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Fowler: Charlotte Hornets hysteria was real, all right

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

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This much you probably know: The Charlotte Bobcats are about to change their name to the Charlotte Hornets.

All that remains for the switch to become official is what should be a rubber stamp of approval Thursday from the National Basketball Association’s governing board – although the nickname change itself for the local NBA team won’t come until the 2014-15 season.

This much you probably don’t know, or maybe you did once but you’ve forgotten: Why were those original NBA Charlotte Hornets such a big deal anyway? When you bring up 1988, why do so many people sigh and act like the Hornets were their first girlfriend? Was Hornets hysteria real, or is this just a case of overwrought nostalgia?

It was real, all right. When the Charlotte Hornets debuted 25 years ago – playing in a city with a population half the size of Charlotte’s today – they were a phenomenon. They had an emotional connection with their fans the Bobcats desperately want to rekindle.

“Our first game was a black-tie event,” said Muggsy Bogues, the popular 5-foot-3 point guard from those early Hornet teams. “A lot of guys wore tuxes. Ladies wore gowns. Cleveland beat us by 40 – and we got a standing ovation at the end of the game. From that moment on, we knew it was going to be special. It was just a happy place, and wins or losses did not change the level of happiness.”

That first Hornets team went 20-62 – and got a parade through uptown. It was an innocent time.

“Our first players were of very modest abilities – leftovers from other teams, really,” said Carl Scheer, the Hornets’ first president and general manager. “But the fans didn’t care. They were our leftovers. So the fans loved them.”

On Dec.23, 1988, those expansion Hornets upset Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, 103-101, on a Kurt Rambis tip-in at the buzzer. That game began a streak of 364 straight sellouts at Charlotte Coliseum.

Night after night, 23,000-plus people filed into Charlotte Coliseum – which no longer exists – watching good Hornet teams and bad ones in what became known as “The Hive.”

In their 14 years in the NBA, the Hornets led the league in attendance eight times. It helped that their teal and purple color scheme – designed by Chapel Hill native Alexander Julian – was incredibly popular. It regularly outsold the merchandise of every NBA team except Jordan’s Bulls.

Of course, it all went bad for the Hornets. They moved away in 2002, and by then their relationship with local fans was in tatters.

But this story is mostly about when it was good – the reasons Jordan, now the Bobcats’ owner, would want to spend $4 million and go retro with this nickname change. The NBA’s Board of Governors – made up of a handful of the league’s owners and meeting Thursday in Las Vegas – is not expected to find any reason to block the move from Bobcats to Hornets. The NBA league office has said it is fine with the switch.

Jordan has often said he wants Time Warner Cable Arena to feel like Charlotte Coliseum did during the Hornets’ heyday. This is what he means.

Louder than Duke

“You know that feeling when you come out of a loud concert and your ears are ringing – when you aren’t hearing at 100 percent for awhile?” said Harold Kaufman, the media relations director for the Hornets for all 14 of their years in Charlotte. “That was the feeling every single night coming out of a Hornets game in those early years. And it was like that when we were down 20. Loudest building in the league – we were notorious. Wes Unseld, who was Washington’s head coach at the time, once told his players about the fans: ‘Men, just pray they shut up. It’s our only chance.’”

Kenny Gattison played for the Hornets from 1989-95 and is now an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns. “You’ll see in most NBA arenas that people sit on their hands till the last six minutes of the fourth quarter,” Gattison said. “With The Hive, you felt that energy as soon as you walked out of your car.”

Rick Pitino, a veteran college coach, directed New York Knicks teams against the Hornets at The Hive. Pitino described Charlotte Coliseum after one game as a louder place than Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke’s homecourt advantage is legendary.

The “Hornets” nickname itself dates back much further than the NBA team. British general Charles Cornwallis complained that the area was a “hornet’s nest” of rebellion during the Revolutionary War.

The nickname was used for decades by Charlotte’s minor-league baseball team and briefly by Charlotte’s short-lived World Football League team in the 1970s before owner George Shinn brought it back to life for the NBA.

Shinn was once hailed as a hero in Charlotte – a homegrown millionaire from Kannapolis who had beaten steep odds to land the city’s first professional sports team. On the Hornets’ opening night, in 1988, the governors from both North and South Carolina proclaimed it “George Shinn Day.”

A Whopper in one bite

Hornets players didn’t take themselves too seriously in those early years, and their fans seemed to appreciate that, too.

Tim Kempton, who now does radio analysis for the Phoenix Suns, was one of the original Hornets. He became something of a cult figure in Charlotte. Once, he and Rambis were having a conversation when Kempton mentioned that he could eat an entire Burger King Whopper in one bite.

“It was just a goofy thing,” Kempton said. “Rambis got all animated about it, though, and a reporter overheard it.”

The reporter was The Observer’s Tom Sorensen, who put Kempton’s quip in the newspaper. Another Observer columnist, Doug Robarchek, bet Kempton $200 he couldn’t do it.

A few days later, with a photographer documenting the action, Kempton did it. The secret: Folding the burger in half. He gave the money to a local homeless shelter.

“Oh man, it was fun in Charlotte,” Kempton said. “I played for a lot of teams in the NBA, but that was so unique. The people were just phenomenal. They liked us so much. It was new. It was all so fresh.”

When the Hornets beat the Bulls that first season, Hornet Kelly Tripucka scored 30 points. Tripucka said immediately afterward of the fans: “They just created their own universe.”

And 25 years later, that statement is closer to the truth than anyone realized at the time. When you stepped into “The Hive” – with Hugo the Hornet, the dancing Honeybees, the indoor blimp, the chubby guy in the white dress shirt doing flips during timeouts – it truly was a different universe.

The Carolina Panthers didn’t exist yet, so the NFL behemoth had yet to arrive to compete for fans’ affections and dollars. NASCAR and pro wrestling were the biggest sports draws. The Hive was mostly spectacular, a little kitschy and a social event even for those who didn’t like basketball.

A united community

Charlotte was a “sleepy little town” in those early Hornets days said Scheer, who now works for the Bobcats as a consultant.

“People loved college basketball,” Scheer said. “But the loyalties were divided – UNC fans, Duke fans, State fans, Wake Forest fans and so on. And everyone could love the Hornets.”

It helped that the Hornets got better as the honeymoon period with the fans waned. Larry Johnson came aboard as the No.1 overall pick of 1991, and for several years he was the Hornets’ version of Charles Barkley.

Alonzo Mourning arrived the next year as the No.2 pick. In 1993, the Hornets beat the Boston Celtics in their first-ever NBA playoff appearance. Mourning hit the series-winning shot. LJ’s smile, Zo’s scowl and Muggsy’s energy became iconic in Charlotte. Those three star players were painted in a mural on the side of one of Charlotte’s bank buildings.

“A window had opened then,” Gattison said. “If we had kept that team together, and Larry Johnson never gets hurt, we had a chance to win it all.”

It seemed unfathomable then that the Hornets would ever leave.

Back to the future

But they did leave just nine years later. It was a nasty breakup that took years but can be boiled down to a few sentences.

Shinn became very unpopular. He allowed Mourning – the type of center every NBA team pines for – to be traded to Miami in 1995. He signed Johnson to a huge, $84 million contract, but then Johnson hurt his back and was never the same player.

The owner won a messy, nationally-televised trial for sexual misconduct but saw his reputation stained. T-shirts that read “Shinn Happens” started popping up. Shinn wanted a new arena. He didn’t get it. A 2001 referendum that would have provided a bond package to finance the new arena with premium seating the Hornets said they needed was voted down 57-43.

In their final two years, the Hornets fielded playoff teams – and those teams sometimes held their home playoff games in front of 10,000 empty seats. Then Shinn moved the team to New Orleans in 2002 and took the “Hornets” name along.

So now it’s coming full circle. Shinn has sold the team and now lives in Tennessee. New Orleans has changed its nickname to the Pelicans. The Bobcats have never gained traction in the Charlotte market the way the Hornets did – making the playoffs only once in their nine seasons hasn’t helped – and have decided to go back to the future.

“It’s the right move,” Gattison said. “The fans are still there. They just have to wake up the sleeping giant.”

“I’m in favor of changing the name to Hornets,” Bogues said. “That name belongs to the city of Charlotte. It will help. But I’m also quite sure the Bobcats know that a name change alone isn’t going to do it. It’s never going to be exactly the same, but you have to make people feel that relationship again. You have to reach out in the community. But, most of all, you have to win.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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