This season will be the 30th for the Charlotte Hornets. I went to Spectrum Arena this week to talk about the formative years, the late 1980s and early 1990s.
No matter what happens in Charlotte, even if the Carolina Panthers win a Super Bowl or the Hornets win an NBA championship, even if Major League Baseball or Major League Soccer come, even if golf becomes even bigger and NASCAR again becomes big, we will never replicate the experience we had with the Hornets.
You get to be new once. The Hornets were the first major-league team to come our way. Suddenly we were in the same league as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, and the NBA standings proved it.
Charlotte didn’t know about professional sports. The media didn’t. I didn’t. Fans didn’t. This was our first voyage. For most of us, those early teams were like room service, perpetually full of personality and life. Man, they were fun to be around.
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Muggsy Bogues, 5-foot-3, flew down the court, taking nothing from anybody. Dell Curry was so adept at finding space, dissecting a defense the way a great receiver dissects a zone, and immediately putting the ball up with that quick release high-arcing shot of his.
Larry Johnson was so good and so entertaining, Alonzo Mourning was so intense and Tim Kempton could put an entire Burger King whopper in his mouth in a single try. Don’t try that at home. Or try. But maybe find a bib.
Fans were part of the show. And the games were a show. If you had an extra ticket, you had a friend.
In that first season, on Dec. 23, 1988, the Hornets hosted Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Kurt Rambis, who had made a career out of being in the right place at the right time, grabbed a rebound and put the ball up before the buzzer (although the Bulls claimed the shot clock had expired) and Charlotte won 103-101.
The Hornets no longer were a team. They were a phenomenon. And when, in 1993, Alonzo Mourning hit the 17-foot jump shot with 0.04 seconds to play to beat the Boston Celtics three games to one, fans at Charlotte Coliseum turned delirious.
The Hornets had won a first-round playoff series. The border between the athletes and the fans temporarily was suspended. The connection was crazy. If you were a Hornets’ fan, you were in.
Those of you that weren’t around in 1988 and again in 1993, probably tire of us talking about it. But if you were there, you know.
You always remember the time you were introduced to the local team, and indoctrinated, and how much fun you and they and everybody had.
It was glorious. It was innocent. And no matter what happens, it will never come our way again.