Hornets playoff run is long-awaited for original season-ticket holders

For original Charlotte Hornets season-ticket holders, a playoff run like the one the team’s having now is what they’ve been awaiting for years.

Take Parks Neisler, 59, who was at the team’s first game at the newly renovated, sold-out Charlotte Coliseum on Nov. 4, 1988. Fans, some even dressed in tuxedos and gowns, were greeted with sparkling fireworks and a symphony orchestra. The Hornets lost by 40 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the team still got a standing applause.

The Hornets today bring Neisler back to those glory days.

“This last week or so, you just have the feeling they’re really back,” he says of the team. “The excitement is there. It brings back a lot of memories.”

Last week was the first time Charlotte had won an NBA playoff game since 2002, and a victory Sunday would mean the Hornets, who are tied 3-3 with the Miami Heat, would go to the second round for the first time since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.

Neisler’s favorite Hornets memory – so far – is the first time the team went to the playoffs, on May 5, 1993. Alonzo Mourning’s 19-foot jumper at the buzzer gave the Hornets a 104-103 victory over the Boston Celtics, ushering Charlotte on to the second round.

He’s hoping the outcome’s the same this round. “It’s that small-market team going against a big team. It’s Charlotte against Miami,” Neisler says.

The original Hornets franchise started as an expansion team and was later relocated to New Orleans after its 2001-2002 season. In 2004, the NBA established the Charlotte Bobcats, and in 2013, New Orleans said it was changing its team name to the Pelicans, freeing up the Hornets name to return to Charlotte for the 2014-2015 season.

Lavern Sanders, 68, also says that Celtics game is her favorite memory. She’s also been a season-ticket holder with her husband, Fred, 64, since the beginning, even through the Bobcats years.

When the Bobcats Arena – now Time Warner Cable Arena – was being built uptown, the Bobcats gave season-ticket holders special tours of the facility. The Sanderses still keep the hard hats from the tour upstairs in their Charlotte home off Mallard Creek Road. Lavern says she loves the way the team is playing at Time Warner Cable Arena these days.

“They are playing more like a team now than I’ve ever seen them play, since we left from off of Tyvola Road,” Sanders says.

Some of those Bobcats days were dark ones for Hornets fans who were particularly disappointed to see the franchise leave town.

Neisler, for instance, threw out his old Hornets jackets, sweatshirts and T-shirts since he didn’t anticipate the Hornets making a return. He says he wishes he still had those “collectors’ items” now.

“When the purple and teal came back (in 2014), that’s when you really felt like professional basketball was back in Charlotte,” he says.

A year before the original Hornets played their first game in Charlotte, the team had sold more than 15,000 season tickets, the most ever sold by an NBA team. Maryann Gilmore, 80, says she and her husband bought tickets to support George Shinn, the former owner who won the franchise for Charlotte in April 1987.

Gilmore says she’d always been more of a college basketball fan – University of Dayton, specifically. She wasn’t sure how she’d feel about supporting a professional team – until that first game against the Cavaliers. Then she was hooked.

“I make it to every game. I even am giving up one of my other passions, ballroom dancing, which I usually do on Friday nights. But if the team plays on a Friday night, I go to the game,” Gilmore says.

Evelyn Farrar, 76, and her husband are also original season-ticket holders and self-described “sports nuts” – they have season tickets for the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Knights and UNC football games.

The Farrars canceled a vacation this week in the Blue Ridge Mountains so they could go to Monday’s second home playoff game. “When you put in all this time and effort and love, our schedules revolve around our sports,” Evelyn says.

For her, the reason this season is special is simple: “We’re winning. We’re in the playoffs.”

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

Related stories from Charlotte Observer