T-shirt style jerseys? Pink in the color scheme?
There was plenty of trial and error before the original Charlotte Hornets arrived at a look suitable for the NBA expansion team’s uniform. Ultimately that look in 1988 – assembled by North Carolinian Alexander Julian – included pinstripes, pleated shorts and a “mean bug” at the belt buckle, at the insistence of primary team owner George Shinn.
Much has changed since then concerning professional basketball in Charlotte. The Hornets left for New Orleans in 2002. Another expansion team replaced them. Shinn sold the first team back to the league. Michael Jordan bought the replacement team in Charlotte. And when the New Orleans franchise became the Pelicans, the Hornets name returned to the Queen City in 2014.
Now, 29 years removed from the debut, the classic uniforms are back. These new Hornets will wear replicas of the originals, manufactured by Jordan Brand, in Wednesday’s ESPN-televised home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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“What I try to do is create timelessness with something new looking,” renowned clothing designer Julian, 69, told the Observer Monday. “That was a new angle (in uniforms), but it was still functional enough for sports. It was classic.”
And thus, still iconic. Current Hornets guard Nic Batum was born a month after Julian’s design debuted at the now-demolished Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. Batum grew up a continent away in France. The only NBA teams he and his sister identified with as kids were Jordan’s Chicago Bulls (six championships) and the Hornets for that look.
“The pinstripes were distinctive,” said Dell Curry, an original Hornet and now analyst on the team’s telecasts. “Kind of classy - a dress-up uniform for a sports team. At the time, players always wore suits, even to home games.”
The story behind all this: Max Muhleman, the sports marketer who sold the NBA on expansion to Charlotte (and later the NFL, too, with the Carolina Panthers), was looking for a hook to keep the new team in the media in the year leading up to the Hornets’ debut. He suggested to Shinn they engage a clothing designer to create the team’s look - specifically Julian, whose family business was based in Chapel Hill and who was a devoted Tar Heels basketball fan.
Shinn and Julian shared a bank officer at then-NCNB (many mergers later, Bank of America) who helped get them together. Julian was receptive and asked Shinn for the team’s name.
“We don’t know yet,” Shinn said.
OK, then any other parameters? Shinn said the seats at the Coliseum (designed before the NBA chose Charlotte) would be teal, and could Julian work with that?
Easiest request Julian ever received: Teal had always been his signature color, along with purple.
Shinn said he’d also like to include Carolina blue (easy), a shade of green like a Coke bottle (acceptable) and…pink.
“We were looking at some charts for the building and teal and pink were in it,” Shinn, 76, recalled Tuesday. “I said, ‘The women would love it! It would help sell tickets!’
“I thought it was a great idea, but Julian said, ‘No, no, no.’ ”
Julian felt a macho sports culture would already be adjusting to a designer look, and pink wasn’t fierce enough. Julian’s research showed no major-league team was using teal and purple, and this would be a coup.
“If that’s what you believe,” Shinn replied, “go for it.”
Among other ideas explored and dismissed was a sleeved jersey, since so many NBA players then wore T-shirts under their game uniform. Julian instead sold Shinn on a V-neck jersey (a suggestion from North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who later had Julian design the Tar Heels’ argyle look).
Then, Julian advocated for vertical stripes, something he was using on his polo shirts. And pleated shorts "for fun."
Julian wanted a logo where a belt buckle would go on regular pants. Fine, Shinn said, but it had to be a “mean bug!”
OK, but later it occurred to Shinn that mascots are better marketing tools when they’re cuddly and kid-friendly than when they’re mean-looking. One of Shinn’s original partners in the Hornets, NASCAR race-team owner Rick Hendrick, had an illustrator on staff to create T-shirt designs. That illustrator took a shot at drawing up a mascot.
The first version came back looking like a yellowjacket. Shinn liked the image, but not the yellow-and-black stripes on the tail. So the illustrator altered the image to teal and purple. Voila! Hugo was born.
The costume for that first Hugo came under the supervision of Muppets creator Jim Henson, whose daughter worked with Julian at the time.
From Charlotte-to-New Orleans-to Charlotte again, Hugo is still emblematic of the Hornets.
‘Lot of gumption’
The coolest thing about this? It was organic, rather than some grand marketing scheme from Madison Avenue. Shinn was just green enough to think he could talk Julian, and later Henson, into basically donating their art to North Carolina’s first major-league franchise.
“We had a lot of gumption to ask people to do things,” said Shinn, who is semi-retired in Tennessee.
A good deal-maker, too. Rather than billing Shinn for his time, Julian agreed to barter his services. In return for those designs, Shinn agreed to ship 5 pounds of Carolina barbecue monthly to Julian’s Connecticut residence.
Didn’t sound like much, after sales of Hornets merchandise topped $200 million and the team had hundreds of sellouts at the old Coliseum.
“Hey,” Julian reflected, “what good is money if you can’t get good barbecue?”