CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Caleb Rohr likes the Charlotte Hornets.
He was one year old when they left town for New Orleans.
I caught up with Caleb and his father Tuesday night as they walked from Time Warner Cable Arena back to their car. An hour earlier, the Charlotte Bobcats made a big announcement at the arena: Michael Jordan himself said the team would change its name back to the Hornets. Caleb was excited.
So how, exactly, does an 11-year-old get excited about a team he’s never seen? Doesn’t he like the Bobcats?
“Yes,” he says. “But I like the Hornets colors better.”
Ayden Hash said the same thing when I asked him what he preferred: the Hornets or the Bobcats. Hornets, he said, loudly. Why? “I like the colors!” he said.
Ayden is 9.
This is not just a Charlotte thing.
In the early days of the Charlotte Hornets, owner George Shinn was flying back from China, and he saw a kid on the airplane wearing a Hornets hat. Shinn was curious. Why would a kid from Asia be a Hornets fan? Through a translator, he got his answer. The kid didn’t know what the Hornets were. He just liked the colors.
Alexander Julian told me that story by phone Tuesday, and if anyone knows about the teal and purple, it’s him. He came up with the combination, and the original Hornets uniforms that featured it. “I brought that combination to the public,” he said.
In a way, the Charlotte Hornets were more successful in couture than they ever were on the court. By 1995, the Hornets were selling more jerseys than any other NBA team, despite the fact that they would never make it past the second round of the playoffs. In 2010, eight years after the team left town, the Charlotte Hornets brand still created about $1 million in “impact value,” according to a report from The Charlotte Observer. Hornets Starter jackets still command a good price on eBay, and teal and purple snapback hats still sell well in stores.
Julian isn’t surprised that the colors have never gone out of style. Now 65, he splits his time between North Carolina and Connecticut. Julian left his hometown of Chapel Hill for New York in 1975, and made a name for himself in fashion with his colorful menswear. He still has a clothing store open on E. Franklin Street in Chapel Hill—the same one his father opened in 1942. Inside, there are argyle sweaters featuring the Carolina Blue of UNC, where Julian went to school. There are bowties. Polo shirts. And there are colors. A lot of colors.
There’s one that he really likes-- teal. It’s a color that just looks good on everybody, he said. Add purple, and you’ve got a combination that’s held up for more than 25 years. Julian calls them his signature colors. They’re the ones he used when Shinn asked him to create the uniforms for Charlotte’s new NBA franchise.
Shinn wanted the colors to match the seats at the Charlotte Coliseum, where the Hornets played their home games. There was a problem, though. The seats were actually Mallard Green. Julian liked teal better. So he went with that. The Carolina Blue and white vertical stripes came from Julian’s polo shirts, which he says were the first to feature vertical stripes. They’re a nod to his alma mater.
They were unveiled in 1988, when Hornets forward Kelly Tripucka walked on to a stage with Julian and Shinn, ripped off a pair of tearaway warmup pants to reveal the teal, purple and white shorts underneath. “I’m into light blues like this, teal and purples and mauves and stuff like that. I like spring and summer colors,” Tripucka said afterward, then smirked. “He’s headed in the right direction. He might be good someday.”
Julian was the first professional fashion designer to come up with a sports uniform, and the success of the Hornets’ duds led to a call from then-UNC basketball coach Dean Smith. He liked what Julian did in Charlotte. Maybe he could do the same thing for the Tar Heels.
If you’ve ever wondered why there’s argyle running down the sides of UNC’s jersey, now you know.
Shinn called again soon afterward. He owned the Charlotte Knights, and was designing a new stadium for his team in Fort Mill. Maybe Julian could help with that too.
If you’ve ever wondered why the seats at the Knights Castle are so colorful, now you know.
Tuesday night, at a press conference announcing the name change, a reporter asked Jordan what the new Hornets colors would be. Behind Jordan, a giant monitor glowed with the words “Back The Buzz.” They were teal, purple and white. Would those colors return? Jordan said he hadn’t made up his mind.
Jordan knows Julian. The two worked together when Julian was designing North Carolina’s uniforms. And recently, Jordan released a pair of his signature shoes in teal and purple. The two men kept in touch over the years. “We’re Carolina people,” Julian said. “We’re always in contact with each other.”
Still, Julian admits he hasn’t talked to Jordan in several years, and he hasn’t spoken to anyone from the Bobcats about designing their new uniforms. He’s still pleased that even after a quarter-century, the Hornets style is still popular and the teal and purple haven’t gone away. “It was a great honor,” he said. “I’d love another shot at it.”
In the back of his store in Chapel Hill, there’s a mannequin that still wears the original Hornets uniform that Julian designed. People come in to look at it all the time. Maybe because it brings out the kid in all of us.