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.

Kemba Walker scores 60 but Jimmy Butler hits game-winner with .03 in OT, Sixers win

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Kemba Walker was putting on a “how dare you leave me off your list of top free agents next summer” kind of show in Charlotte, dropping 60 on Philadelphia while Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Jimmy Butler trying to stop him. It was a virtuoso performance.

And then Jimmy Butler did this.

This is why the Sixers wanted Butler (or at least one reason). When it got to the end of games Joel Embiid can’ really create his own shot, Ben Simmons can create but his lack of shooting has defenders playing off him and daring him to take jumpers. J.J. Redick can create a little, but that’s not what he does.

It is what Butler lives for. And it’s not the only big play he made late, look at this block and save on Walker to set up the game-winner.

Report: Kings’ front office, coach Dave Joerger disconnect could lead to his firing

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The 8-7 Sacramento Kings are one of the best surprises of the young season. Sacramento has found an identity with point guard De'Aaron Fox pushing the pace — they are the second fastest team in the NBA at 106.3 possessions a game, with 20 percent of their trips down the court starting in transition (also second in the league). While the Kings are middle of the pack in both offense and defense ratings, that is a massive step up from where most predicted this young team to be this season.

So, of course, Sacramento is finding a way to screw that narrative up. Because… Kings.

A disconnect between the front office led by Vlade Divac and coach Dave Joerger could lead to the coach’s dismissal, reports Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Joerger’s handling of 2018 No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III could eventually lead to the coach’s dismissal, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Sources said the franchise is growing frustrated with how Joerger is distributing minutes and assigning roles to the team’s young prospects.

The front office views this season as a development year, sources said, but it was still confident that the team would be competitive and grow with Bagley, promising guard De’Aaron Fox, and forwards Harry Giles and Skal Labissiere getting meaningful minutes. Joerger, generally regarded as one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the league, has favored playing veteran players over developing youth, especially in crunch time.

Vlade Divac, the general manager of the Sacramento Kings, quickly came out in a statement given to NBC Sports and said:

“Dave has our full support and confidence. We continue to work together to develop our young core and compete.”

All season long Jeorger has gone with Nemanja Bjelica over Bagley down the stretch (Bjelica also starts over Bagley). When Kosta Koufos was healthy, he also was a guy Joerger trusted in key moments. Two-way contract player Troy Williams has earned a lot of minutes from Joerger, more than Bagley at times. Joerger’s rotations are not consistent and the report says players don’t feel the coach is communicating clearly about their roles.

All NBA coaches are constantly dealing with the developing vs. winning balance (even the elite teams like the Warriors have young players they are trying to bring along). It’s an age-old problem to have the GM wanting the youth learning on the fly and the coach wanting to win now.

Instability for coaches has been a hallmark of the Kings under owner Vivek Ranadive, going back to before when the Kings pushed out Mike Malone — a DeMarcus Cousins favorite — for George Karl. Malone had taken over for Keith Smart, who coached a season and a half. Jeorger took over for Karl and is in his third season.

The constant coaching upheaval leads to system upheaval and a lack of continuity. It’s been an ongoing issue for the Kings, but as their young players start to develop and show potential — Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein are playing well.

Expect denials all around, but this sounds like about the most Kings thing ever.

Dwight Howard was heckled by arena clean up worker during postgame workout

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Dwight Howard was a beast against the Brooklyn Nets Friday night, dropping 25 points and grabbing 17 rebounds against one of his former teams. Well, he was dominant in the first half, when he picked up a fourth foul relatively early in the third quarter Scott Brooks went away from Howard for too long, the Nets scored at will and pulled away for the win. Still, Friday was Howard’s best game of the season.

And yet he was 3-of-10 from the free throw line, so he went out after the arena closed and practiced his foul shots.

What that video didn’t show was Howard getting heckled during that workout by one of the people hired to clean up the arena. From Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.

…before hitting the showers, [Howard] returned to the main court to practice his free throws. He had missed 3 of 10 attempts during the game. So, while Howard got into a shooting rhythm, tuning out the background noise with music playing in his ear buds, a contract worker who was part of a team hired to clean around the 400 level tried to break his concentration.

“Brick!” the worker yelled, but as Howard’s shots swished through the net, he switched to: “’That’s right, Dwight! You better make them!”

While many fans would like to buy that worker a beer, it did not go over so well with the Wizards’ staff, and the man was removed from the arena.

The Wizards are 5-10 on the season with the third worst defense in the league. The Wizards’ defense is not better with Howard on the floor — he’s not the cause of their problems, but he’s not solving them either. His defense was part of the reason the Wizards thought he would be a fit.

Draymond Green to sit out Saturday, likely longer, with sprained toe

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Before the drama around Draymond Green and Kevin Durant against the Clippers, Green had missed a couple of games due to a sprained toe. Against the Clippers, he was 3-of-9 shooting and did not move like he is capable of. Then, after a one-game suspension, Green came back against the Rockets and struggled again, shooting 0-of-3 and not looking like himself.

While some will want to tie this to the Durant incident, the fact is Green’s toe needs more time to heal and he is going to get it, starting with sitting out Saturday vs. the Spurs.

Green said this after his suspension game, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“After playing 42 minutes against the Clippers, it was pretty sore that next day,” Green said of his injured toe, and he then joked, “Thank God I got suspended. I was sore, really sore, so I sat there and iced the whole day. Did some treatment at home. … Everything happens for a reason.”

Kerr said “We decided to give [Green] some time off. Don’t know how long it’ll be.” Which makes it sound like this will be more than one game.

The Warriors are -10.5 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Green is off the court. Combine that with Stephen Curry still being out with a strained groin and the Warriors are battling through some injuries, and suffering some ugly losses because of it, early this season.