The line looked like it stretched from here to Myrtle Beach. It was 1989, my first summer in Charlotte, and we were in line for single-game tickets to the Charlotte Hornets. Other fans had long ago bought more than 20,000 season tickets for the Hornets' second year. The rest of us waited hours to get upper-deck, behind-the-basket seats, the worst of the worst. We were thrilled to get them.
The first game I went to, Dell Curry made a three at the buzzer to beat Golden State. I've never heard a basketball arena that loud since.
Everyone who lived here back then remembers little touchstones. Kelly Tripucka, the leading scorer in those early days, cried on the court in a radio interview after being booed. Tim Kempton, the backup center, stuffed a whole Whopper in his mouth to win a bet. There was the guy who brought a giant brick to distract the other team's free-throw shooters, and the guy with a beer gut who did handsprings on the court during timeouts.
Seinfeld is right -- in the end, sports fans are just rooting for laundry. But an old shirt can be full of memories, and an old name can call up dreams. The people in my city are getting the Charlotte Hornets back. It matters -- more than it should, probably, but it matters.
Charlotte earned the name. In the Revolutionary War, our soldiers ran off Gen. Cornwallis and the Brits; as Cornwallis left, he called this place "a hornet's nest of rebellion." The Charlotte Hornets were a minor league baseball team for decades, and a World Football League team for a couple of sorry seasons. Before the NBA, the major sports in Charlotte were NASCAR and pro wrestling. Ric Flair was the biggest celebrity in town.
But the NBA meant superstars. The Hornets didn't sell out every game at first -- the Charlotte Coliseum had nearly 24,000 seats, huge for an NBA arena. But two days before Christmas in that first season, Kurt Rambis made a putback at the horn to beat Michael Jordan and the Bulls. That was the first of 364 consecutive sellouts at the Hive -- nearly nine straight years when every seat was filled.
At first it didn't matter that the Hornets were terrible. But then they got good. They picked up Larry Johnson (Grandmama!) and Alonzo Mourning in back-to-back drafts. Muggsy Bogues, at 5-foot-3, waterbugged on the break and pestered opponents to distraction. First Union Bank painted a giant mural of Muggsy, LJ and Mourning on the side of one of its buildings. In 1993, Mourning hit a bomb from way outside his range to beat the Celtics in the playoffs. I was recovering from surgery for throat cancer and let out a giant soundless yell. They lost in the next round to the Knicks, but clearly the Hornets were a team on the rise.
It turned out that was the peak.
Johnson signed a huge contract and got hurt. Mourning got offered slightly less, turned it down and got traded to Miami. The owner, George Shinn, started making noise about a new arena. He was revealed to be a dirtbag who took home a woman in drug rehab, promising to get her a lawyer, and had sex with her instead. The woman charged him with sexual assault and he was acquitted, but during the trial he also admitted to an affair with a Hornets cheerleader. Not surprisingly, voters rejected a new arena. Fans turned against the Hornets with the cold fury of a betrayed lover. I went to the team's next-to-last game. I walked up 10 minutes before tipoff and bought a seat in the second row.
A few years later, the city auctioned off the scoreboard and the floor and everything else inside the Coliseum. Then they blew up the building.
The city built a new arena without voter approval and brought in an expansion team owned by Bob Johnson of BET. He turned out to be a different kind of dirtbag -- one who named the team after himself (the Bobcats) and rarely visited town. Johnson sold out to Michael Jordan, and the greatest player in NBA history put together a team with the worst winning percentage in NBA history.
So, yeah, it hasn't been fun to be a NBA fan here for the past 15 years or so. Going back to the Hornets name -- and, I hope, those sweet teal-and-purple uniforms -- is like putting on a rally cap.
The city needs a rally, too. When the Hornets first played, Charlotte was a Sun Belt sunburst built on banking. We grew like a popcorn bag in a microwave. Now the growth has stalled. Our big banks just about wrecked the U.S. economy. This is still a great place to live -- beautiful old neighborhoods, lots to do uptown, room to breathe. But there's a harder edge underneath. It's not as easy to impress us now.
We were still kids, in a way, when the Hornets first came to town. Now we've grown up. I think most of us understand that changing the name won't change the talent on the floor, or the coaching decisions, or the moves in the front office. The playoffs seem as far away as they did after the Hornets' first game ever, when they lost to Cleveland by 40.
But it felt good the other night when they made the name change official for the 2014-15 season. The team brought back a bunch of the old players -- Muggsy, Tripucka, Kendall Gill, Rex Chapman. Curry came, too -- he broadcasts Bobcats games, and of course he's got one son in the NBA and another hoping to get there. One day soon, Stephen or Seth or both will play a game against the Charlotte Hornets. It's nice to think of that circle coming back around.
Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It's deeper than you think, and you can drown in it. But sometimes you put on that old shirt, and even if it doesn't quite fit, it takes you back to better days.
Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at email@example.com or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. This seems like a good place for a shout-out to Bring Back the Buzz, which beat the drum for the Hornets louder and longer than anybody else.