There were no farewell tributes, no moving speeches and few tears on May 12, 2002, the night the Charlotte Hornets played their last game at the old coliseum.
For the team and its mascot, Hugo the Hornet, it was a gloomy end to an often glorious 14-year run.
By then, the relationship between team owners and fans had soured. The franchise would open its next season in New Orleans.
But the Hornets had brought big-time sports to Charlotte. Their teal and purple gear became the NBA’s hottest seller. They sold out 364 straight games, one of the league’s longest streaks.
And it was Hugo, a fuzzy teal bug with a big head and a penchant for acrobatics, that helped bond the team to the city before the owners decided to move the franchise.
Next year, after a decade in exile, he’ll return as mascot of the soon-to-be renamed Charlotte Bobcats.
Hugo was featured in the team’s new logo that was unveiled this month. The actual mascot and costume won’t be revealed for months.
But the new Hugo will do more than provide time-out entertainment. After a “Bring Back the Buzz” marketing campaign, he’ll represent a tangible connection to the old Hornets, a reminder of a city’s one-time love affair with a team.
Even NBA commissioner David Stern acknowledged as much when team owners approved the name change in July. He called Hugo “a mascot the community has fallen in love with.”
‘Another level of excitement’
It’s hard to overstate Hugo’s popularity.
In 1996, he was featured on a nine-story mural on the wall of a uptown bank, bursting through a brick wall. He traveled widely, representing the team and the league in appearances from Argentina to Australia.
And he made kids laugh.
“The new mascot, whoever that is is going to be, will bring another level of excitement to our fans and a lot of fond memories of what Hugo brought to us for 14 years,” says Carl Scheer, the Hornets first president and general manager and now the Bobcats’ senior community affairs adviser. “It’ll add another level of excitement.”
Michael Zerrillo knows what a mascot can mean. For 17 years he was Hugo, starting in 1990 and moving with the team to New Orleans and briefly, after Hurricane Katrina, to Oklahoma City.
Now 49, Zerrillo lives in Charlotte with his family. He’s a project manager at an uptown maintenance company.
“It was part of my life for 17 years,” he says.
Zerrillo, who captained Arizona State’s 1986 national champion gymnastics team, was not the first Hugo. But he came on in the team’s third year and made his mark.
At the 1991 NBA all-star game in Charlotte, Zerrillo’s Hugo – as his alter-ego, Super Hugo, aka the Man of Teal – won the Mascot Slam-Dunk contest.
He also won it the next two years, once with a ball velcroed to his head, once with a routine he called “Bug on a Windshield,” where he bounced off a trampoline, did a split over the rim and splayed his arms and body against the backboard glass.
Little wonder that, over the years, he had 13 surgeries for injuries to his neck, back, knees, shoulder and other body parts.
Remember the audience
Zerrillo’s Hugo was twice named the league’s best mascot. But when he retired in 2007, it wasn’t just the acrobatics, funny routines and gimmicks such as Air Hugo that people remembered.
They remembered his visits to hospitals after Katrina. Putting smiles on kids’ faces. Going to schools and posing for pictures with every kid in class.
“Hugo was great. Fun to watch and always ‘on.’ Hugo got the crowd involved in the games and converted me into a fan,” a woman wrote the Oklahoman newspaper when the Hornets left town.
When the Hornets left Oklahoma City, and later when “Hugo” retired in New Orleans, papers in both cities paid tribute not just to the mascot but to Zerrillo. Few people in Charlotte knew his name until an Observer article last summer.
Zerrillo hopes the new Hugo can establish the same connection to the city that he had. His advice to the new mascot: “Remember who your target audience is. If you get their children, you get the parents.”
Barring the unforeseen, the new Hugo should be around for a while.
“Players come and go,” Zerrillo says, “but your team and your logo and your mascot, hopefully, don’t change.”