Scott Fowler

Charlotte Hornets, Michael Jordan are smiling as nickname returns

When the Charlotte Hornets hosted their first grand opening, it was Nov. 4, 1988. A lot of people wore tuxedos and ballgowns to the game. Michael Jordan was a 25-year-old NBA star from North Carolina who played for the Chicago Bulls and had yet to win a single championship.

Those Hornets left town in 2002, their reputation in tatters. A new NBA team was formed in Charlotte in 2004 and called itself the Bobcats. But the original divorce had been messy. The new nickname never quite took.

Wednesday, the Charlotte Hornets have their grand reopening. After a decade as the Bobcats, the team has adopted the old nickname in time for a season opener that brings soaring expectations.

Jordan is 51, and like a lot of us he is half a lifetime away from where he was in 1988. He became a six-time NBA champion as a player and used a lot of his money to buy the Bobcats.

Jordan can no longer control an NBA game like he did in his prime. But after some missteps as an owner, he finally will field a team that made the playoffs last season and has a chance to do great things. Jordan believes winning a seventh championship as a team owner would be more personally gratifying than any of the previous six because of the increased level of difficulty.

“It’s harder because I can’t impact the game in shorts and tennis shoes,” Jordan said Tuesday. “When I did have those on, it was easier to prove people wrong. It’s harder to do that now when I’ve got a suit on.”

Jordan was by turns playful and introspective Tuesday as he did a series of interviews, first spending 20 minutes with writers and editors from the Observer and then 20 more minutes with a group of other local media.

Jordan became the team’s majority owner in 2010, buying out Bob Johnson. Since then he stripped the team down to its bare bones and suffered through the worst season – 7-59 – in NBA history. He hired Mike Dunlap to get the Bobcats out of that mess, then decided that was a mistake and fired Dunlap less than a year later.

“Four years ago,” Jordan said of himself and his leadership team, “we ventured into this whole process unknowingly. We believed we were going to make some sound decisions, and yet we did not. We faced those decisions. And I think we took a little more meticulous view, learned from our mistakes and chose a different path. I think we’re on the right path.”

The Hornets now seem stable with their head coach (Steve Clifford) and a Big Three of Al Jefferson, point guard Kemba Walker and newest addition Lance Stephenson. Jordan still is thankful Jefferson picked Charlotte over other suitors in 2013 and said the center has become “the best player on our team,” with Walker its rising star.

Jordan took a personal role in Stephenson’s recruitment, interrupting a family vacation in Utah to fly to Las Vegas and try to persuade Stephenson to leave Indiana and join the Hornets. Jordan said he told Stephenson he didn’t like the way Stephenson blew into LeBron James’ ear in a playoff game, but he did like the way Stephenson “isn’t afraid of anybody.” Stephenson signed, taking less guaranteed money than Indiana was offering to do so.

Stephenson joins a team that, when named the Bobcats, never won a single playoff game. The Bobcats did make it to the 2014 postseason, but with Jefferson limping, LeBron James’ last Miami team swept Charlotte 4-0.

Jordan said he hopes that his team won’t become complacent just because it had a taste of the playoffs.

“I hope they’re still hungry,” Jordan said. “A taste and being full are two different things.”

Jordan normally doesn’t tweet, but he also took over the Hornets’ Twitter feed on Tuesday and acted like a delighted kid about it. He took and posted a selfie, as well as pictures of a Hornets coffee cup and the seats he was choosing between for Wednesday night’s 7 p.m. opener against Milwaukee. He also used social media both to tease pro golfer Keegan Bradley and tweet “I’m back” – the exact words he once used to announce his comeback to the NBA – as a joke.

Jordan’s team has lost tens of millions since he took over, although on paper it is worth much more than when he bought it. But this season – partly because of the nickname change, partly because of the team winning more – the Hornets say they have attracted more new season ticket holders than any NBA team except one. That would be Cleveland, where LeBron James will play once again this season.

Jordan’s team had a base of 6,000 season tickets in 2010 when he bought out Johnson. That number is now 10,000. Jordan was originally not in favor of renaming the team the Hornets, but he understood the reasoning after surveys showed that fans overwhelmingly supported the move.

For many years, the Hornets brought about hysteria in Charlotte. They led the NBA in attendance eight times in their 14 seasons and had a string of 364 consecutive sellouts that spanned nearly nine years. Their teal-and-purple color scheme – which has also returned, albeit not with original designer Alexander Julian – for many years outsold every NBA team except Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

“I was a little nervous initially about going back to the Hornets name,” Jordan said, “because I wanted to venture into the present and the future as opposed to going backward. But once we did our due diligence, the fans and the community basically said we’d love to have that name back. It was very evident here that that name was ingrained here in Charlotte.

“They had never wanted it to leave. It left without their permission. They gave us orders to get it back, in essence, and that’s what we did. It turned out to be one of the best things that we’ve done on the business side.”

As for the basketball side, Jordan said he used to always get butterflies before games, but they disappeared before tipoff because there was no time for them anymore. Now they stick around throughout the game.

“I’ve got plenty of time to have them,” Jordan said.

So he will watch the latest incarnation of his team Wednesday night, nervous as always, wondering like all business owners whether the grand opening will be a success and what the long-term future holds.

“I think we’ve finally gone through those rough roads and steered it in the right direction,” Jordan said. “Everyone’s kind of smiling right now.”