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One night only, the ‘88 Charlotte Hornets machine

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

George Shinn, the original owner of the Charlotte Hornets, which makes him the original owner of Charlotte’s first major-league team, came back to town Tuesday and threw a 25-year anniversary party .

Walk into SMS Catering Services on Norland Road and its 1988, the year the Hornets played their first NBA game.

There’s Shinn and the franchise’s original investors, Rick Hendrick and Felix Sabates.

“I didn’t even know there was a bar over here,” Sabates says shortly before the party ends. “George probably put it in the corner so nobody could find it.”

There’s former Hornets’ president Spencer Stolpen, former general manager Carl Scheer and former team orthopedic doctor Glenn Perry.

Shinn says he’s credited for a lot of good ideas that came from his staff, and many of those staff members are in the room. As the evening goes on, it seems as if all of them are. More than 150 people with ties to the Hornets attend.

This is not a night to talk about the team’s apathetic ending in Charlotte or subsequent move to New Orleans. Some people love to cling to the bad stuff and all but wear a nametag that says: I’M BITTER AND PROUD OF IT.

One reason the festivities are warm is that none of them are invited.

John Kucera is here. One night he ran from his seat, which was back near the concourse, and onto the court and began doing back flips. He was heavy and, as you know, the heavier the guy, the cooler the back flip. Fans flipped, albeit without tumbling end over end.

Security asked vice president Marilynn Bowler what they should do. She listened to the applause, saw that Kucera was in mid-flip and said, let him go.

Hornets’ executive Sam Russo was sitting with Shinn that night and asked how much Shinn had paid the man. Shinn said he didn’t. Russo said he’d give the man tickets. Shinn said to make them season tickets.

The staff never knew his name. They called him Flipper, and he liked that they did.

Bowler is at the party. So are former vice presidents Tom Ward, Suzanne Werdann and Renea Bared.

There was former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt and former city council member Lynn Wheeler.

At SMS are former Hornets’ broadcasters Steve Martin (now with the Charlotte Bobcats) and Gil McGregor. There’s former public-address announcer James K. Flynn. There in the beautiful blue suit ( or is it teal?) is designer Alexander Julian, who designed the team’s first uniforms.

There’s Shinn’s wife Denise and his sons Chris and Chad. They all live in or near Nashville now. Chris is the lead singer with Live.

There’s Neal Zarrelli, who sang the anthem before big games. When he did, everybody stood a little straighter and felt the words a little more.

There’s former coach Paul Silas and his family, including Stephen, an assistant with the Bobcats. There’s Phyllis Harris, who made sure everybody was fed. There’s marketing man Max Muhleman, whose counsel was instrumental in Shinn’s quest for an NBA team and in Jerry Richardson’s quest for an NFL team.

Former players still living in the area were invited but unable to attend.

No matter who talks, there’s one theme – in 1988 almost nobody knew what they were doing. Shinn didn’t know how to own a team and the media didn’t know how to cover a team. Except for Scheer, an innovator who had been general manager of the Denver Nuggets, everybody figured it out as they went along.

The Hornets were more ma and pa than massive corporate entity. And it was fun. Man, it was fun.

Shinn gave Charlotte an identity and a reason to be proud.

Of course, there were battles and wars. There were heavyweight duels that often matched Shinn and Sabates.

That’s them on stage, joking and laughing, arms around each other, for everybody to see.

The bar in the corner is still open.

And nobody is in a hurry to leave.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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