In a teal and purple flash that can be characterized by a myriad of problems and potential, the Charlotte Hornets left the city of Charlotte. The professional basketball team only survived in the city for fourteen years before they moved to New Orleans, plagued by the mishaps of controversial management and flighty season records. In addition, the head coach was replaced season after season, and the team continued to lose excellent basketball players during its short stint in the city. Nevertheless, the Charlotte Hornets franchise produced several successful seasons with the help of determined players who were willing to persevere and thrive under the oversight of an ever-shifting organization.
When the NBA began formulating expansion plans in 1986, Charlotte was not considered as a city that could support a professional basketball team. Limited financial support and a rabid appetite for college basketball were cited as reasons for why Charlotte host an expansion team. However, entrepreneur George Shinn overlooked these doubts and began to petition for a team in Charlotte (Italia). Shinn was aggressive in his efforts, and David Stern, who was the NBA commissioner at the time, noted that Shinn simply couldn’t take no for an answer (Bonnell). To prove to the NBA that Charlotte had a high interest in professional basketball, Shinn sold thousands of tickets for what would be the Charlotte Hornet’s first game, despite the fact that the expansion cities weren’t even picked yet. Eventually, Shinn’s efforts paid off and the Charlotte Hornets joined the league officially on April 22, 1987 alongside three other expansion teams. The team would begin regular play for the 1988-1989 season. Dick Harter, who had experience from college basketball and the NBA, was nominated as the team’s first head coach. During the team’s expansion draft, Harter and Shinn opted to pick the most experienced players they could find to stack the Hornets lineup (Italia).
Despite the efforts of the coaching staff to hire competitive players that would lead the Hornets to victory, the Hornet’s first few seasons were fairly inconsistent and contaminated with losing streaks. In addition, there was tension between Coach Harter and George Shinn, who were both incredibly different (Italia). George Shinn was an optimistic, Southern businessman who was at the bottom of his high school class and learned how to survive through cleverness and charisma. In comparison, Carter was a Northern Ivy Leaguer who had weak communication skills and a pessimistic attitude. The climax of the bad relations between the men took place on January 31st of 1990 when Shinn fired Coach Harter on the day that Harter’s brother died of cancer and replaced him with Gene Littles (Bonnell). By the end of their third season, Gene Littles was replaced with Allan Bristow and the Hornets were ranked as the worst team in the NBA (Italia).
The Hornets would not continue to lose for long, however. Forward Larry Johnson, a basketball player who was built like a giant, was the Hornet’s first pick for the 1991-1992 season. Johnson, who resembled a football linebacker, stood at an impressive 6’ 7’’ and weighed 250 pounds. During the season, Johnson and current Hornets star Johnny Newman helped the team to earn a slightly more respectable 31-51 record the for the season. For his efforts and talent, Johnson was given the NBA Rookie of the Year award for the Hornet’s fourth season (Italia). Johnson continued to be a Hornets success during the team’s fifth season, and he found an equally skilled counterpart in newly drafted All-American center Alonzo Mourning. The pair proved to be an unstoppable offensive force, and their efforts enabled the Hornets to complete their first winning season. Recognizing his potential, the Hornets signed Johnson to a record-setting 12 year, $84 million contract extension at the end of the season (Italia). Ironically, both Johnson and Mourning became injured during the 1993-1994 season and missed a substantial number of games. By the time the pair returned, the Hornets had dropped to a 5-16 record and were barely making any baskets. Fortunately, Johnson and Mourning made full recoveries and helped the Hornets to finish the season with a 41-41 record.
Even with a mix of superb ballplayers, the Hornets still faced challenges over the next few years. During the Hornet’s seventh season, the players remained injury-free and the team became one of the NBA’s better clubs. The team finished with a record of 50-32 and made it to the first round of the playoffs. However, the Chicago Bulls, under the leadership of Michael Jordan, concisely defeated the Hornets in four matches. Despite this loss, the Charlotte Hornets still had a successful season – the defense dramatically improved under the leadership of new assistant coach John Bach and the Hornets led the NBA in three point score percentage (Italia). Unfortunately, tragedy struck the Hornets once again during their eighth season. Early in the year, Mourning demanded to be traded, fragmenting the once powerful duo that included him and Johnson. When Johnson was traded in the offseason, the Hornets coaching staff hoped that newcomers Vlade Divac and Anthony Mason could become the Hornet’s new powerful offensive pair (Italia).
This sense of a new beginning for the Hornets was further cemented by the firing of Allan Bristow, who was replaced by Dave Cowens as head coach beginning in the 1996-1997 season. Luckily, Divac and Mason became the leading players of the Hornets. Diminutive “Muggsy” Bogues also continued to contribute to the team’s success as a point guard. Even though the team only made it to the first round of the playoffs that year, the players demonstrated an incredible ability to succeed in a new coaching and player environment (Italia). However, Vlade Divac signed as a free agent to Sacramento and Mason ruptured his bicep during the 1997-1998 season. In addition, offensive star Glen Rice was traded and head coach Dave Cowens was replaced by Paul Silas on Marth 8th (“Hornets History”).
Problems continued to plague the Hornets during the 1999-2000 season. The greatest personal challenge for the players was the death of guard Bobby Phills in early January. Even though the Philadelphia 76ers beat them in the first round of the playoffs, the Charlotte Hornets still accomplished an amazing feat by playing well enough to be eligible for the tournament after the death of a teammate (“Hornets History”). Besides the death of Phills, George Shinn proved to be troublesome to the very existence of the Hornets in Charlotte. In late 1999, George Shinn was put on trial for a sexual assault claim. Court TV broadcasted the trial and it received incredibly high ratings for the cable network (Green Jr.). While Shinn wasn’t convicted, he had already established a negative reputation for himself in Charlotte. Shinn’s recent demands for a new arena had already irked city dwellers (Green Jr.), and complementing this were claims that Shinn was heavily pursuing several Charlotte Hornets. Whether or not all of these statements were true, Shinn’s personal life disturbed the general public and many Charlotteans began to question whether or not they would support a franchise that was owned by such an unsavory character (Kronk).
With Shinn’s reputation in ruins and the future of his franchise in question, the Hornets played their last two seasons in Charlotte with the vigor of a stable, well-established basketball team. The Charlotte Hornets proved to be a viable threat during the 2000-2001 season, with a fresh lineup that included rising star Jamal Mashburn. While the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Hornets in the second round of the playoffs, the Hornets managed to win a franchise record of six playoff games (“Hornets History”). Despite health complications that plagued Mashburn during their final season, the Hornets continued to play solid basketball. Mashburn returned on February 19th and led the Hornets on a seven-game winning streak, which prompted many journalists to predict that the Charlotte Hornets would represent the East Conference in the NBA finals. Unfortunately, Mashburn had to be escorted off the court during the first playoff game against the Orlando Magic due to what was later diagnosed as positional vertigo caused by anemia. Guard Baron Davis, who was responsible for leading the Hornets in Mashburn’s absence, led the team to victory against the Orlando Magic in the first round. While the New Jersey Nets defeated the Hornets in the second round of the playoffs, the Charlotte Hornets proved for the last time that they were willing to strive for success under external pressure (“Hornets History”). Even with their winning record, Shinn finally decided to move his franchise out of Charlotte. The NBA approved the migration of the Hornets franchise to New Orleans on May 10th, 2002. (Green Jr.).
The departure of the Hornets franchise from the shocked city of Charlotte was not initially expected, but neither was the idea that such a team could have formed and thrived in the first place. Shinn had to fight a ferocious battle to make NBA officials even consider Charlotte as an expansion city. After the franchise was created, the team faced multiple hurdles season after season. Constant injuries, the loss of coaches, the loss of phenomenal players, and George Shinn’s odd behavior all gave the Hornets players solid reasons for giving up. Instead, the basketball team excelled and played many successful seasons in Charlotte. When considering their determination in the face of a great multitude of external challenges, one will realize that the athletes who made up Charlotte Hornets were not ordinary basketball players – these were special competitors who never wavered under constant stress and relentless pressure. Even today, starting a conversation with anyone in Charlotte may result in reminiscing about the basketball team that long ago helped to carve an identity for the city.
Bonnell, Rick. Charlotte Hornets: sharpening the stinger. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Pub, 1993. 1-50. Print.
Green Jr. , Ron. “Shinn: I messed up in Charlotte.” Charlotte Observer (2008). Web. 14 Mar 2011.
“Hornets History.” NBA. NBA, 2011. Web. 14 Mar 2011.
Italia, Bob. The Charlotte Hornets. Edina, MN: Abdo & Daughters, 1997. 1-32 Print.
Kronk, Richard. Telephone interview. 27 February 2011.
Nichols, John. Charlotte Hornets. Mankato MN: Creative Education, 1997. 1-32. Print.
Rambeck, Richard. Charlotte Hornets. Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 1993. 1-32. Print.
About the Author
Michael Kronk is a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kronk’s intended major is Computer Science – if he can survive all of those math classes. Interestingly enough, Kronk is also intrigued by the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.