think about some things. In a way, it helped. But in a way, it didn't help, because I was away from basketball."
The severe bone bruise and torn cartilage would require arthroscopic surgery and several months of rehabilitation, forcing him to miss the first 45 games this season.
It has been a little over a week since Bogues returned to the Hornets, who play host to the Washington Bullets here tonight. But the team Bogues returned to and the role he is now being asked to play are far different from last season. He had been the starting point guard on a team that won 50 games and seemed ready to make a run for an NBA title. He is now a 31-year-old reserve on a 25-25 team searching for an identity.
Talk about a helpless feeling. Not only did Bogues watch as the Hornets traded unhappy, soon-to-be free-agent center Alonzo Mourning to the Miami Heat, but he also sat back and saw several point guards come and go. There was former Hornet Kendall Gill, reacquired over the summer from the Seattle SuperSonics. There was Khalid Reeves, who came in the Mourning deal. And, finally, there was Kenny Anderson, who arrived Jan. 19 in a trade from the New Jersey Nets for Gill and Reeves.
"It was tough, seeing the team go through as many changes as we did," said Bogues, who remains one of two original members -- along with backup shooting guard Dell Curry -- still playing for the 8-year-old franchise. "During the course of the summer, I was taking a lot of criticism because the way the season ended.
"Before the playoffs [an opening-round loss to the Chicago Bulls in which Bogues shot 31 percent], I was having one of my best seasons. I felt I wasn't getting a fair shake at times because the people didn't know the situation [with the injury]. With the trades -- losing the franchise player [Mourning] -- and the team trying to find solutions, there was nothing you could do about it. Then seeing them bring in one point guard after another, I started to feel unappreciated."
It wasn't only because of what Bogues had done on the court for the Hornets: twice being named the team's Most Valuable Player, being the NBA's only guard besides the Utah Jazz's John Stockton to have at least 600 assists in each of the past seven seasons and missing just 15 games as a Hornet before the injury.
It was also for what he did off the court: the countless personal appearances he made for the team, the community charity events he showed up at, unannounced, and the way he had his contract restructured when the team first signed Mourning.
"Whatever they wanted, I did," he said.
Bogues doesn't appear bitter. He still has more than two years left on a six-year contract that's worth a reported average of $1.7 million annually. He has turned his David-vs.-Goliath image into a healthy stream of national endorsements, as well as a book and soon-to-be-finished movie about his life. He will appear in two movies this summer, including a cameo appearance in one starring Whoopi Goldberg.
But with Anderson's future in Charlotte uncertain -- the former Georgia Tech star will be highly sought after as a free agent at the end of the season -- Bogues isn't quite sure about his own. They are represented by the same agent, Washington-based power broker David Falk, so at least Bogues should know what's going on.