It was a bad idea, then a crazy idea, then, eventually, the most successful publicity stunt in Charlotte Hornets history. And it was hatched in October 1991 on a ride home from Atlanta.
Dennis Easterling and Lynn Edgerton had been soaking in the atmosphere during the Atlanta Braves’ first World Series appearance. They’d seen a passionate fan base rallying around the team, and the tomahawk chop — a simple cheer, complete with foam tomahawks, that anyone could take part in.
As they cruised up Interstate 85, the two Charlotte men were thinking out loud.
‘What we need to do,” Easterling said, “is create some enthusiasm for the Hornets, since they’re doing so bad. Come up with something like this tomahawk chop, that the fans can get into.”
By the end of that five-hour car ride they’d visualized the Stinger. They ordered 500 foam cutouts, dyed them teal in Easterling’s back yard in 50-gallon trash cans, and met with Hornets management. The team, though, wouldn’t bite.
Early in their fourth season, the Hornets were struggling, starting 1-8. Until his team was winning again, owner George Shinn wasn’t interested — but, as he told Easterling and Edgerton, he couldn’t stop them from promoting the foam Stingers on their own.
So Easterling tried, with a move designed to be nothing more than a brief publicity stunt.
But it lasted more than a month.
It became a national storyline.
Shinn hated it.
And, as the Hornets prepare for their 30th season this fall, it remains the one of the weirdest, yet most effective, publicity stunts in team history.
Easterling, now 68, leans back in his rocking chair and laughs, recalling that first time he told his friend about his new idea, and Edgerton’s surprised response:
“Dennis … you’re talking about getting on a billboard?”
‘Come on over’
Easterling’s idea for turning a billboard into a temporary home was born in Atlanta, too. A radio personality there, Steve McCoy, had done it for two weeks after vowing to stay there until the Braves won the National League pennant that fall.
He told Easterling it was the most publicity he’d ever gotten, by far.
So Easterling went out to scout possible locations for promoting the Stinger, and found a billboard that had everything.
On Independence Boulevard in the 1990s, you simply couldn’t miss it.
The LongHorn Steakhouse billboard towered 26 feet above traffic — with a massive pair of horns bursting through the sides..
The design was outlandish.
It was in a prime location, in terms of traffic.
And, most importantly, it was double-sided, with a workers’ runway in the middle.
Easterling immediately called Edgerton.
“I found the perfect billboard to live on,” he said. “It’s LongHorn Steakhouse.”
“Well,” Edgerton replied, “I happen to know the owner.”
That man, Bill Dukes, had opened three LongHorn restaurants in Charlotte in the 1980s. The chain was less than a decade old, and had little name recognition.
Dukes didn’t have much of an advertising budget, so when he got a call from Edgerton, asking if a 42-year-old friend could live on his billboard until the Hornets won two consecutive games, he was ecstatic.
“I told him to come on over,” Dukes said, “because I was always looking for that unique marketing piece. You can do ads, and you can do this, but I looked at that and saw it as a very unique opportunity.
“I was willing to do it. I guess I was as crazy as Dennis was.”
‘This is a good thing’
The three men quickly made arrangements. Easterling signed some liability paperwork, and scheduled a neighbor to check in on his dog, Pepper. Dukes would pay for Easterling’s expenses — mostly rent and utilities — and provide meals.
A scaffolding company created a 26-foot structure leading to the top. Easterling and his friends made a gigantic Stinger out of plywood and foam, then rigged it to swing back and forth. Dukes had a massive “Sting ’Em!” sign printed.
Easterling decided to follow rules set by the Guinness Book of World Records: He could leave the billboard for five minutes every hour. That gave him time to use the portable toilet right next to it.
He had a plywood box built between the billboards — about 4 feet wide, stuffed with blankets and known as The Hive.
He was set.
And, on Dec. 6, 1991, Easterling made his ascent. The Hornets lost to the Chicago Bulls that night, falling to 5-15.
It was lonely at first.
“People would just stop and come over and say, ‘What in the heck are you doing? Do you work for the billboard company?’ ” Easterling said. “I’d say, ‘No, I’m just an idiot trying to promote good will for the Hornets.’ ”
Soon, the buzz grew.
“Here came the media after about three days, and it wasn’t lonely anymore,” Easterling said.
He settled into a routine — wake up about 6 a.m., make some coffee in his portable machine and do two or three radio shows. Then, it was out to the walkway, where he’d stand and wave Stingers at the morning traffic, soliciting honk after honk.
Easterling would take a nap, eat a catered lunch from LongHorn (usually steak) and take another nap. He’d be out again for 4 p.m. traffic. His best sleep came in the day; people honked at him in excitement all night long.
As the attention came, so did the hecklers. One group of neighborhood kids almost hit Easterling with a bottle rocket, then switched to eggs, tomatoes and globs of mud. After three weeks, a security guard was hired for a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift.
The Hornets, meanwhile, continued to struggle. They had three chances to win consecutive games in December — and lost every time. As days turned into weeks, more Charlotteans rallied around Easterling.
“The more I was up there, the more people would come by,” he said. “Old friends I hadn’t seen since high school. … The more I was up there, the more I kept feeling that this is a good thing — as long as everybody’s having fun with it, too.”
Other advertisers came in swarms. Easterling got a free mattress, a cell phone and cable television. A local Domino’s Pizza restaurant would occasionally bring him dinner, then stay parked under the billboard for an hour, just so everyone would know who was serving the Billboard Man.
“Just about anything we wanted,” Edgerton said. “I’d walk in, tell them what I was doing — they’d supply me with food. … I would have to say, it was one of the bigger promotions that I recall in Charlotte in a long time, particularly involving a professional franchise.”
‘It was priceless’
By January, Easterling was burnt out.
He had banked two hours of break time to visit his family on Christmas Day (OK by Guinness rules), but hadn’t left the billboard site besides that. At times, he was trapped, because the scaffolding was too slippery to climb down.
He’d gained about 20 pounds, since there was no way to exercise, and came down with the intestinal flu at one point. He hadn’t shaved, and his only form of bathing was with a sponge and a 5-gallon bucket of water from a nearby car wash.
The Hornets’ ownership was also frustrated. Shinn called Dukes to distance the team from any official endorsement of the stunt.
Entering a Jan. 4 home game, the Hornets had lost seven of their previous eight games. But they beat the Phoenix Suns that night, 113-108, and the focus shifted to the next game: Thursday, Jan. 9, at home against the Sacramento Kings.
On Day 35, fans, reporters and TV cameras came out in droves to the Billboard Man’s temporary home.
The Hornets held a slim lead after three quarters and, with Easterling watching intently, slowly pulled away in the fourth, winning 109-96. They improved to 10-24 and gave Easterling his freedom.
He ran down the scaffolding to cheers, decked out in Hornets gear, as usual — from his teal pants to his trucker hat to his puffy winter coat.
He wore a huge smile.
“God bless America, and God bless the Charlotte Hornets!” he roared as people offered high-fives. “The Charlotte Hornets are the greatest! You’ve gotta believe — you’ve gotta belieeeeeeeve!”
Easterling threw his hat in the air, then ducked into a white limo headed to LongHorn, where a welcome-home party awaited. At 5 a.m. the next morning, he cleared the billboard of his personal belongings.
For the next decade, Easterling continued to pull similar stunts.
He lived on another billboard for 29 days until the 1999 NBA lockout ended.
And after the 9/11 attacks, he pledged to live inside a Huey helicopter, parked in front of a car dealership, until the United States killed Osama bin Laden. He decided to end that one after 67 days, when President George W. Bush said the country was looking to eliminate all terrorists, not just bin Laden.
“You know, once you do something and get the maximum amount of attention you can get,” Easterling said, “it’s kind of like, ‘Well, here he goes again. Is he just trying to get attention for himself, or does he really believe in these causes?’
“Really, I should have quit after that one time.”
That one time, atop the billboard on Independence Boulevard, it worked. The Hornets finished 31-51, but still led the NBA in attendance. Easterling became a poster child for die-hard Hornets fans — and earned a nickname with one heck of a backstory.
Said Edgerton, now 65 and living in Raleigh: “It was a lot of work, a lot of fun and a lot of attention.”
Said Dukes, now 75 and living in Columbia: “It was priceless. I could not put a value on that … just a bunch of crazy guys having fun.”
Easterling hangs on to plenty from his 35-day stint as a celebrity — a box of newspaper clippings, a DVD mashup of local news coverage, that old Hornets coat (although it’s a little more ragged now).
The Stingers never caught on, but 26 years later it all still brings a smile to his face.
People still remember the Billboard Man.
“When I first got up,” he said, “I thought, ‘Are people going to look at me as a jerk? Or just some idiot?’
“Of course,” he laughs, “to this day, a lot of people probably still think that.”