LAS VEGAS — Years ago NBA commissioner David Stern treated Charlotte’s desire to get back the Hornets nickname as so unlikely it was a bit of a joke.
Nobody is laughing anymore. By a unanimous vote of NBA owners Thursday, the Bobcats were given permission to become the Hornets after the 2013-14 season.
“True-blue fans of the old Hornets said, ‘Give us our name back,’ ” Stern said at a news conference at the end of the owners meeting at a Las Vegas resort hotel. “There is something to it: The team will receive (positive attention) from fans who said, ‘This is what we were asking for.’ ”
The logistics of a changeover in uniforms, logos and signage inside and outside Time Warner Cable Arena means even starting the 2014-15 season as the Hornets will be somewhat of a challenge.
Taking on the name of Charlotte’s original NBA team became viable when the New Orleans franchise was bought by Tom Benson, owner of the NFL’s Saints. Benson immediately said he wanted a switch to something more Louisiana-based, and eventually got his wish with the “Pelicans.”
That left the opening for Bobcats owner Michael Jordan to formally request the Hornets’ nickname in May. So it was appropriate that the Bensons were the ownership group that advocated Thursday for unanimous approval of sending “Hornets” back to Charlotte.
The Bobcats thanked the Bensons tangibly Thursday, saying the franchise is making a contribution to the Pelicans’ Gulf Coast preservation fund.
The Bobcats spent months doing market research – both of season-ticket holders and throughout metropolitan Charlotte – to gauge reaction to a possible switch to Hornets before making that May request. The team said public reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“You spoke loudly,” Bobcats president Fred Whitfield said of support for the Hornets name. “You were very enthusiastic about this name.”
Though the Bobcats still haven’t said how far they will go in the makeover – for instance, whether or not they will adopt the teal-and-purple colors – but it was noteworthy that Stern volunteered that Hugo the Hornet is “a mascot the community has fallen in love with.”
Stern said he believes this is an opportunity for the Bobcats to widen their fan base to those who have not taken to the NBA since the Hornets departed in 2002.
“They can grab fans in the region who have not connected with the Bobcats,” Stern said.
In anticipation of the NBA’s decision Thursday, the Bobcats held a downrally in downtown Charlotte. Among those appearing at the rally were ex-Hornets Dell Curry, Muggsy Bogues, Rex Chapman, Kelly Tripucka and Kendall Gill.
The Hornets moved to New Orleans after owner George Shinn and city council failed to work out a deal to replace the Charlotte Coliseum. Shinn, who grew up in Kannapolis, has since expressed regret he didn’t leave the Hornets name behind when the franchise moved.
Stern quickly reacted to the Hornets’ departure by awarding Charlotte an expansion team bought by Bob Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television.
The new nickname wasn’t well received. Some saw “Bobcats” as a show of vanity by Johnson. After losing tens of millions in the franchise’s first five seasons, Johnson sold majority control of the team to Jordan in March 2010.
Former NBA superstar Jordan frequently said his goal was to recreate the atmosphere he remembered playing against the Hornets as far back as the team’s debut season in 1988. The Hornets sold out the 24,000-plus seat Coliseum for nearly nine seasons, regularly leading the NBA in attendance.
The Hornets had a distinctive color scheme, with pinstriped and pleated uniforms courtesy of North Carolina-based clothing designer Alexander Julian. To this day, Charlotte Hornets merchandise is a hot seller, a recent fashion trend among teenagers inside and outside the Carolinas.