CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On November 4, 1988, the Charlotte Hornets played their first game. The Hornets were Charlotte’s first major league sports team, and their impact went far beyond the court.
Five people who were heavily involved in that first season talk about the impact of it, 25 years later:
Tom Sorensen, Charlotte Observer Columnist: Charlotte wasn’t a city, it was a town.
Carl Scheer, Hornets General Manager (1987-1990): Then, they referred to Charlotte as ‘Nap City.’ You couldn’t get a after 10 o’clock.
Steve Iannarino, Former Hornets Account Executive: The area was still very local and southern and very ACC focused.
In 1987, the city of Charlotte was building a 25,000 seat arena, the Charlotte Coliseum, to lure big college events like the ACC basketball tournament.
Harvey Gantt, Charlotte Mayor (1983-1987): George Shinn had been wanting to get a professional sports francise for some time. The idea that we were building this magnificent coliseum stoked the idea with him that perhaps we could go for an NBA franchise.
Sorensen: Nobody thought Charlotte was going to get it.
Gantt: People said that we were not going to get this franchise, that the only franchise we were going to get was the one with the golden arches. We wondered if [Shinn] could get 8,500 people over 41 games [to break even]. Charlotte had never done anything like that before.
After months of lobbying, Shinn found out that Charlotte had been awarded a team on April 1, 1987.
Gantt: And so when we did get the franchise, George Shinn could have been elected governor of North Carolina.
Sorensen: He came home, and his son said ‘Dad, [NBA commissioner] David Stern called. Do you know who David Stern is?’ And he said ‘Yes, son, I know who David Stern is. You better not be joking.’ And so George called Stern, and Stern said congratulations.
Scheer: Rex Chapman was our first [draft] pick.
Iannarino: We had a lot of aged-out veterans. Kelly Tripucka, Robert Reid, Earl Cureton. Or we had real young guys: Dell Curry and Muggsy Bogues. I remember calling my dad, and I said ‘His name’s Muggsy Bogues,’ and he said ‘I’ve never heard of him. Is a good player?’ I said, ‘Well, he’s 5-foot-3,’ and he said ‘He’s 5-foot-3? He’s on the team? You’re going to have a long season.’
Weeks before opening night, the $1.2 million scoreboard at the Charlotte Coliseum fell from the rafters and crashed into the floor. Nobody was hurt.
Scheer: I remember getting the call on a Saturday morning, we were opening the following week. I said, what?!
Sorensen: Charlotte wanted so bad to get this right, and the scoreboard comes tumbling down. It was like this collective wince around town.
Scheer: The very first game, a home game, was with Cleveland.
Dell Curry, Hornets Shooting Guard (1988-1998): Everybody came to the game in tuxedos. We lost by 40 to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and we got a standing ovation after losing by 40 on the way to the locker room. What’s everybody cheering for? We just lost by 40.
Iannarino: We knew we weren’t going to win many games.
Curry: It’s really strange getting applauded for losing by 10 instead of 20.
Iannarino: And then we had that breakthrough in December. We were able to beat the Bulls on a last-second tip in.
Scheer: Kurt Rambis tipped in the winning basket.
Sorensen: Kurt Rambis walks into a restaurant afterward and gets a standing ovation.
Iannarino: From then on, we were sold out really every game for several seasons.
Gantt: The size of those crowds was just unbelievable.
Iannarino: The fans, once they got in the arena and saw how hard we played, I think they really rallied, and they were vocal.
Sorensen: Hugo [the mascot]? Everybody liked him. Hugo, with kids, was more popular than any of the players with the exception of Muggsy.
Curry: As a player here, we could call a restaurant and say ‘Hey, we’re coming after the game,’ and they’d hold it open for us.
Sorensen: Between any team and any town, there’s a barrier, and [in Charlotte], boy, those barriers
Curry: If you don’t play well, some people let you know that. We still joke about Robert Reid making a statement that this year, we knocked on the door and next year, we’re going to kick it in. And we’re like ‘Robert, we didn’t win a lot of games. Pump your brakes a little bit.’
Scheer: At this end of this season, we won 20 games, and they gave us a parade down Tryon as if we were NBA champions.
Sorensen: The parade was like a lifetime achievement award. You did this for us, we’d like to do this for you.
The love affair didn’t last. After leading the league in attendance for years, George Shinn’s personal troubles kept a lot of fans away, and the Hornets left town for New Orleans in 2002.
The Charlotte Bobcats are hoping to recapture some of that early magic. They’re changing their name to the Hornets after this season.
Gantt: I have tried to imagine this city not having major league sports. I don’t think we would have moved as fast as we have.
Curry: Playing for the Hornets is one of the reasons why I fell in love with the city.
Iannarino: If you’re a ten year old kid in 1988, you’re 35 now. Would you like to see the current team change its name to the Hornets? I think the answer is going to be yes.
Scheer: We always used to have to say this is Charlotte, North Carolina. Now we’re just Charlotte.
Everybody knows who we are.
Sorensen: When people think of that team, they smile. How often does that happen?