May 22, 2013, 7:36 PM EST
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.
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) May 21, 2013
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.
Dec 9, 2013, 2:17 AM EST
LOS ANGELES — Kobe passed the first challenge he has set before himself. Eight months of never-ending therapy sessions and workouts to return to the court paid off — Kobe is back. He was introduced with Darth Vader’s theme music and Staples Center was buzzing like it was a playoff game. Kobe was on the court…
Dec 9, 2013, 12:29 AM EST
Kobe Bryant returned, Rudy Gay was traded, and the Knicks were crushed. Grading a busy Sunday of NBA action: Toronto Raptors: What the Toronto Raptors have not had in recent years is a GM with a plan and financial flexibility. With this and previous trades you get a sense that GM Masai Ujiri has a plan. First, get the…
Dec 8, 2013, 10:40 PM EST
It’s hard to explain to people outside Los Angeles the buzz in the city around Kobe Bryant and his return to the Lakers. The Lakers radio home in the city ran promos that just used pronouns —”You’ve been waiting for HIM” and “HE is back” — and everyone just knew what that meant. So what…
Dec 8, 2013, 9:10 PM EST
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant is back — he was walking around the Lakers’ locker room pregame in uniform ready to go — and he is going to try to score. It’s what he does. But don’t be surprised if on his return Sunday night against Toronto you see a lot of the dishing, facilitating…
Dec 8, 2013, 7:42 PM EST
The Toronto Raptors are trading Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for multiple players, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports. Toronto began the season with the goal of making the playoffs, but it’s become clear after 18 games that even in the dismal Eastern Conference, that’s not going to…
Dec 8, 2013, 6:30 PM EST
The Nets have had their season derailed by injuries thus far, and while having a first-year head coach in Jason Kidd probably isn’t helping given the situation, the fact is that without the team’s full complement of players, it’s impossible to know just how much fault can be placed there. But the clock will be…
Dec 8, 2013, 5:00 PM EST
Kobe Bryant will make his return Sunday night at home against the Raptors, his first on-court appearance since suffering a torn Achilles near the end of last season. While we don’t expect the same kind of heroics Bryant displayed in last season’s epic victory over Toronto, it’ll simply be good to see one of the…
Dec 8, 2013, 3:30 PM EST
The Knicks snapped their nine-game losing streak on Thursday with a 30-point win over the Nets, and followed it up with a 38-point victory over the Magic at home the very next night. Any belief that the Knicks problems were on the verge of being solved, however, was delusional at worst, and short-lived at best.…
Dec 8, 2013, 2:00 PM EST
The NBA changed the way they categorize players for All-Star voting purposes last season, eliminating the center position (and all others) from the ballot entirely and replacing those with either a frontcourt or backcourt player distinction. While it won’t affect superstar big men like Roy Hibbert making the All-Star roster, it will change the way…
Dec 8, 2013, 12:30 PM EST
When Ray Allen chose to leave Boston as a free agent and join Eastern Conference rival Miami following the 2012 season, it didn’t sit well at all with two of the Celtics’ biggest stars. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were upset by Allen’s decision, even though he wasn’t guaranteed a thing in Boston and was…
Dec 8, 2013, 11:00 AM EST
The reports surrounding the status of Rockets big man Omer Asik will continue their steady stream until the inevitable trade happens. Houston wanted to make it work with Asik playing alongside Dwight Howard, but that experiment failed and with Asik being disgruntled in his situation and constantly requesting to be traded, the Rockets seem determined…
Dec 8, 2013, 9:30 AM EST
Coming into Saturday night’s game against Dallas, the Blazers had used the top-ranked offense in the league to get out to a 17-3 start to the season, best in the Western Conference. Portland’s defense is ranked just 20th, however, and playing against a Mavericks team whose offense is ranked fourth and can score almost as…
Dec 8, 2013, 8:00 AM EST
The Nets are going through an especially rough time right now, and even mentioning as much seems like a gross understatement of the facts. Brooklyn has lost several of its key players due to injury, including Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Andrei Kirilenko, and Jason Terry. Head coach Jason Kidd parted ways with assistant Lawrence Frank…
Dec 7, 2013, 11:00 PM EST
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are simply devastating together when the Heat get out in transition, and this highlight from Miami’s easy win over a Timberwolves team playing without Kevin Love is a perfect example. Now of course, a two-on-none fast break will always result in points. But LeBron and Wade often make a spectacle…
Dec 7, 2013, 9:30 PM EST
Remember last season when an idiot fan in Cleveland ran into the court during live game action? Apparently, there are plenty more like him in that lovely city. During the second quarter of Saturday’s contest between the Cavaliers and the Clippers, we once again had a fan walk onto the court while the game was…
Dec 7, 2013, 8:00 PM EST
Luol Deng missed Saturday night’s game against the Pistons with a sore left Achilles, head coach Tom Thibodeau confirmed before tip-off. Deng’s status is listed as day-to-day, and it’s not believed to be anything serious. After averaging 48.5 minutes per game over the last two contests thanks to logging 56 minutes in a triple-overtime loss…
Dec 7, 2013, 6:30 PM EST
So, I had this whole thing written and ready about how Sixers coach Brett Brown doesn’t believe that Michael Carter-Williams is injury-prone, despite the fact that after sitting out Saturday, the rookie will have missed six of his team’s first 21 games. But then the news broke that Carter-Williams had been hospitalized with a bacterial…
Dec 7, 2013, 5:00 PM EST
Kobe Bryant will take the court on Sunday against the Raptors, seeing his first action of the season since suffering a torn Achilles injury this past April. The buzz surrounding Bryant’s long-awaited debut continued at the Lakers practice facility on Saturday, when Mike D’Antoni answered questions about how much Bryant will play, at what level,…
Dec 7, 2013, 3:31 PM EST
It’s all on Jason Kidd now. Lawrence Frank is gone as a scapegoat, Kidd is in charge of the ship — a 5-14 ship with the worst defense in the NBA. You can see how bad the defense is by looking at the stats, where you see the Nets give up a league-worst 108.6 points…
Dec 7, 2013, 2:00 PM EST
Kyrie Irving has been far from the dominating, game-changing point guard he showed capable of last season, and people around the league are beginning to take notice. He’s had games where he’s put up some decent numbers, but has done so inefficiently in recent weeks. After an 0-9 performance in Cleveland’s blowout loss to the…
- Kobe is back but loss to Raptors shows Lakers still have a lot of work to do 2
- Sunday night NBA Grades: Rudy Gay traded to Kings, Kobe returns for Lakers 1
- Expect to see facilitator Kobe in his return to Lakers 5
- Raptors trade Rudy Gay to Sacramento for multiple players 25
- Knicks lose by 41 points at home to Celtics 24
- LeBron says Wade is “getting that Kobe deal” in next contract. Should he? (65)
- Dwight Howard frustrated with Rockets’ effort in recent losses (52)
- Kobe Bryant dunks, looks good in Lakers practice; Friday return possible (47)
- Michael Beasley finding a role, groove in Miami (44)
- The Extra Pass: Our awards at the quarter pole, plus Monday recaps (43)