A brief history of the Charlotte Hornets (and other things)

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Economists have done countless studies that show the economic impact of major league sports — and especially the impact of building new arenas and stadiums — are pretty negligible, often even painful for individual cities. I believe that. But it’s still hard to explain just what it meant to Charlotte to get the Hornets.

We moved from Cleveland to Charlotte when I was in high school, and the culture shock for an awkward and perpetually nervous teenaged boy who lived for professional sports was, well, pretty overwhelming. Charlotte had nothing then. Nothing. Well, that’s not precisely right — Charlotte had its own insular sports culture which revolved around ACC basketball, NASCAR and professional wrestling, not necessarily in that order. I became a North Carolina basketball fan because that seemed the easiest way to fit in. I learned the 10 names that mattered in NASCAR by osmosis — Petty, Wallace, Labonte, Elliot, Yarborough, Allison, Gant, Richmond, Rudd and, of course, Earnhardt. And I could hold my own when the conversation turned to the sheer absurdity of of Jimmy the Boogie Woogie Man Valiant.*

*Valiant, best we could tell, was an 87-year old wrestler with a white beard who would dance out to the ring in step with The Manhattan Transfer’s “Boy From New York City.” He would then jump around a lot, call himself handsome and use his one move (throw guy into rope and, then, elbow him) to defeat an evil masked man named The Assassin or, perhaps, a different evil masked man named The Assassin No. 2. The Boogie Woogie Man baffled us in every way and it goes without saying we always rooted for the masked men.

Everything felt stifling in Charlotte then. Downtown was called Uptown. Restaurants closed at 9. The baseball was Class AA, played in an old ballpark made out of wood that, one day, simply burned to the ground. The pro football choices were the unpalatable Atlanta Falcons to the South and Washington Redskins to the North. The arena was a dingy place on the ironically named Independence Boulevard, and it was called, plainly enough, the Charlotte Coliseum. A major event there might be a Davidson basketball game or Styx on the Mr Roboto tour. There was nothing to do, no place to go, nothing to ever get excited about. Two of my best friends then were transplanted New Yorkers who lived pro sports, and it was hard for us to breathe. We sat in the school library at lunchtime and talked about big-time sports happening seemingly everywhere except Charlotte. We sat in our parents’ cars after dark and tried to pick up just a little bit of sports civilization through static on the radio dial.

And so when it was announced that a quirky businessman named George Shinn was actually bringing an NBA team team to town, well, it was like VE Day Charlotte. OK, I don’t know if women were actually kissing sailors on Trade and Tryon in Uptown, but I do remember car horns blaring. The joy was unabashed. At last! We were Major League!

None of us actually thought George Shinn had it in him. He was a self-made millionaire — he, rather famously finished dead last in his high school class in Kannapolis, N.C. — and nobody seemed entirely sure how he made those millions. It had something to do with business schools and textbooks, if I remember right, and nothing about it seemed above board. But, maybe it was. Hey, who really knows how any millionaire makes their money?

Shinn was small town Carolina through and through — he spoke with a twang — but there was just something insubstantial about him. And, at the same time, there was also something oddly appealing about him. I have written before about the time he went to New York to pitch Major League Baseball on bringing an expansion team to Charlotte but it’s worth bringing up again. I went along as a reporter for The Charlotte Observer, and after the presentation ended Shinn seemed SURE that the owners were going to grant him a big league baseball team. This was his real dream — Shinn was a huge baseball fan — and so in celebration he asked the limo chauffeur to take the group to Tavern on the Green, which I can only assume Shinn believed was the best and most famous restaurant in big ol’ New York City. This glorious day deserved only the best.

When the driver explained that Tavern on the Green was closed — for renovations or something — Shinn decided to go for the next-best thing which ended up being, yes, the Hard Rock Cafe. Yeah. The Hard Rock Cafe. Well, where else? Shinn would become a reviled figure in Charlotte, for good reason, but I can’t help but feel a small pang of warmth for the guy when I think of him being so excited, on top of the world, sitting in that Hard Rock Cafe, certain that he was in a great New York restaurant and was about to bring a Major League Baseball team to Charlotte.

Baseball did not come to Charlotte, of course — Shinn did later buy a Class AAA team, at least — but this new NBA team did. Everything was so exciting. A new coliseum — this one glitzy and with a staggering 23,900 seats — was built along with a bunch of new roads and those cool traffic lights you only see in major league cities, you know, the lights with arrows and Xs, to tell you which lanes were coming and which were going. Hotels popped up around. The new Charlotte Coliseum was called “The New Charlotte Coliseum.” We were on our way.

Every tiny detail about this new team captivated us. They would wear teal back when that color wasn’t omnipresent — Charlotte probably started the teal revolution. And the team would be called the Hornets. The name was steeped in North Carolina history — during the Revolutionary War, Lord Cornwallis — a leading British General — called the fighters in the Charlotte area a “veritable nest of hornets.” It was a good name, just right, and the anticipation was overwhelming. The arena was absolutely packed for the team’s first NBA Draft, when the team made its first NBA Draft pick — Rex Chapman out of the University of Kentucky. In memory, you started seeing Rex Chapman jerseys around town the next day.

You simply cannot overstate how deeply in love Charlotte was with the Hornets that first year and for a long while after that. The New Charlotte Coliseum sold out every game. Marginal players like Tim Kempton became Charlotte superstars. Everybody wanted to shoot like Dell Curry. Everybody wanted to gun like Kelly Tripucka. Everyone wanted to pester like Muggsy Bogues. Kurt Rambis was on that first team. Earl Cureton. Robert Reid. Every time the Celtics or Knicks or, especially, Los Angeles Lakers came to town, we felt like the world had finally discovered us. We had a real live NBA team — a terrible one, yes, but the team’s general awfulness did not dampen the spirit one bit. Losses were beside the point. Victories were like little daily miracles. Hey look: That’s Larry Bird!

That enthusiasm lasted for a long time, much longer than many people expected. The one thing you heard from the cynics around town was that Charlotte was a college basketball town and could never embrace the world-weary grind of pro hoops, not long term. But cities are never one thing, and while the fervor for college basketball never relented, the Hornets had their own place in the city’s heart. The next year, they= Hornet drafted a North Carolina Tar Heel named J.R. Reid, who couldn’t really play but who lived in both Charlotte basketball worlds. Every game sold out again — they averaged 23,901. The next year, Charlotte led the NBA in attendance by 100,000, and the Hornets led in attendance again the next year, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next. It wasn’t until 1998 — Jordan’s last year with the Bulls — that Chicago finally edged Charlotte in attendance.

In time, the Hornets built a nice little team — surrounding Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning — and they made to the Eastern Conference semifinals twice, and the atmosphere at the New Charlotte Coliseum was electric, all its own, just a little bit different from any other place in the NBA. Charlotte was growing so fast then. Strip malls appeared overnight. Two lane roads became four almost in real time. Uptown grew skyward. New restaurants, new neighborhoods, new highways, airport expansions — I wasn’t living in Charlotte then, but my parents were and every time I would come back the city seemed drastically different in some significant way. The Final Four came to town. The NFL awarded the city a football team. A huge and beautiful new stadium was built right across from The Charlotte Observer, where I had spent my college years inaccurately typing and justifying agate.

And I guess it was right around 1998 or 1999 when everything changed. Most people blame George Shinn, and I guess that’s right since that was around the time Shinn was being sued for sexual assault — this after he was accused of kidnapping a woman he supposedly was suppose to be taking to see his lawyer for help. The suit was rejected, but the trial was a national circus, one where Shinn did admit to various extramarital activities that did not exactly match up to the religious persona he had held up publicly. Shinn went underground — the guy had many flaws but he had been the most public of figures. Not anymore. He disappeared in shame, and reappeared only to demand that the city build a new arena for the Hornets — this even though people were STILL CALLING it the New Charlotte Coliseum.

People in Charlotte voted down a new arena, and people stopped coming to games, and Shinn moved the team to New Orleans. The Hornets last year in Charlotte they finished dead last in attendance. The team kept the name “Hornets” because that’s how the NBA does it — they allow new cities to keep names that are comically in appropriate. There is no Jazz in Utah, no Lakes in Los Angeles, there’s nothing Kingly about Sacramento. If Orlando’s team moved to Des Moines, then Des Moines would become the Magic City, and Detroit moved to Richmond, then Pistons would become a part of the city’s culture. It’s incredibly stupid, but the NBA has been pretty consistent about it, so the Charlotte Hornets became the New Orleans Hornets though Lord Cornwallis had nothing whatsoever to do with the place.

The NBA, having watched the pathetic Charlotte Shinn Show, felt so bad about things they promised a new team would come to Charlotte as soon as possible. In 2004, the new team came, and they were called the Bobcats, which was a name so bland and uninspiring that even in Charlotte nobody seemed to remember it. The first year, the Bobcats played in the New Charlotte Coliseum and finished second-last in attendance. Finishing last: The New Orleans Hornets. The next year, the Bobcats moved to this sparkling new arena downtown, a beautiful place that was called, yes, you guessed it: “Charlotte Bobcats Arena.” That’s just how Charlotte rolls. After a while, it was called Time Warner Cable Arena — normally I’m opposed to corporate names for buildings but in this case Charlotte clearly needed the help.

The Bobcats were terrible, then terrible, then terrible, then terrible. Only this time around, Charlotte was not the blindly enthusiastic city it had been for the Hornets. The Panthers had been to the Super Bowl, and they also had been terrible. The banks that drive the city had been sky high and they had crashed. Traffic was abysmal. Homeland was filmed in town, so was THe Hunger Games. Charlotte WAS Major League, in both the cool and numbing ways of big cities, and nobody needed a lousy NBA team to justify anything. Larry Brown did somehow eek a playoff team out of Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Ray Felton and Boris Diaw. That was the year Michael Jordan became majority owner of the Bobcats. Things looked up. They weren’t. The next year, 2011, the Bobcats were terrible again. The year after that, they might have been the worst team in NBA history. This year, they were regular old terrible again. They finished 27th in attendance.

Tuesday, Michael Jordan announced that the Bobcats are dead and the team will be called the Hornets again — the New Orleans team decided to go for Pelicans — and there was a tiny bit of buzz around town. I don’t know if it’s really “buzz” — nostalgia, maybe. Hey, the Charlotte NBA team should be called the Hornets. There’s history to the name in Charlotte, a good history, even if it doesn’t seem that way. The Hornets were underachievers for a little while, they had a series of abysmal drafts (Greg Graham, George Zidek), they traded Larry Johnson for Brad Lohaus and Anthony Mason, they traded Alonzo Mourning for Glen Rice and a bunch of nothing, in 1996 they drafted and immediately traded Kobe Bryant, something Bryant was not averse to mentioning Wednesday on Twitter.

But the Hornets brought something to Charlotte, something hard to describe, something that might not mean anything tangible at all but FELT tangible at the time. It’s not something Charlotte can ever recapture or, frankly, would even want to recapture. The Hornets made some of us feel like we lived someplace that mattered. So, it’s nice getting the name back, and Michael Jordan deserves credit for that. Now, Jordan only has to do one other thing — actually build a basketball team worth that doesn’t stink and is worth caring about. I’m guessing here, but that might be harder.

Amir Johnson on South Beach: 2006 Pistons ‘let the streets beat us’

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Amir Johnson is a savvy veteran on the young 76ers.

On the 2006 Pistons, he was a scarcely used rookie straight out of high school.

But he was learning lessons he’d apply to his current role.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Philadelphia heeded Johnson’s advice. The 76ers won Games 3 and 4 in Miami to take a 3-1 series lead.

The Pistons went 0-3 in Miami during the six-game 2006 Eastern Conference finals. There was little shame in losing to those Heat. They pushed Detroit to seven games in the 2005 conference finals and were – with Dwyane Wade transcendent while Shaquille O’Neal remained in his prime – even better the following year.

But too much partying is a major charge and a somewhat surprising one. The Pistons were led by the same veteran core – Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace – that made the previous two NBA Finals and won the 2004 title. They’d been around long enough to know better.

Gregg Popovich to miss Spurs-Warriors Game 5

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has missed Games 3 and 4 of his team’s first-round series against the Warriors following the death of his wife, Erin.

Unsurprisingly, he won’t coach the Spurs as they leave San Antonio for Game 5 tomorrow at Golden State.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Popovich should take all the time he needs. Ettore Messina is capable as acting coach, and Popovich being with his family now is more important anyway.

This will probably be the final game of the series. Up 3-1, the Warriors are the better team and at home.

LeBron James on Lance Stephenson-drawn technical foul: ‘I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on’

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LeBron James and Lance Stephenson have met in 23 playoff games.

Stephenson has tried to agitate LeBron throughout all of them.

From the choke sign back when Stephenson was still a benchwarmer to the infamous ear blow to the tapping of LeBron’s face the next game, Stephenson has been relentless. And LeBron has mostly kept his cool.

But not last night.

Midway through the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ Game 4 win over the Pacers, Stephenson stuck close to LeBron as LeBron went to the Cleveland bench. LeBron pushed Stephenson away and received a technical foul.

LeBron:

I mean, I should never have gotten a tech in the first place. There’s a timeout called, and this guy’s following me to my bench. I gave him a little nudge, and he falls to half court. Come on. But I should know better. I should know better. I’ve been dealing with this since elementary. It’s like I tell you a joke – I tell you a joke and then you laugh, and you get caught. That’s what happened. Lance told me a joke. I laughed. Teacher caught me. Now, I’ve got to go see the principal. That’s what happened.

Stephenson earned that technical foul. He did just enough to bait LeBron, but too much where Stephenson would get a tech. Then, Stephenson exaggerated the contract.

LeBron got got, and he knows it.

He’s also probably savvy enough to remain on greater alert to Stephenson’s antics the rest of the series and avoid responding again.

Where the Blazers, Neil Olshey, and Terry Stotts go from here

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The Portland Trail Blazers were a frustrating team to watch to start the season. They floundered early as players like Moe Harkless and Evan Turner failed to take the next step forward to help the team. The emergence of Zach Collins playing in tandem with a healthy Ed Davis was a good story, but not enough to overcome Portland’s fatal flaws. Most of the talk surrounding the Blazers remained about roster construction — as it has since GM Neil Olshey signed Turner to his massive 4-year, $70 million contract back in 2016.

Then things flipped.

Starting with a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 14, Portland rattled off 13 straight. Harkless was no longer moody, Damian Lillard was playing like a Top 5 MVP candidate, and CJ McCollum hummed right along with him. Al-Farouq Aminu was shooting well, Shabazz Napier was an important rotational piece, and even Turner’s midrange turnarounds felt like a simple change of pace rather than a glaring misfit. Roster talk died down because Portland looked unstoppable, and with a new defensive effort the team felt like a lock to beat whichever squad they faced in the first round.

But the Blazers found themselves outgunned, overmatched, and demoralized as they took on the New Orleans Pelicans after the conclusion of the regular season. Portland got swept, 4-0, in perhaps the most embarrassing playoff sweep in franchise history since their series with the San Antonio Spurs at the turn of the last century.

So here we are, with both the Blazers and fans in Portland back to wondering the same thing: just what can be done to fix this roster and maximize Lillard’s prime?

We have to start with the basic fact that Portland is not going to trade McCollum.

Part of the internal friction for the Blazers is that McCollum is the guy Olshey seems most emotionally attached to. Olshey was fully at the helm of the organization when McCollum was drafted in 2013, and thus McCollum is wholly an Olshey guy. Portland had scouted Lillard long before Olshey arrived 24 days prior to the 2012 NBA Draft. Not that Olshey values one over the other, but there’s an odd, unspoken understanding that Olshey wants to make McCollum work along with Lillard partly as a matter of pride.

So if we move away from the possibility of changing the overall theory of a roster built around those two guards, where does that leave the Blazers? The answer comes with a boggling number of variables.

The key that unlocked Portland’s potential to dismantle most of their opponents after Valentine’s Day was a happy Harkless, one who was dropping 3-pointers from the corners and dishing out assists rather than moping on the deepest part of the bench. That was the big variable that made the switch for the Blazers. But in the playoffs, Portland got a Harkless that was just coming off knee surgery, and he wasn’t as effective.

Harkless said in exit interviews on Sunday that team brass reiterated to him how important he’s going to be to them next season, and they aren’t blowing smoke. Harkless is young, cheap, and versatile. He’s a better passer and dribbler than Aminu, whose contract expires after next season, and he’s a better pure shooter from deep. The problem is relying on Harkless, who admits to being moody and letting that emotional variance affect him on the court.

This puts us back to the question of Turner. For as much as Olshey likes to talk as though he slow plays the league, it was an extreme reach not only to pay Turner his contract but to sell the public the logic behind it. After McCollum and Lillard were trapped to death in the playoffs a few years ago, Olshey grabbed Turner as a third ball handler, one who could let Lillard and McCollum run around screens off-ball to reduce turnovers. At least, that was the story.

It didn’t really work all that well given the symbiotic nature of the game of basketball. Last season, Aminu’s shooting dipped and opposing defenses simply helped off of him and onto Portland’s main dribblers. That made Harkless and Allen Crabbe invaluable as shooters, not only as scorers but as sources of gravity to open up passing lanes.

There was as similar issue this season as Aminu’s shooting percentages rose while Harkless sat on the bench in the middle of the year. Without Harkless or Crabbe to anchor the 3-point line, that left Portland with just one shooter outside of Lillard and McCollum in Aminu. Teams drifted toward Aminu, leaving Turner as the open shooter on the 3-point line. He shot 32 percent from deep, and Portland went from 8th in 3-point percentage to 16th in a year.

Turner adapted his game over the course of this season the best he could to compliment Portland’s system and needs. He’s just not useful enough at top clip. This explains the position the Blazers have been in the entirety of Turner’s contract — it’s going to be impossible to move him without attaching significant assets and in the process, delaying the progress of the team. No trade involving Turner will return the wing Portland needs. That’s just not how it works when you’ve got an albatross contract in 2018.

And so, after their sweep at the hands of the Pelicans, the conversation in Portland swiftly moved to speculation that coach Terry Stotts could be on the hot seat. The reality of Portland firing Stotts, if they are considering it, is of a major setback.

Stotts is beloved by his players, most of all Lillard, the franchise cornerstone. Stotts was a genuine Coach of the Year candidate this season for his role in developing guys like Napier and Pat Connaughton, who were useful at different parts of the season. Stotts pushed Nurkic to be more aggressive, a major factor in their late-season success. He rehabilitated Harkless. Reaching back even further, Stotts masterminded an offense that turned Mason Plumlee into the third creator on offense for Portland before the Nurkic trade last year. He’s been excellent, and firing him would be a colossal mistake.

I’ll put it this way: when Lillard had his “where is this going” conversation about the Blazers with owner Paul Allen, that talk wasn’t about Stotts. It was about Olshey’s roster construction.

The conversation about Stotts is a bit ridiculous, although it’s understandable given Olshey is both above him organizationally and a bit more financially annoying to fire after a recently-signed extension. But unlike Stotts, Olshey has not exceeded expectations in his position. Despite some clever draft day trades and the rumored rejection of a max contract bid offered by Chandler Parsons‘ camp two summers ago, the fact is Olshey is the one who has hampered the team, while Stotts has done the best with what he’s been given.

And so here we are, with the same questions about the Blazers roster nearly two years down the line and with an embarrassing playoff sweep in their possession. McCollum and Lillard are firmly cemented, perhaps more so thanks to their defensive improvement and the team’s win total. The Blazers can’t move their pieces thanks to poor fiscal management, and they’re in danger of losing valuable contributors like Davis, Napier, and eventually Aminu because of it.

It appears Portland’s only way forward is to do what they’ve always done, although it won’t be by their own volition, much as Olshey would like to spin it that way. Olshey, who said as much during exit interviews, will look for value in the draft and build a team that functions as a unit. I would assume that he’ll also need to ask owner Allen to tempt the repeater tax as he tries to re-sign Davis this year and Aminu the next. Olshey will need to hope Harkless is more consistent, and that he can find yet another shooter in the draft or via an exception signing or trade. All of these things are pretty big ifs, particularly in the light of Lillard’s public urgency and the results of Olshey’s bigger misfires.

The end to the season in Portland was disappointing, because of their sweep but also because they didn’t do enough to change our minds about their flaws and roster issues. That burden lies squarely with Olshey. Portland’s GM says he wants to stay measured in his approach, but moves like signing Turner, trading Crabbe for an exception, and swapping Plumlee for Nurkic were anything but. Those are big swings with mixed results.

Portland’s roster isn’t good enough to sustain large dips, and its plodding, “calculated” approach to roster management has put the Trail Blazers in a place similar to what you’d expect from a front office with a more flamboyant, laissez-faire style. Big contracts, an overpaid supporting cast, and an inconsistent bench rolled into a cap hit scraping $121 million.

The roster theory is understandable, but the execution in Portland is lacking. Eventually, the Blazers — and Olshey — are going to have to stop being measured and simply measure up.