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By Desmond Johnson
In 1992, The Charlotte Hornets found themselves in an enviable position. Having won the #1 pick in the NBA draft lottery the year prior, the Hornets had drafted Larry Johnson, a dynamic power forward from UNLV. Teamed with shooting guard Kendall Gill, whom the Hornets had drafted the year before, Charlotte was forming a decent nucleus to be competitive in the NBA. During the 91-92 season, the Hornets fought for a playoff berth for the first time in franchise history into March of that season but came up just short. Coming up short however, would lead the franchise into some good luck.
The 1992 draft was short on talent but there was a consensus on the top three players that year. Christian Laettner was the NCAA player of the year in 1992, leading his Duke Blue Devils to back to back NCAA titles. The pretty boy power forward with the GQ looks was the favorite in the area for fans of the Hornets, if they were lucky enough to get into the top three of the draft. But there loomed a larger presence in the draft. Shaquille O’Neal was a 7 foot, 300 pound man-child sophomore from LSU that had broken backboards and destroyed most of the NCAA field for two years. In 1992, he decided to declare himself eligible for the draft. Front offices around the League immediately began to salivate at the chance to draft this instant franchise player. The Hornets had only a slim chance at getting a high pick; they had just missed the playoffs the year before, meaning there would be few ping pong balls with the Hornets logo on them. When the balls dropped however, the Hornets, to their own surprise, ended up with the #2 pick in the draft. #1 went to the Orlando Magic with the Minnesota Timberwolves picking third.
When draft day came, Orlando picked O’Neal as expected. Not heeding the voices of the fans in the area, the Charlotte Hornets decided not to pick Laettner and went instead to Alonzo Mourning, a bruising center from the University of Georgetown. It was exactly what the Charlotte Hornets were missing. Now led by Johnson and Mourning in the front court, sharp shooting Dell Curry, Gill and fan favorite Muggsy Bogues from Wake Forest, the Hornets had the nucleus of a up and coming team in the NBA. Now all of a sudden, the Hornets had two bonafide stars in Johnson and Mourning. The media couldn’t get enough, gravitating to the likeable Johnson more than Mourning. Johnson was selling shoes, fast food, clothes and more. Mourning had more of a warrior, angry presence on the court which made him appear unapproachable, although off the court Mourning was one of the most humble and charitable athletes Charlotte has ever had. The two stars led the Hornets to their first winning record at 44-38 and made the playoffs as a fifth seed. The number four seed and their challengers for the first round was the Boston Celtics, led by NBA Larry Bird.
The Celtics were expected to move on and not have much of a challenge from the up and coming Hornets. But Bird was at the tail end of his career, suffering from severe pain in his back which would ultimately lead to his retirement after the season. The Hornets won the series on a 20 ft jumper from Mourning, winning their first playoff series in playoff history.
Although they eventually lost in the next round to the New York Knicks, the Hornets had proved to be a contender for the next few years in the Eastern Conference.
Or so it appeared on the surface. The next few years were marred with injuries to both Johnson and Mourning and the Hornets struggled. In October 1993, owner George Shinn made a move that is still affecting the league to this day. Shinn signed Johnson to the most lucrative contract in league history at the time, a 12 year, $84 million dollar deal. Johnson ended up missing 31 games during the season with a back injury, which would haunt him throughout the rest of his career. In the 94-95 season the Hornets won 50 games, a franchise first, but lost to the Chicago Bulls, who were without superstar Michael Jordan. Jordan had retired the season prior (the first of multiple retirements) but left the nucleus of the three time defending champs relatively intact.
Friction had reportedly begun between the two stars, Johnson and Mourning. Rumor was that Mourning felt that he was worth more than the 84 million that Johnson had received and was looking for a 100 million dollar contract. Shinn wasn’t prepared to have two stars commanding that type of money, nor could the small market Hornets afford both. The two stars remained mum on the subject, but it was obvious that the chemistry was not the same. The tension bubbled over and Shinn made a move. In 1995, the Hornets dealt Mourning to the Miami Heat for guard Glen Rice, center Matt Geiger and guard Khalid Reeves. Johnson and Rice formed a formidable tandem in scoring but the Hornets were lacking the inside one-two punch it had enjoyed the previous seasons, missing the playoffs in 95-96. During the same season, Mourning got his contract, $105 million from the Miami Heat and became a cornerstone player in their franchise history to the chagrin of Charlotte Hornets fans everywhere.
In the 1996 draft, the Charlotte Hornets were at a crossroads. Larry Johnson, plagued by back problems ever since signing the cursed $84 million dollar contract, was traded to the New York Knicks for forward Anthony Mason. The Hornets didn’t resemble the young team that they had drafted in the early nineties. With the 13th pick, however, the Hornets selected shooting guard Kobe Bryant from Lower Merion High School in Philadelphia. Bryant was pegged as the next Jordan, a smooth shooting guard with NBA skills at the age of 17. The Hornets lucked into Bryant and for about 45 minutes the future was filled with possibilities. Until, that is, Bryant said that he would NEVER play for the Hornets. Possibly fearing a holdout by Bryant, the Hornets front office engineered a deal sending the future star to his team of choice, the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers in exchange sent center Vlade Divac.
With this new nucleus of Rice, Divac, Mason, Bogues, and Geiger, the Hornets posted a 54 win season, their second best to date. Rice had one of his best seasons of his career and won All Star MVP. In the 1996-97 playoffs, the Hornets lost to the Knicks in three games however. The Hornets picked up David Wesley in 97-98, along with shooting guard Bobby Phills. The team made it to the 2nd round of the playoffs again, and lost to the Bulls again. This time however, Jordan was back with the team as the Bulls were in the middle of a 2nd three peat. The Hornets seemed to refuse to hold on to their stars when they became superstars, possibly out of fear of having to pay them or lose them. Rice was traded to the Lakers later in the year for Eddie Jones and Elden Campbell.
The future for the Hornets looked cloudy at best, owned by an owner who gave the first major contract in NBA history, yet know was reluctant to pay any other players. This thriftiness, along with fan discontent with a deteriorating NBA products led ultimately to a decision that would affect the city of Charlotte forever. Next week: the arrival of Baron Davis, George Shinn issues, the fight for a new arena and the departure of the Charlotte Hornets.
Missed a part? Check out www.sportscarolinamonthly.com for all parts of the Rise and Fall of the Charlotte Hornets series!