“Charlotte! We’re baaaaaaaaack,” said Dell Curry amidst the background noise of Kanye West’s “Homecoming” on December 21, 2013 as the NBA franchise in Charlotte announced the comeback of the “Hornet’s” name.
Curry was a staple shooting guard on the original Charlotte Hornets from 1988 to 1998, and is now the color commentator for the team.
And he of all people can express the literal buzz in Charlotte when the franchise announced a name change from the Bobcats to the Hornets in 2013, a name that had been missing from Charlotte’s DNA for over a decade.
“The love and passion that the city showed us when we were here with the original Hornets was amazing,” Curry said. “We were grateful for the buzz back than, and we’re even more grateful for it today. Charlotte, are you ready to buzz?”
The original Hornets debuted in Charlotte in 1988, but the owner moved to franchise to New Orleans at the end of the 2001-02 season in a huff after being turned down for a new arena. Two years later, Charlotte got a new expansion franchise: the Bobcats. Then, after a decade of the Hornets being in New Orleans, the team rebranded to the Pelicans in 2012, and the second NBA franchise in the Queen City was able to reclaim not only an old name, but also the history of The Charlotte Hornets.
This is the first time in not only NBA history, but in any American professional sport history, that two franchises have combined in this way. The name and history stayed with the city, not the franchise. And when Charlotte’s second NBA franchise reclaimed the name “Hornets,” they also gained back the history of the original Hornets from Charlotte’s first franchise. Two NBA franchises became one in Charlotte, all for the sake of nostalgia.
But Queen City and its fans couldn’t be more proud of the serendipitous circle NBA in Charlotte has run.
The Rise of the Swarm
Charlotte was awarded the 24th NBA franchise, the Charlotte Hornets, in April 1987, to begin play in the 1988-89 season. Playing in the former Charlotte Coliseum, which is now demolished, the team was a runaway hit with Charlotteans.
“Oh when the Hornets first arrived here, we forgot about UNC, we forgot about the Redskins, we forgot about any other sport or team besides the Hornets,” said 40-year Charlottean, Karen Beachum.
The team broke NBA attendance records for eight straight seasons with 364 consecutive sell-outs to crowds of almost 24,000 people, silencing critics who thought Charlotte could not support a professional sports team. Even when the team finished last in the Atlantic Division their opening season with a record of 20-62, they sold out every game.
Even when the team, again, finished last in the Midwest Division in their second season as a franchise with a 19-63 record, every game sold out.
And even when the team finished in last place for the third straight year in their third different division, the Central Division, with a record of 25-56, Charlotte sold out the coliseum every home game.
There was a time that being a Hornet's fan was the most romantic experience that this town has ever had. Rick Bonnell
“There were years when the team first began that being a Hornets fan was the most romantic experience that this town has ever had,” said Rick Bonnell, who’s been the NBA beat reporter for the Charlotte Observer since the team first began in Charlotte.
Some may wonder what the team did to deserve all this joy and jubilation, but the truth is that the Hornets hysteria at the time couldn’t be explained. They were far from a playoff caliber team, but they were Charlotte’s home team and the fans were passionate.
The Hornets were Charlotte’s first major professional sports team, and with that unique purple-and-teal color scheme and pinstriped jerseys (a first in the NBA and a trend later adopted by many other NBA teams later, like the Orlando Magic, the Houston Rockets and the Indiana Pacers), they became not only a source of great pride for the city, but also a pop culture phenomenon.
Larry Johnson, the Charlotte Hornets’ first-round pick in the 1991 NBA draft, sported a teal Hornets jacket when he starred in the popular “Grandmama” Converse commercials. And other team stars like Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning and even celebrities like rap duo Kriss Kross embraced the color scheme, making it cool for everyone else to wear.
But the original Charlotte Hornets were more than just a name and a color scheme; they were the soul of Charlotte.
The Hornets name represents the heritage and personality of the Queen City. In the years preceding the American Revolution, rebellion was on the rise among the colonists, especially within Charlotte, then called “Charlotte Town.” Those loyal to the British crown and those wishing to separate were constantly at odds with each other. When Charlotte declared its independence from the crown, sparks of rebellion turned into a full-on blaze.
And the story goes like this: General Cornwallis came to Charlotte on his way to destroy the Continental Army, but he only stayed for a few days. The local rebellion was too strong for him, and he later referred to Charlotte as a “hornet’s nest of rebellion,” giving rise to the symbol of the “hornet’s nest” seen all over the city today including on cop cars and the badges worn by officers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
“The Hornets were something that I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like it again,” said Josh Rosen, Director of Communications for the Hornets who grew up in Charlotte. “The Hornets came to Charlotte when I was 8, and they left when I was 22. They were the city’s first love. Heck, they were my first love, my childhood. They put Charlotte on the map.”
The Hornets moved to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season, but the Queen City didn’t quite feel the sting of their departure. In fact, most were ready to see the team go.
So what happened to lose the college-like atmosphere of the swarm?
The Fall of the Swarm
Between the 1996 and 2001 seasons, Hornets fans quickly became seemingly annoyed at not the plight of the Hornets as a team, but more so the team’s owner, George Shinn. Shinn kept the city and the team in a in a political headlock of scandal, lies and lack of awareness.
“There was an incredible apathy when the team left,” Bonnell said. “Ownership had poisoned the well so badly. There was a perception that by the end, everyone was sick of that situation.”
To start things off, the hive began resembling a revolving door as trades were made season in and season out. Instead of extending the contracts of star players (and subsequently, extending their pay stubs), they franchise would trade their stars away. There was no continuity among players, and no stability between seasons.
A four-month lockout wiped out half the season in 1998, but that’s not all that began the Hornet’s season in a state of turmoil. Shinn was on trial for kidnapping and sexual abuse, running a read line through any creditability the owner had. As part of the trial, he admitted to having two concurrent affairs on his wife.
And in the season immediately following, the Hornets would get off to the best start in franchise history at 16-7 thanks impart to the stellar play of guard Bobby Phills. But none of that would prepare the team for the tragedy that struck on the morning of January 12, 2000. Bobby Phills was killed near the Charlotte Coliseum while racing a teammate home after a morning shoot around practice.
The team, and the city, just couldn’t catch a break.
Finally, a dark cloud surrounded the Hornets as a move to New Orleans following the 2002 season was finalized, after the city of Charlotte refused to give funding to a new arena unless scandalous Shinn sold the team. Shinn, despite being found not guilty of the sexual assault charge, had become an outsider in the town of Charlotte as fans and media both ostracized him.
“It was heartbreaking. The city needed a do-over,” Bonnell said. “There are a whole lot of people with very vivid and very charmed memories of that team. But also very vivid memories of that team breaking their heart.”
The Charlotte Coliseum, which once was buzzing with a sell out every night, had turned into a morgue. The well was poisoned and the city of Charlotte said goodbye to the romantic era of the Hornets.
An expansion team in Charlotte, or a NBA do over?
The NBA awarded Charlotte a new expansion franchise in December of 2002. The team was officially named the Charlotte Bobcats, named after owner, Robert “Bob” Johnson. They played their inaugural 2004-05 season in the Charlotte Coliseum. The following season, the Bobcats premiered the now Time Warner Cable Arena.
Although the city rallied behind the Bobcats when they opened the new stadium in 2005, and again in the team’s first playoff run in 2010, the team lacked the historical heritage to make a stand in Charlotte.
But they couldn't care less about the Bobcats. Josh Rosen
“Friends of mine who I grew up with in Charlotte but who don’t live here anymore used to be so amped for the Hornets, but they couldn’t care less about the Bobcats,” Rosen said. “And now that the Hornets are back in Charlotte, they’re back in. I get emails from those guys saying how excited they are again for their Hornets. It makes a difference.”
Any momentum created by the new stadium or the playoff run petered out. Players were traded. Fans lost interest. Sound familiar?
High school and college aged students searched thrift stores for vintage and throwback Hornets gear. The original Hornets brand became an NBA hardwood classic as soon as the team left.
“You could go anywhere in the world and see anyone wearing Charlotte Hornets stuff,” Rosen said. “You could go to a mall four years ago, when we were the Bobcats, in San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis, anywhere and find Charlotte Hornets stuff. You might not see Bobcats gear. But you’d see the Hornets starter jacket or Hornets throwback gear everywhere.”
But simply put, the city was nostalgic for the Hornets.
The return of the Hive
The return of the Hive to Charlotte began the day Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, purchased the New Orleans Hornets from the NBA for $338 million.
It was almost serendipitous that the Benson family bought the franchise in New Orleans, and that they happened the hate the name “Hornets.” Within one year of the family owning the team the Benson’s changed the franchise name to the New Orleans Pelicans beginning in the 2013-14 season, allowing the return of the Hornets name to Charlotte.
News broke that the beloved Hornets name was officially returning from the bayous back to the Queen City in June of 2013.
After the announcement, attendance shot way up. The Hornets sold out 11 of 41 home games in 2014-15, compared to just 10 total games being sold out over the previous three years. New ticket sales for the season shot up by nearly 60 percent. The majority of those sales were for a two-year season ticket plan that included the Hornets’ first season back in Charlotte.
“Every measurable area that we had, showed double digit growth in terms of percentages.” said the Hornet’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Seth Bennett.“Every single metric that you would look at in considering the health of a sports franchise were increased by significant margins year-over-year.”
The Hornets sold more new full-season tickets than every other team in the NBA with exception to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who were welcoming back LeBron James.
On top of ticket sales, merchandise sales were up a whopping 300 percent. The team also gained more than 30 new sponsors, including Coke, McDonalds and Mercedes-Benz.
And not only was the name back, but the Hornets reclaimed the history and records of the original team from 1988 to 2002.
The homecoming of the Charlotte Hornets is not just about the return of a name; it’s about a piece of history and identity being restored to the city.
“The Hornets were the first thing we could really, really be proud of in Charlotte,” said Sam Perley, Hornets.com staff writer. “It kind of legitimized the city to an extent, it legitimized the region. All because of a basketball team. And to get that back, it was really important to a lot of people.”
Bringing back the Hive
Professional basketball in Charlotte has fixed something that was seemingly permanently damaged and lost forever. The Hornets have both an owner, Michael Jordan, and a headcoach, Steve Clifford, who are passionate about both the success of the team and the city.
“As much as anything, I’m excited about the extension because it’s what I wanted to have happen,” Clifford said about his recent 3-year contract extension. “I feel like we’ve made good strides since I’ve been here. I like our guys, I like the team that we can become, and from a personal standpoint I’m really happy. Let’s get that original hive back.”
But more than winning games or rekindling old emotions, this year’s Hornets are dedicated to building relationships with the community and showing fans that this team wants to makes lives better, even away from basketball.
“Social responsibility is at the heart of this team,” Bennett said. “We have programs in four key areas: schools, health, hunger and military. And those are very critical to this organization.”
Over a decade ago, the city lost a large piece of their identity when they lost the Hornets. But the fans never lost hope. The city fought, the city swarmed and together the city brought their team back — back where they belong.
“You can see flashes of that original Hive; it’s coming back,” Bennett said, “Coming back strong.”