November 1988. I was right there with you. Eleven years old, I had just started getting into hoops a couple of years prior. The speed and the skill fascinated me. The Celtics fascinated me. Kevin McHale’s armpit hair fascinated me. If I had that much pit-hair, I absolutely would not play with my elbows that high. Kareem fascinated me. He fought Bruce Lee in Game of Death and trained with him in the offseason. That’s all a half-Asian/half-redneck kid needed to know. These were some cool dudes.
Then the Hornets showed up. The concept of “expansion” didn’t really hit me back then. I was in the sixth grade – nearly everything is expansion when you’re that age. Did you know that people in France eat snails? Expansion. Did you know there was a state called New Mexico? Expansion. Did you know that girls weren’t in fact “icky”? Expansion.
The Charlotte Hornets were bad that season. Not Michael Jackson BAD. Not Color Me Badd. They were Paula Abdul Straight Up now tell me bad. Still, there was an endearing circus quality about the team. Their best scorers were Kelly Tripucka and Robert Reid; each rocking a non-discriminatory tight curl perm-fro. Rex Chapman, the team’s star draft pick, was a twenty year old kid from Appalachia whose rare mullet/rattail combo never caught on outside of Kentucky. The team’s best known player was a nerd in horn-rimmed glasses named Kurt Rambis who dominated the Bojangles Hustle Stats. Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues was a point guard shorter than a few of the kids in my sixth grade class. Rounding out the roster were a stack of random create-a-player fodder that you would’ve been pissed to find in your pack of Fleer ’88-89’s if you happened to live outside of Mecklenburg County. Whatever. They were our guys.
The entire Charlotte area expanded like crazy back in the 80s and 90s. People arrived from upstate New York, Ohio, West Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Looking for a better life with clean, safe streets, cheaper housing and something called sunshine. A symbol of the region’s growth and status, the Hornets united Charlotteans new and old.
Within weeks of the Hornet’s inaugural home opener my brother and I were playing our first organized hoops game for Long Creek Elementary in Huntersville, channeling our inner Curetons, our inner Kemptons and Rowsoms. We eventually took that show to Iredell County and then across the border to Fort Mill, channeling our inner LJ’s, Zo’s and DC’s for three. Our household was unstable growing up. We moved around a lot. Our parents divorced. Our dad moved back to Asia and before long our mother had re-married. There was however one constant: The Charlotte Hornets.
Come to think of it, the Hornets might’ve been one of the few things we truly enjoyed together as a family. We didn’t watch the same TV shows or movies. Activities were rare. Between work, school and the summers spent visiting our dad overseas, there just wasn’t much time to bond back in the Carolinas. This probably reads sadder than it actually was – mainly because we loved the Hornets so much. Perhaps the happiest moment in our household, when we all felt unified joy – was the moment Zo hit the shot from the top of the key to put away the Celts. I remember it vividly to this day. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
So when Shinn proved a cheapskate, an incompetent and (finally) a spoiled child who didn’t like sharing his toys, we all played it cool but were internally devastated. My mom and I attended that final, sad Hornets home game at the old Coliseum. Our personal lives were going great at that point – college, new careers – but that game felt like going to the funeral of a very dear friend.
The Hornets had become a massive part of our daily lives. Wake up, eat cereal and tear through the Observer sports page. Read Sorensen’s piece on Dr. K or Dave Cowens. Bonnell’s recap of a Playoff win against Milwaukee or a regular season loss to New Jersey. Talking about the last night’s game with your friends at school. The drive to the Coliseum listening to Matt Pinto and Gerry V’s pre-game show. Martin and McGregor in the booth. The energy at the Hive. Jr. Walker and the All-Stars “Shotgun” booming during timeouts. The Chris Farley looking guy who did backflips. The thrill after a win. The pain after a loss. GONE.
The NBA knew that it screwed up BIG by letting Shinn bolt and, in an unprecedented move, immediately awarded the city yet another expansion franchise just a couple of years later. (Consider that Seattle, a larger market with a championship history and major corporate dollars, is still waiting for another team five years after the Sonics bolted for the Midwest.) Unfortunately, rebound relationships almost never work and the Bobcats were no different. A legion of heartbroken fans stayed away. Shinn had abused your trust, your loyalty and your love for too long. You couldn’t go through this again. And you were right.
Unlike the self-hating masochists who identified themselves as Bobcats fans over the last decade (this writer included), YOU old school Hornets fans who stayed away played it smart. YOU had already been through the expansion nonsense once – the growing pains, the awkwardness. YOU had already made a sizable (and ultimately ill-fated) investment of blood, sweat, tears and benjamins into an NBA franchise. And look how it panned out? And now YOU were being asked to do it all over again? For another twerp? Screw this.
The league replaced Shinn with a dodgy, narcissistic, DC-based owner who will ultimately only be remembered for making a series of terrible business decisions and for naming an actual NBA team after himself – not in 2K but in real life. Aloof and insecure, Bob Johnson had little experience outside of the cushy confines of DC crony capitalism. His ill-fated C-SET regional sports network has hamstrung the franchise to this very day. Ever wonder why the arena has the words ‘Time Warner Cable’ written on it and why fans two counties away can’t watch the games? It’s worth a Google. Johnson’s overwhelmed front office passed on superstar after superstar in the Draft. The franchise quickly gained a reputation for thriftiness and instability both on and off the court. Given the needs and expectations of the QC’s abused fanbase, BJ’s reign was an unmitigated EPIC FAIL. The few fans who jumped back in got a heaping helping of headaches to add to our heartbreak. First time shame on you; second time shame on us. Well played, old school Hornets fans – YOU stayed away and it was the right move.
It was a dark, sad era filled with miscues, short-term fixes to long term problems and lots of losing. LOTS and LOTS of losing. The Bobcats had exactly two winning seasons in a decade’s worth of work and never once won a playoff game or notched fifty wins in a season. They passed up a trade for Chris Paul, drafted every guy they shouldn’t have, whiffed in free agency and player development, alienated much of the region with that imbecilic TV deal and played nearly every hand wrong in between. If the United States had declared a War on Error, there would’ve been more troops stationed at the TWC than in Kabul.
Many of us who jumped back in did so with a kevlar dive suit – and the era was ripe for this new breed of distanced fandom. There was terror, fear, recession and pessimism at home; endless wars abroad. Charlotte’s seemingly infinite economic growth spurt had stalled.
The internet ushered in an entire wave of snark and cynicism fueled by the painfully self-aware. A new breed of knowledgeable, objective fans who followed “the league” at arm’s length were born. Analytics brought sanity to front offices and fan debates but it also risked transforming what was once (and at its core still is) an entirely emotional endeavor into an emotionless pastime. Hoops fans started to resemble Marvel’s Watcher character – quietly, passively observing in the distance. The raving lunatics who dominated The Hive back in the day were at risk of being turned into an orgy of once-bitten twice shy “smarks” – holding out just enough emotion so that they couldn’t be hurt again by the dispassionate business side of pro sports. Thank God for alcohol.
Professional sports is rarely uglier than when the owners leverage our absurd emotional investment for ever higher profits. It’s an exchange that feels downright gross. You could forgive us the first time because we were so naive and didn’t know what we were getting into. We love the Hornets and the Hornets love us. A child’s understanding of the world.
Here’s the good news. We’re no longer children. We’re no longer naive about how this stuff works. And we have nothing to lose. If the neo-Hornets flee to Seattle or St. Louis one day, then fine. Been there done that, got the closet full of oversized sponsored t-shirts.
Speaking of those neo-Hornets, the NBA ostensibly admitted (yet again) that it had screwed Charlotte hoops fans (yet again) by approving Johnson as owner. The league hastened the team’s sale to Michael Jordan back in 2010 and the rebrand process following shortly after. The league returned the Hornets name, the mascot, the colors and, amazingly enough, the team records. I repeat: these are UNPRECEDENTED MOVES. We’re here to make you whole again, the league said. We’re sorry. Apology accepted.
In the meantime, [and I’m looking at you OLD SCHOOL HORNET NATION] if we are gonna be fans, let’s go ALL IN. It’s really the only way to do it. The NBA has never been more fun. There are fantastic players, story-lines and franchises nearly everywhere you look (except for Philly). And it’s perfect timing for local fans because this Hornets team is potentially VERY good, very fun with a lot of room to get better.
Let’s start with the owner. Unlike George Shinn, Michael Jordan isn’t addicted to embarrassing the City of Charlotte. No, his addiction is to winning. And he’s been separated from the Larry O’Brien trophy for sixteen years now, learning a series of tough lessons along the way. Is he perfect? Of course not. He’s prone to nepotism, poor tipping habits and he likes to wear tattered jeans to meaningful press conferences. But he wants to win; needs to win. Also, he’s Michael freaking Jordan.
MJ’s shown growth as an owner. After surrounding himself with a never-ending stream of “yes-men” a few years ago, MJ essentially fired one of his longtime pals (former GM Rod Higgins – who, by the way, severely sucked at his job) in favor of a braniac Burmese-American dude. That dude’s name is Rich Cho and for all of his Draft drama (I’m looking at you Bismack Biyombo), in just three years he’s transformed a laughingstock franchise into a legitimate pro hoops organization. Shinn lucked into a guy like that back in the day named Bob Bass and Bass kept the franchise relevant for nearly a decade in spite of Georgie’s ineptitude. Imagine what that level of competence can do for an owner who actually wants to be the best?
The team has young players with a lot of upside. Many of whom aren’t even counted on to win today. They’ll develop steadily and become fine NBA veterans. Cody Zeller is seven feet, runs like a gazelle and jumps higher than Grandmama. He’s also incredibly skilled and a nice kid. His fellow Indiana alum, Noah Vonleh, is a 6’9″ power forward who can hit three pointers and handle the ball like a guard. He also has giant hands, just turned 19 and could still be growing. Michael-Kidd Gilchrist was once thought of as a draft bust but after a summer spent working on his jumper with former Cleveland great Mark Price, MKG has a chance to become one of the league’s best small forwards. He’s already thought of as one of the NBA’s top defenders. He just turned 21.
Speaking of Price, the Hornets coaching staff has some familiar faces next to uber-genius headman Steve Clifford. Bob Weiss used to coach the Hawks back in the day and is now in full mentor mode on the pine. Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing stopped sweating long enough to put on some weight and transform into a top big man coach and associate head guy. Clifford himself was groomed from the Van Gundy/Pat Riley school and those guys kind of know what they’re doing in case you’ve forgotten.
Remember how intense Alonzo Mourning used to get? Just like MJ, he wanted to win – BAD. That same fire burns inside of the Hornets’ twenty four year old point guard, Kemba Walker. The odds of Kemba hitting The Next Great Charlotte NBA Shot are huge.
And then there’s Lance Stephenson – you may have heard about him blowing in Lebron’s ear. Yes, he can drive opponents, teammates and fans crazy. He’s also quite good at basketball and tallied more triple doubles last season than the Bobcats had in their entire ten year history. Imagine if Magic Johnson played for the Hornets back in the day. Lance could be a version of that. He’s also just 24.
Finally, there’s the team’s All-NBA center – Al Jefferson. Imagine if Armon Gilliam (my fave guy back in the day, RIP) was six foot ten, weighed nearly three hundred pounds AND had about a thousand more post-moves. Nobody in the league has Big Al’s back to the basket game. Nobody. There’s never been a more skilled big man in QC hoops history. It’s like watching a ballerina the size of a small tank straightup EMBARRASS the best paint defenders in the world on a nightly basis. He is an absolute treat to watch, O.G. Hornets fans – I’m telling you, YOU ARE GOING TO LOVE WATCHING HIM.
Twenty-six years later my brother and I still have Hornets hysteria. I write and Mike designs the site and creates all of the awesome illustrations. The Bugs are Back and we couldn’t be any more excited. There will be ups and downs of course. Injuries happen. Players get traded. Guys sign elsewhere (I still grieve over you Josh McRoberts). But it’s ok to like the Charlotte NBA team again. Go ahead. Understand what you’re getting into. Then open your hearts and get pumped. We’ve literally had the worst done to us and things can only get better from here. Have fun at the games. Maybe you’ll run into us. We’ll be the guys there with our mom.