Charlotte Hornets

From Grandmama to Hugo to the Whopper trick, what made those early Hornets cool

Was it the colors? Or the uniforms? Was it Muggsy Bogues’ pluck or Alonzo Mourning’s fury or Larry Johnson’s charisma?

It was all that and a lot more that made the original Hornets Charlotte’s first love, sports-wise.

They were here from 1988 through 2002, when an arena controversy caused owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge to move the franchise to New Orleans. The team stayed in the Big Easy, but the nickname is coming back to Charlotte this fall in a grand rebranding by the Bobcats.

So “Rufus” becomes “Hugo” in the mascot life and while the original pinstriped uniforms aren’t returning, the teal-and-purple colors will now clothe Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker.

The Hornets showed Charlotte was on the move and the population has doubled since that team’s debut. Twenty-six years later there is still a surge of nostalgia over what made those first few Hornets seasons fun.

Here’s a montage of what made “Alive at the Hive” memorable:

The colors

One of the master strokes in the buildup to the Hornets’ debut was asking North Carolina-based clothing designer Alexander Julian to create the uniforms. Shinn asked if Julian could incorporate the color teal into the uniforms, since that would be the color of the seats at Charlotte Coliseum.

Serendipity defined; Julian loved teal, particularly paired with purple. It gave the Hornets a distinctive look in a league full of drab greens, reds and blues. It was both original and enduring. Long after the relocation to New Orleans, the NBA continued making “Charlotte Hornets” gear because it was such a retro fashion statement among teenagers.

The uniforms

Julian tried some things that were out-of-the-box in uniform design – specifically pinstriped jerseys and pleated shorts. That might have sounded overly ornate in description, but the look worked. Long before the team was good, the uniforms were cool. Eventually the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets borrowed some version of pinstripes to spruce up their own looks.

There was, however, one push-back from the players. Some of them went to Charlotte tailors to have the shorts shortened to a length more common to the NBA in those days (that was before now-Hornets owner Michael Jordan made baggy shorts all the rage).

That “Golden Arches” crack

The NBA held its league meetings in Phoenix in 1987 just as Shinn and partners Felix Sabates, Rick Hendrick and Cy Bahakel were lobbying the league in the expansion process.

A Phoenix newspapers ran a piece handicapping pursuit of those franchises. The line next to Charlotte, N.C., predicted the only franchise that town could get has Golden Arches.

Funny line. Faulty forecast.

Shinn loves telling that story and rightly so. It was Shinn’s persistence and salesmanship that made Charlotte a major-league city. Had there never been the Charlotte Hornets, there might never have been the Carolina Panthers.

Shinn

Nasty as things ended when the NBA gave him permission to move, Shinn was also the dreamer who pulled off something everyone told him couldn’t be done.

By his own description, he graduated last in his high school class. But he made a fortune in for-profit schools and diversified. He wanted to own a baseball team, but found the NBA more receptive to his pitch. He was brassy and visionary (even if preoccupied with male employees wearing white dress shirts).

Scoreboard

That scoreboard could leave a mark

The first basketball games scheduled in the new Coliseum were exhibitions for the men’s and women’s U.S. Olympic teams in August of 1988.

The morning of game day the overhead scoreboard tilted … and lurched … and “Ka-boom!”

Twenty tons of aluminum, plastic and glass fell 60 feet, impaling the brand new $55,000 basketball court below. So Charlotte went to work to make the show go on.

Power saws, cranes and trucks were deployed to clear the debris out and haul the court from the old Coliseum to the Hive. The games were played as scheduled and a new floor and scoreboard were in place when the Hornets opened at home three months later.

Opening night

November 4, 1988 was a formal affair – tuxedos, evening gowns, spotlight introductions.

It was the Hornets’ home debut and standing in a tunnel connecting the court to the team locker rooms, NBA commissioner David Stern marveled at the sellout. The Charlotte Coliseum, with 23,000-plus seats, was designed to attract ACC and NCAA tournaments. Stern was initially concerned it was too big to create demand for tickets.

Everything about that night was perfect except, well, the game itself. The Cleveland Cavaliers thumped the expansion Hornets by a score of 133-93.

As the beaten players started walking toward the tunnel something remarkable happened – a spontaneous standing ovation from the fans – long, warm and sincere.

It’s a safe bet the new Hornets won’t lose by 40 to the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night. Probably also a safe bet they won’t get that standing O.

Hugo

A fuzzy bug who can dance, mime and perform ever-more-daring acrobatic feats is a pretty lovable mascot.

The costume seemed intentionally non-fierce and that worked as far as making Hugo kid-friendly. The first performer in the Hugo costume was mostly a dancer. His successor was more an acrobat, and Shinn urged him to attempt ever-more-dangerous stunts.

That’s when the team came up with the “Super Hugo” alter-ego that switched the bug suit with a stinger for form-fitting tights for mini-tramp dunks or to rappel from the Coliseum’s catwalk.

Hugo is back for the new Hornets, a wise choice.

Muggsy

Being extremely tall tends to enhance NBA career prospects. But it’s hard to relate to a 7-footer’s view of the world.

Anyone could relate to Muggsy Bogues, who at 5-foot-3 was and is the shortest player in NBA history. He had pluck and charisma that made him arguably the most popular Hornet ever.

Dick Harter, the Hornets’ first coach, didn’t care about all that. He wanted Bogues traded and made an impassioned case to Shinn and then-general manager Carl Scheer.

Shinn heard out Harter, then vetoed any trade talk. Shinn, the marketer, knew a good draw when saw one. Harter lasted two seasons with the Hornets. Bogues lasted nine.

Drafting Rex

The Hornets strongly considered two players for their first college draft pick, No. 8 overall in 1988: Syracuse center Rony Seikaly and Kentucky shooting guard Rex Chapman.

Knowing the Miami Heat would choose him ninth, Seikaly told the Hornets not to select him. Son of a Greek shipping executive, Seikaly wanted South Beach, not Southpark. Snubbing Charlotte made him the Hornets’ first “villain.”

Harter didn’t play Chapman much that rookie season. When asked the difference between Chapman and the Hornets’ Kelly Tripucka (they had similar field-goal percentages), Harter pointed to all the free throws Tripucka took, while Chapman hardly ever got to the foul line.

Translation: Opponents feared Tripucka’s shooting, so they fouled him. Opponents invited Chapman to keep launching jumpers.

The Whopper Trick

Original Hornet Tim Kempton once bragged to teammate Kurt Rambis he could fit an entire Whopper (Burger King’s super-sized sandwich) into his mouth. Observer sports columnist Tom Sorensen overheard the conversation and wrote about it, prompting fellow columnist Doug Robarchek to bet Kempton it couldn’t be done.

Kempton didn’t have to unhinge his jaw or anything, but he did have a trick: He folded the sandwich over to better fit his mouth. And yes, he made the Whopper disappear.

“I could see right away he was going to be able to get the Whopper in his mouth,” Robarchek said, “and still have room for Muggsy Bogues.”

The spontaneous gymnast

Some Charlotte businessman (a former gymnast apparently) got rambunctious during a timeout. He pulled off his suit jacket, pulled the tail of his dress shirt out of his pants and spontaneously performed a series of flips across the basketball court.

What a hit! So much so that it became a tradition for the guy to run out and do his thing most every home game.

With fans like that, who needs halftime shows?

“Grandmama”

The Hornets chose Larry Johnson No. 1 overall in the 1991 draft. He somehow excelled at power forward standing about 6-foot-5. He had distinct style from his gold tooth to the “Dallas” isolation play the Hornets employed (named for Johnson’s home city) to that frumpy house dress he wore….

House dress?

Converse, the company that signed Johnson to his sneaker deal, convinced him to dress up as a dunking “Grandmama” for a series of commercials. The idea of the rugged Johnson cross-dressing was striking and hilarious, and sold the shoes.

“D.C. for three…yes!”

The new Hornets inherit the old Hornets’ history as part of the rebranding. Best thing about that? Dell Curry, one-time Hornets guard/now-Hornets television analyst, is still the franchise’s all-time scorer.

Curry’s 9,389 points should stay atop that list for a long time since no current Hornet is top-10. Curry’s gift for 3-pointers made for TV announcer Steve Martin’s best catch phrase: “D.C. for three…yes!”

The Curry family remained Charlotte fixtures after Dell stopped playing here. Oldest son Stephen, who used to shoot wadded-up paper towels into locker room waste cans, did just fine. First he starred for Davidson and now he’s one of the NBA’s top point guards with the Golden State Warriors. Younger son Seth has played professionally since he graduated after three seasons at Duke.

The Shot

It was May of 1993 and this was the Hornets’ first playoff series, facing the storied Boston Celtics.

Curry was supposed to in-bound the ball and flash to a spot for a catch-and-shoot opportunity. Only the Celtics defense overplayed Curry, leaving Hornets center Alonzo Mourning relatively alone with the ball just above the foul line.

The ball left his hands over the reach of Boston’s Xavier McDaniel, fell through the rim and sparked the happiest dog pile of NBA players you’ll ever see.

Except it wasn’t over. Four-tenths of a second remained, long enough for Boston’s Kevin McHale to throw a lob pass to Dee Brown to tap into the basket. But Hornets guard Kendall Gill tipped the pass as the buzzer sounded, giving the Hornets the series 3-1.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer

  Comments