A Four-Part Weekly series
Each week in May, SportsCarolina Monthly looks back at the past, present and future of the Charlotte Hornets. Check www.sportscarolinamonthly.com every Saturday in May for a new installment!
Part 1: The Beginning Of the Charlotte Hornets
Back in 1985, the National Basketball Association announced that they were planning to expand their league with the addition of four teams. George Shinn, a prominent businessman from Charlotte decided to make a run for one of the teams for his city, a team that would ultimately become the Charlotte Hornets.
Charlotte, North Carolina was in the middle of a fertile playing ground of basketball talent. North Carolina was home to four ACC schools, with two of the schools, NC State, and UNC having won National Championships in College Basketball within the past three years. Duke would reach Champion status by 1991. Charlotte also had three college teams in the area, Davidson, UNC-Charlotte and Johnson C. Smith. Add that in with the fact that Charlotte was fast becoming a national banking capital and was one of the fastest-growing cities in America and it looked like a lock that the NBA would be coming to North Carolina.
However, Shinn had one additional plus to the situation. At the time, Charlotte was busy constructing the Charlotte Coliseum, an arena that would seat almost 24,000 fans, the largest for an NBA team at the time. Originally construed to be an attraction for the ACC to hold its annual basketball tournament in Charlotte instead of its long-time home in Greensboro, the Coliseum proved to be the final hurdle to cross. On April 5, 1987, Charlotte was officially given her first NBA franchise.
At first, the team would go by the name the Charlotte Spirit. After a name the team contest, the name was changed to the Hornets, and a love affair with the community was officially born. It’s safe to say that in the early years, no city matched the enthusiasm that Charlotte had for its Hornets. Even the hysteria of receiving the Carolina Panthers for the city’s first NFL franchise paled in comparison to the love affair the city had with their Charlotte Hornets, no matter how bad the team was. For the first years, the area’s love for basketball translated into ticket sales for the newborn Hornets. At one point, Charlotte Hornets tickets were the hardest tickets to find in the U.S. The Hornets once sold out 358 consecutive games, which is the equivalent of almost nine full seasons.
No team came close to the popularity of the franchise, with the exception of the Chicago Bulls with home state favorite and Tar heel alum Michael Jordan. Shinn and his first General Manager, Carl Scheer decided to put together a roster of established players that could play immediately and possibly win some games along the way. In hindsight, this may not have been the best option as the team struggled to win games in the beginning years. Defensive minded Dick Harter was chosen to be the Charlotte Hornets first coach.
The Hornets took the floor for their first NBA game in the 1988-89 season. The first star of the Hornets was shooting guard Kelly Tripucka, a crafty shooter who the Hornets acquired from the Detroit Pistons. The Hornets first ever draft pick, Rex Chapman from Kentucky also provided scoring and proved to be a good pick. Muggsy Bogues, a 5’3” point guard, who was already a fan favorite in the state from his days playing at Wake Forest in the ACC, led the young Hornets from the point guard spot. The Hornets were exciting but not particularly good, stumbling to a 20-62 record. The Hornets struggled again during the 1989-90 season, a journey that saw Harter fired in January and replaced with assistant coach Gene Littles. A putrid 3-31 stretch from January to March saw the Hornets finish at 19-63, a game worse than the year before.
Things began to improve with the selection of Kendall Gill from Illinois in the 1990 NBA draft. The 1990-91 season saw glimmers of the success to come as the team performed better than previous years. The team’s fortunes continued to change with the winning of the NBA draft lottery for the following year. Charlotte hosted her first NBA all-star game in the 1990-91 season as well. At the end of the season, Littles was fired and replaced by then general manager Allan Bristow. The Hornets turned the number one selection in the 1991 draft into superstar power forward Larry Johnson from UNLV.
Johnson had a vicious inside game, incredible leaping ability and a nose for the ball. He was the unquestioned leader of the 1990 UNLV Running Rebels that won the National Championship over Duke in a blowout. The 1989-90 UNLV team is widely considered one of the greatest college teams of all time. In 1991, UNLV had just come off of a Final Four appearance where they met Duke in a rematch from the previous year. Duke literally played the game of their lives and won the game, eventually winning the National Championship against Roy Williams and Kansas. Johnson became eligible for the draft and as a consensus college player of the year was a no-brainer pick for the Hornets.
Johnson became an immediate star. He was among the league leaders in points and rebounds, and took home the 1992 NBA rookie of the year award. Johnson was also a national star as well, signing a deal with Converse for his own line of shoes and creating the “Gran-mama” character in TV ads. Gran-mama was Johnson dressed up as an old lady where, after he donned the sneakers, would turn into a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court. The ads were an instant success.
The Hornets had their first national star. Along with Kendall Gill, who was leading the team in scoring, Johnson led the Hornets and almost squeaked into the playoffs. The future looked bright for the Charlotte Hornets as they entered the 1992-93 season. A lucky bounce in the 1993 draft lottery secured the team’s bright future, and possibly its downfall as well….
Coming next week: Part 2: How Charlotte came THIS close to landing Shaquille O’Neal, why they traded away Kobe Bryant, beating Larry Bird into retirement and the contract that changed the entire NBA forever….