Nostalgia must truly be in the air. In a two-week span, NBA fans in Seattle have been treated to the return of the SuperSonics, while a name change in New Orleans may help bring the Hornets nickname back to the city of Charlotte.
With the announcement last Thursday that the league’s franchise in The Big Easy would soon become the Pelicans, the Hornets name has essentially become a free agent, one certainly worth reclaiming by the city of Charlotte.
North Carolina’s biggest city received its first pro basketball team nearly 25 years ago after Kannapolis entrepreneur George Shinn persuaded the NBA that the city could support a franchise.
At the time, the city’s ace in the hole to receive league support was the Charlotte Coliseum, a state-of-the-art 24,000 seat arena opened in 1988 that later became known as “The Hive.”
Charlotte and its surrounding areas were certainly not basketball deficient. The region has long been a hotbed for the game with the presence of four nearby Atlantic Coast Conference teams as well as the Charlotte 49ers and Davidson Wildcats.
Despite having other options, the city soaked up the Hornets during its original incarnation. Charlotte sold out every game for their first seven seasons and the Hive became known as one the toughest places to play in the NBA. The Coliseum was also host to an NCAA Men’s Final Four, an NBA All-Star game, numerous concerts, and even a speech by Mother Teresa.
But not long after it was finished, the Coliseum was being viewed as a dinosaur. When it was built, construction plans for the arena included luxury boxes, but only eight high-priced suites. Comparatively, the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit opened the same year with 180 luxury suites and expensive club seats.
While the Hive was quickly being categorized as a second rate arena, the city’s love affair with the team was also beginning to fade. Following the 1996-1997 season, Larry Johnson, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 1991, and Alonzo Mourning, the No. 2 pick in 1992, were already out the door, dealt to New York and Miami respectively.
Then, less than nine years after the team’s home was built, Shinn, who also became embroiled in an alleged rape case, began asking for a new arena. According to the Associated Press, by 2001, the sellout streak had ended and the NCAA actually had no intention to return the Final Four to the city. Charlotte and the team never brokered a new deal for an arena and voters rejected plans for a replacement in a 2001 referendum.
Only a year later, the team played their final game in Charlotte in front of nearly 11,000 empty seats during the second round of the playoffs. By 2002, the Hornets were then on their way to New Orleans, relocated to play at New Orleans Arena next to the Superdome.
However, pro basketball returned to Charlotte in 2002 after a group led by Robert Johnson was awarded the rights to a franchise. Renamed the Bobcats, the team was acquired a couple years later by Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest NBA player of all-time.
Despite making the playoffs in 2010, the team’s track record has been less than stellar, especially since setting the record after the 2012 season for the worst win-loss percentage by a team in NBA history.
To spark renewed interest, Charlotte would certainly have to make up for its dearth of talent and make changes to the roster. However, attaching the name Hornets to their uniforms would undoubtedly be a boost as well. Although it’s an old name, it would be a refreshing change from the Bobcats brand that has not captured the city’s enthusiasm. Since pro basketball returned, Charlotte has been at the back of the pack when it comes to attendance.New is almost always good when it comes to sports marketing, especially when a team’s support has become sour. As young players like Kemba Walker and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist develop, the team should improve. Bringing in the old nickname to go along with a young nucleus of talented players could bring the franchise back to the top levels of the league. Of course, adding a franchise player like the guy sitting in the owners’ box certainly wouldn’t hurt too much either.