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.

Reports: Rockets not done, looking at Paul George, other possible third big star

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If you’re going to go toe-to-toe with the Golden State Warriors, you can’t have enough elite talent on the roster. Which is turning the Western Conference into a Game of Thrones.

Houston has James Harden and just added Chris Paul — and GM Daryl Morey is not done, he’s targeting Paul George and other stars. That according to multiple reports from ESPN, starting with Jeff Goodman.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey not done yet, source told ESPN. Harden and CP3. Will try to add a third star to compete with Warriors.

The logistics of this would be difficult, but not impossible. The Pacers want a first-round pick, which the Rockets can include if the Pacers will wait until 2020 (the Rockets 2018 pick goes to the Clippers, 1-3 protected, which means they can’t trade 2019). With Sam Decker traded to LA, the Rockets may not have a young player of interest outside of Clint Capella (the Pacers have Myles Turner at center), but the Rockets could make other trades to get what is needed, or a third team could become involved.

The Rockets just traded for DeAndre Liggins, for example (getting them means they are going over the cap, which means they will have the full mid-level exception of $8.4 million to use come July to land another player).

Also possible, the Rockets look for a way to land Paul Millsap (or maybe a lesser version, like Serge Ibaka) in free agency.

The point is the Rockets are going all in — they see the window as now and, unlike much of the rest of the West and the NBA, they are not going to wait and hope for the Warriors to wilt in a few years.

Knicks fans celebrating Phil Jackson’s departure on social media

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When the Knicks hired Phil Jackson, he was a beacon of hope for an organization that had seen dark days. Jackson was going to keep owner James Dolan out of basketball decisions (he did that) and provide a direction for the franchise (he failed to do that).

Now, three year’s later, Jackson is out as president of the Knicks.

That had Knicks fans celebrating on social media.

HALLELUJAH.

A post shared by Spike Lee (@officialspikelee) on

That’s just a small sampling. So all is good with the Knicks now, right?

Report: Clippers trading Chris Paul to Houston Rockets

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All last season and up through another disappointing end to the Clippers season, Doc Rivers kept saying he wanted to bring this Clippers’ core back — re-sign Chris Paul and Blake Griffin because how often do you get a team this good together?

Jerry West was reportedly not a fan of the “run it back” plan. West won. CP3 helped his cause.

The Clippers are trading Paul to the Houston Rockets after the All-Star guard opted into the final year of his contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Los Angeles Clippers have reached agreement on a trade to send All-Star point guard Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets, league sources told The Vertical.

Paul, 32, agreed to opt in to the final year of his $24.2 million contract, clearing the way for the Clippers to execute a trade with the Rockets and bring back assets for Paul, league sources said.

The Rockets will send the Clippers a package that includes guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, forward Sam Dekker and a 2018 first-round pick (protected Nos. 1-3), league sources told The Vertical.

The deal does not pencil out as listed, and it may be on hold until July 1 so the Rockets can move other players off the roster to clear space, or they could include a number of other minimum-salary players on their roster to make it work. There are more details to come, but we get the big picture.

Paul told the Clippers he planned to sign with the Rockets as a free agent but it would better if they tried to work out a trade, according to Woj. Opting into the final year of his deal made this possible, without it the Rockets would have had to jettison Ryan Anderson (and get no salary back) plus Beverley to sign CP3 outright. Paul will become a free agent in 2018, but the Rockets will have his bird rights and can re-sign him to a $205 million max deal then. However, by doing this Paul gave up more than $7 million in salary this next season for a better chance to win.

What this means for the Rockets is if Mike D’Antoni can get Chris Paul and James Harden to play well together — not a sure thing, these are both guys who like to operate best with the ball in their hands, controlling the action — they become the biggest threat to the Warriors in the West. It also should be of note that Chris Paul has never played at a pace as fast as D’Antoni’s Rockets play at — CP3 is the best floor general in the game, but he is more deliberate. This is not a perfect fit, but these are two brilliant players and they saw their best chance as together.

This move also is a blow to the Spurs, Nuggets, and other teams that had Paul on their radar.

It’s a boost to Miami, Boston, and other teams that had free agent Blake Griffin on their radar, he is not returning.

For the Clippers, it means they will likely let Griffin and J.J. Redick go and start a rebuilding process, which may include shopping DeAndre Jordan. Do all that and the Clippers could have $70 million in cap space in 2018. Also, that LeBron James to the Clippers rumor, which was already on life support, is now DOA. Everything seems to be on the table. Whether Doc Rivers sticks around for this process remains to be seen.

Report: Kevin Durant will wait until late July, let Warriors sign other players, before inking his deal

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Kevin Durant isn’t going anywhere as a free agent this summer. He will remain a Golden State Warrior. He wants to stay and he wants to win, which is why he already said he would take a little less money so the Warriors could re-sign players such as Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

Now he’s taking it to the next level, saying he will delay signing his deal — something he could start negotiating on July 1 — until the team’s other players are taking care of. That according to Marc Stein of ESPN.

Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant plans to wait until after the team completes the bulk of its summer business before re-signing with the NBA champions, according to league sources….

“Look for (Durant) to sign later in the month,” one source said this week.

The Warriors first order of business this summer will be to sign Stephen Curry to a “designated veteran” super-max contract, a five-year deal starting at $34.7 million (assuming a $99 million salary cap).

Then they will go about trying to shore up their role players. Iguodala, Livingston, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, and Matt Barnes all become free agents this summer. Iguodala is the one other teams are targeting — including the Spurs, Clippers, and Timberwolves — and it likely will take $10 million to $12 million a year for the Warriors to keep the guy who just finished second in the Sixth Man of the Year voting.

Durant’s moves help with all of this. Durant is expected to sign a 1+1 deal with the Warriors (a two-year contract where he can opt out next summer and get a larger deal), then opt out next summer and get his deal starting close to $35 million a year.

The Warriors are trying to lock up their core for as long as they can, and they should be a force for the next four or five years. However, the price tag will get expensive, and it will be interesting to see how the Warriors handle that when it gets to 2019 and Klay Thompson‘s contract is up, or 2020 when Draymond Green is a free agent.