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


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.

LeBron James calls Cavs’ players’ only meeting after loss to Raptors

LeBron James
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Yes, the Cavaliers are 11-4 on the season and on top of the East. Yes, they are outscoring teams by 6.7 points per 100 possessions, which is fourth best in the NBA. They have the third best offense in the league. All that without their starting backcourt (Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert). There are reasons to be optimistic.

But the Cavaliers have a middle-of-the-pack defense and their efforts have been up and down. Wednesday night was a down, they lost on the road to Toronto, dropping the Cavs to 3-4 outside Quicken Loans Arena, with all those losses to teams in the East.

It was enough for LeBron James and James Jones to call a players-only meeting, reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

Following a 103-99 road loss to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers held a players-only meeting during which LeBron James and James Jones got on the team for its inconsistent play through the Cavs’ 11-4 start to the season, multiple sources told….

“It’s all mindset,” James said after the game, still visibly frustrated. “It comes from within. I’ve always had it; my upbringing had me like that. It’s either you got it or you don’t.”

When asked whether fatigue was a factor, James said, “No. It’s not an excuse.” When another reporter asked whether injuries were to blame, James repeated, “It’s not an excuse.”

Injuries and fatigue did play a role, this was a team without four regular rotation players and that puts more of a burden on everyone else. Players can’t look at it that way, but ijuries are a reality.

LeBron is trying to set a tone, one he learned in Miami and is now trying to instill in the Cavaliers. It’s about effort, it’s about attention to detail, it’s about building good habits over the course of a season so they can pay off in the playoffs. The Cavs are winning, they look clearly like the best team in the East once healthy, and yet LeBron rightfully isn’t convinced they could beat Golden State or San Antonio right now. The good news is they don’t have to beat them right now, but they need to beat them eventually. The building blocks for that are laid during the season. He wants that building to start going up.

But getting guys healthy would solve a lot of those problems.

Jason Kidd ejected; shoving match ensues between teams after Kings beat Bucks

Jason Kidd

Jason Kidd is going to miss a game or three (and some dollars to go with it), and he could not be the only guy in trouble with the league after a tension-filled end to the Kings’ win over the Bucks Wednesday.

There wasn’t a ton of drama at the end of the contest itself. The Bucks played a “defense optional” game that led to 36 points for Rudy Gay and 13 dimes for Rajon Rondo, and the Kings won their first game this season without DeMarcus Cousins (back issue). That frustrated the Bucks to no end.

Jason Kidd expressed that frustration by slapping the ball out of referee Zach Zarba’s hands, a move that rightfully earned him an instant ejection.

You can be sure a suspension is coming for Kidd — the league can’t let that slide. This was not a Budenholzer incidental bump. After the game here is what Kidd had to say.

After Kidd had gone to the showers, there was a little jawing on the court between Cousins (in street clothes) and the Bucks’ O.J. Mayo. That spilled over after the final buzzer into the tunnel, where there was at the very least some jawing, maybe a little shoving, and a lot of security stepping in before anything serious happened.

Whatever happened in the tunnel is going to be a lot harder for NBA disciplinarian Kiki Vandeweghe (technically the vice-president of basketball operations for the NBA) to sort out. Who started what, and did it rise to the level it calls for a fine or more, is going to be tricky, especially since this was out of site of the arena cameras.

Cavaliers stand in middle of Raptors dancers’ routine (video)

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The Cavaliers were ready for their game against the Raptors tonight, and Toronto’s dance team wasn’t going to change that.

The last time I remember something like this happening, Grizzlies guard Tony Allen walked through the Warriors’ kid dancers. This video doesn’t show how the Cavaliers got to that point, but they might have the defense of being there first. Allen definitely didn’t have that.

Wizards score six fourth-quarter points in loss to Hornets

Cody Zeller, Ramon Sessions
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Gary Neal made a jumper with 10:12 remaining in tonight’s Wizards-Hornets game.

That was Washington’s last basket.

Jared Dudley made a pair of free throws on the Wizards next possession, and Neal added two more free throws with 23 seconds left.

And that was all the Wizards scoring in the quarter.

Washington, which entered the final period up seven, lost 101-87 after its 1-for-20 final-period shooting.

The six fourth-quarter points were the fewest by an NBA team in a quarter since Cavaliers scored six third-quarter points in a Jan. 26, 2014 loss to the Suns. Last time a team scored so few in a fourth quarter: Nov. 13, 2012, when the Raptors had five against the Pacers.

At least Neal’s late free throws spared the Wizards further shame. Nobody has scored four or fewer points in a quarter since the Warriors managed just two in a Feb. 8, 2004 loss to the Raptors.

As it stands, this is one of only 44 times in the shot clock era a team has scored so few points in a quarter.