Suddenly, Charlotte's excited about basketball again, just days after Bobcats owner Michael Jordan announced that, yes, the team would change its name to the Charlotte Hornets beginning next year. Bobcats fans, as well as hoops fans who don't care one way or the other about the Cats, plus city boosters and, especially, sports-clothing retailers, are falling into dreams of winning teams and renewed community spirit. Not to mention tons of teal-and-purple shirts, hats, flags, ad infinitum. And maybe even the return of beloved mascot Hugo the Hornet.
Relative Charlotte newcomers have been spotted shaking their heads, wondering what's so exciting about a name change. A reasonable query, for which I give two answers:
1. Charlotte has been linked to the image of a hornets' nest since 1780, when British Gen. Cornwallis described the town as a "hornets' nest of rebellion." About 150 years later, Charlotte baseball fans flocked to watch a successful minor-league baseball team named the Charlotte Hornets, which lasted until 1973. One year later, the short-lived World Football League moved its New York team to Charlotte and changed its name to the "Hornets." The team sold out every game it played in Memorial Stadium before the league went broke.
2. It's not just about the name. Much of the city's enthusiasm for the change is sparked by residents who remember Charlotte's first NBA team and the thrills it brought the city until we all got sick of then-owner George Shinn.
Shinn was a sawed-off, bad-haircutted, "Christian," hick-in-a-suit businessman from Kannapolis who parlayed a chain of second-rate business schools into a small fortune. In 1987, when he somehow convinced the NBA to let him have a team, the city went crazy, and Shinn became so popular, the state GOP talked seriously about running him for governor.
The Hornets sold out the Coliseum on Tyvola Road for 358 consecutive games and led the NBA in attendance during the team's first seven seasons. Charlotte's first game, in November 1988, was a 40-point loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the crowd still gave the team a standing ovation at the end. That kind of fan generosity won't happen in 2014 with the "new" Hornets. Those fans won't be enthralled like the 1988 crowd, and they'll expect more from the team. Those aren't the only differences between then and now.
Shinn, for all his faults, spent big money to get big players and got results. After pairing power forward Larry Johnson and center Alonzo Mourning, the Hornets made the playoffs in 1993, the team's fifth year. They upset the Boston Celtics and played a magical but tough series against the New York Knicks in the second round. Although they lost, the city celebrated the Hornets' playoff performance, including having a nine-story mural of Johnson, Mourning and guard Muggsy Bogues painted on the side of First Union bank uptown. On the other hand, the Bobcats' owners, first Bob "It's all about me" Johnson and now Michael Jordan, have pinched pennies, made some bad draft choices, hired coaches from the NBA's list of leftovers, and presented an overpriced product. The team was swept in the first round of its only playoff appearance three years ago, and has rarely shown signs of being remotely worth a damn since.
Another difference is that Jordan, so far, is a well-liked figure, not to mention a hoops legend. Shinn, on the other hand, became too familiar to Charlotteans. By the time he showed horrible judgment by trading Mourning to Miami, repeatedly threatened to move the team unless the city kowtowed to him, and wound up on Court TV in a sensational sex-assault trial that ruined his reputation despite his acquittal, Shinn became something like the city's embarrassing, wayward cousin we no longer claimed. Like a teenager after the end of an ecstatic romance, the city learned a lesson about giving away its heart to a flashy newcomer. By the time he moved the Hornets to New Orleans in 2002, hardly anyone was sorry to see him go. At least now the "new" Hornets won't have Shinn to live down.
A funny thing happened, though. Charlotte didn't forget the Hornets, nor did they quit wearing Hornets apparel, which was designed by Julian Alexander. In a few years, Charlotte Hornets gear became a "thing" nationwide. It's uncertain whether the Bobcats-turned-into-Hornets will have the same teal-and-purple color combination, but they're crazy if they don't.
More than hats and jerseys, though, what Charlotteans want — and what it will take to keep Hornets fans coming to games — is a team that wins and plays like it cares. Many people can't wait for the "return" of the Hornets, but make no mistake: this ain't 1988 revisited. No ovations after 40-point losses will be forthcoming this time around.