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25 years ago: Tuxedos, spotlights and debut of Charlotte Hornets

The Charlotte Bobcats will play their home opener Friday, the first Friday of November, against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Charlotte Hornets played their first game 25 years ago on the first Friday of November against the Cavaliers.

Opening night should be special. But Nov. 4, 1988 was more than special. It was legendary. The term is overused, but it applies. You know if you were there.

The Bobcats will become the Hornets next season, a testament to the enormous popularity of the early Hornets teams. Here’s a look at the evening the legend began.

No matter which part of Charlotte or the Carolinas you embarked from, spotlights filled the sky and directed you to Tyvola Road, Paul Buck Boulevard and Charlotte Coliseum. Few fans had been in the building; it opened three months earlier.

The Hornets asked people at courtside – team officials, the stats crew and even the media – to wear tuxedos. Most did. The media rented theirs.

This wasn’t a game. This was a gala.

George Shinn was the team’s primary owner. Felix Sabates, the late Cy Bahakal and Rick Hendrick also owned a piece.

Says Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports: “We were pulling up to the Coliseum. We parked in back, where the players did. There was this electricity in the air, all these TV trucks behind the building and players on the court. And I thought: ‘I can’t believe we got an NBA team.’ Charlotte was smaller then. It was not a banking town. It was like you knew everybody. It’s hard to explain. I knew we were getting an NBA team. But until you walked in, it didn’t seem real.”

Fans who supported North Carolina and South Carolina, N.C. State and Clemson, Duke, Charlotte, East Carolina, Queens, Johnson C. Smith and Davidson sat down and, likely for the first time, cheered for the same team.

Says Sabates, who owns part of a NASCAR team and a piece of the Bobcats: “I saw people the first night I never saw at a Hornets game again. They didn’t come for basketball. They came for Charlotte. It was Charlotte’s night to shine.

“They called all of us to the floor before the game. It hit me then, during all the applause. It was probably one of the best days in my life. In a small way I was part of something big.”

The governors of North and South Carolina were in the crowd, as was NBA Commissioner David Stern. Stern believed the Hornets would have to block off the upper deck. Opening night, new city – the league couldn’t allow its image to be sullied by television cameras focusing on empty seats.

Spencer Stolpen provided the Hornets’ legal counsel and later became the team’s president.

Was Stern kidding about blocking out the upper deck?

Says Stolpen: “He wasn’t kidding. Charlotte had a population of 800,000 then. It was a show no one had put on before. It was a big thing.”

Says Sabates: “We were expecting maybe 14,000 people. We got 23,000.”

To accommodate the crowd, the tuxedo-clad owners went to work. Sabates was charged with leading sponsors into the building and visiting the eight skyboxes to make sure everybody had what they needed.

The skyboxes did. But some concessions ran out of hot dogs and beer.

Charlotte didn’t sell out another game for seven weeks until Michael Jordan, now the Bobcats’ owner, and the Chicago Bulls played the Hornets.

The Cavaliers had no idea what to expect because they’d had no experience with expansion. Point guard Mark Price, who would score 13 points and add 10 assists for Cleveland, is now a Bobcats assistant coach.

Says Price: “I can’t say I’ve ever experienced anything like it. We were up by almost 40 late in the game and every time they scored they got a standing ovation.”

The Cavaliers won 133-93. The victory was the first of 58 for Cleveland. Imagine the reaction if the Hornets had won.

Sabates sat in the front row on one side of the court and Hendrick directly across from him on the other. Sabates pulled a money clip from his pocket and held it in the air. Hendrick understood. Their investment might be all right.

After the game, fans lingered. They gathered in the concourse, looking for friends and talking about what they’d seen.

An NBA team plays 41 home games. Stolpen walked out of the building and thought, “How do we do this 40 more times?”

Shinn and his party drove to the Ranch House. The restaurant opened in 1951 and their specialties were steak and a shrimp cocktail with sauce so spicy diners would take a bite, wince, and take another bite. Shinn was a regular. The restaurant, which closed in 2011, closed on Fridays at 11 p.m. But it stayed open and held a back room for Shinn.

Everybody went somewhere. Our first major league team met our town, and we hit it off beautifully. Charlotte was now in the same league as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and the Hornets proved it.

Says Hendrick: “It was like we’d arrived.”

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