Thirty years since the NBA first arrived in Charlotte, the Hornets have yet to reach the Eastern Conference final, much less the NBA Finals.
That would have happened long ago had the core of that first playoff team held together.
That was the strong opinion of several members of the 1992-93 team who were back in Charlotte Wednesday for point guard Muggsy Bogues’ charity golf tournament at Raintree Country Club. That first playoff team upset the Boston Celtics at the end a run built by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish before losing to the New York Knicks.
By then the Hornets were loaded with talent: They had a future Hall of Famer in center Alonzo Mourning, a rookie of the year and All-Star in Larry Johnson, and a wildly athletic shooting guard in Kendall Gill.
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“I honestly think if they would have kept that team together, we would have been playing the (Chicago) Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals,” said Kenny Gattison, who played for the Hornets from 1989 through 1995.
“We were right there - probably two player moves away," Gattison said. "Back in those days you needed two All-Stars and a great bench. We had two All-Stars and a great bench.”
And then, between money, ambition and injury, it all unraveled. In the fall of 1995, the Hornets traded Mourning to the Miami Heat, under pressure they would lose him without compensation once he reached free agency. Johnson suffered a career-changing back injury and was traded to the Knicks in the summer of 1996. Gill was dealt to the Seattle SuperSonics in September 1993.
In each of those cases, then-general manager Bob Bass probably did the right thing by salvaging what he could from those assets. Players Bass acquired, such as Glen Rice from Miami and Anthony Mason from New York, became the core of later playoff teams.
But never again has an NBA team in Charlotte had that sort of star power. Each of the other three franchises added in the 1998 expansion – Miami, the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves – has reached a conference final at least once, with the Heat winning championships and the Magic losing in two NBA Finals.
Never has an NBA team in Charlotte advanced beyond the second round. The Bobcats, who took back the Hornets' nickname after the New Orleans franchise discarded it, has yet to win a series since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004.
Point guard Bogues, an original Hornet who still calls Charlotte home, is convinced that first playoff team could have done great things over time.
“It would have been special. We were on the rise,” said Bogues, whose tournament Tuesday raised funds for at-risk youth ages 12 through 18.
“We just weren’t together long enough. We were just starting to understand one another, starting to understand what playoffs were all about. We felt we could have been just as successful as any other team (in the East), even in those Chicago Bulls days.”
That was an era when the Bulls, led by now-Hornets owner Michael Jordan, won six championships over eight seasons. Maybe this team wouldn’t have found a solution against those Jordan-Scottie Pippen teams, but Bogues and Gattison both say that group could have been as competitive as the Knicks, Pacers or Detroit Pistons were in the same span of the ’90s.
Johnson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1991 draft, buys that.
“I agree with Gatt,” Johnson said of projecting at least one conference finals appearance. “A lot of guys were playing out of position – we needed one or two more pieces – but I do agree. Hard to say, looking back, but we thought it at the time.”
The group back then included shooting guard Dell Curry, until last season the Hornets’ career scoring leader, small forward Johnny Newman, the Hornets’ first significant free-agent signing, and point guard Tony Bennett, now Virginia’s coach.
Gattison, a rugged 6-foot-8 forward, often played backup center, which he says was one of the roster’s flaws. In later seasons, Bass added veteran shooters in Eddie Johnson and Hersey Hawkins.
Things started fraying after then-Hornets owner George Shinn signed Johnson to a 12-year, $84 million contract in October of 1993. Even before Johnson signed that deal – which was stunningly lucrative for NBA contracts at the time – there were signs Mourning, chosen second overall in 1992, would be the better of the two players.
Shinn has said he offered Mourning more money in a new contract than Johnson’s, but it wasn’t enough. Mourning’s and Shinn’s perception of what happened are very different.
“I never wanted to leave Charlotte,” Mourning told the Observer last summer, “but the business of basketball got in the way of that.
“The priority wasn’t keeping the team together. If the priority was keeping the team together, you would have made the investment. Shinn really didn’t feel like at the time I was worth those dollars. At the time I was willing to take less money to stay because I loved it so much.”
Shinn recalls it differently, that he offered Mourning a contract that would have set the market by NBA standards at the time, and that Mourning’s and agent David Falk’s position at the time gave the Hornets no real choice but to pursue a trade.
“Did we want to get rid of one of the best players in the league? Of course not,” Shinn said last July. “Nobody loved Mourning more than we did. But you can’t approach these things just with emotion. You’ve got to use business sense.”
All these years later, Charlotte basketball fans still wait on the promise of that spring of ’93.