'As fine a day as a city like this can hope to experience'

There were men in tuxedos and women in gowns. The symphony played.

The governors of North Carolina and South Carolina issued proclamations honoring the man responsible for making Nov.4, 1988 one of the monumental days in the history of Charlotte.

It hardly mattered to the 23,355 people tucked into the still-new Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road that the city's new NBA team – the teal-colored Hornets – lost their first NBA regular-season game 133-93 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

As Charlotte Observer columnist Ron Green wrote the next day, “It was a good day, the most exciting in Charlotte sports history, as fine a day as a city like this can hope to experience. Glittering, noisy, joyful.

“Right up until the eight-minute mark of the second quarter.”

The second quarter is when the basketball game came apart on the Hornets, who had teased the sell-out crowd by taking a two-point lead – 34-32 – through 16 minutes.

That was as good as it would get for the Hornets on the scoreboard that night, but it was only the beginning of decade-long romance between a city and a franchise.

It would ultimately reach a sad and bitter end, but 20 years ago today, it felt like love at first sight.

“It was breathtaking,” remembers owner George Shinn, who was honored by governors Jim Martin and Carroll Campbell for believing the seemingly far-fetched notion that Charlotte could become an NBA city, then bringing it to life.

More than two hours before the 7:35p.m. tipoff, the crowd began arriving at the Coliseum, many dressed for a night at the opera.

Fans were given a commemorative ticket upon entering the arena and the Charlotte Symphony provided pregame entertainment. Some were there for the basketball. Others for the spectacle. Most were there for both.

“It was like a new baby being born,” said Carl Scheer, the Hornets' first president and general manager. “Everybody had these high expectations. It was Charlotte's team. There was a collective sense of ownership. It was extraordinary.”

The Hornets were an expansion team, which meant they were built essentially from the cast-offs from other NBA teams. The opening-night starters were Kelly Tripucka, Kurt Rambis, Rickey Green, Robert Reid and Dave Hoppen.

Rex Chapman, the team's first draft pick, was on the bench, as was Muggsy Bogues. Dell Curry was injured and unable to play.

In their Alexander Julian-designed uniforms – white jerseys with teal, green and purple pinstripes and white pleated shorts – the Hornets even looked new.

“It was such a ‘Good Lord, can this be us?' kind of feeling,” said Max Muhleman, the sports marketing specialist who helped Shinn convince the NBA that Charlotte deserved a team.

“I remember looking at Tripucka and Rambis and what tremendously important characters they were. Rambis, to have your own famous Los Angeles Laker and an enforcer in the same package was truly big time.”

Dick Harter, the Hornets' first coach, remembers thinking that perhaps his team had a chance to win its opener.

The Cavaliers, led by John Williams and Brad Daugherty, had easily handled the Hornets in two preseason games and Harter wondered if Cleveland might think it would be an easy win.

“It didn't work out that way,” said Harter, whose team trailed 66-42 at halftime.

The score became secondary. What mattered was the event, the moment and the feeling.

“I remember looking up at everybody in the stands in their tuxes and their gowns,” Bogues said. “Then you looked up at the scoreboard and we were down 40 and they were still cheering.”

Watching the final seconds tick off the clock, Scheer was miserable. He thought the team might never live the 40-point loss down. He was embarrassed.

As the team came off the court, Scheer wanted to hustle them into the locker room. But he stopped in the tunnel, then turned around.

“I looked and there were 24,000 people standing and cheering,” Scheer said. “That's when I realized this was unique. The genuine love that night could not be duplicated.”

In the locker room, Harter wanted his team to be angry about its performance.

“But the fans were so nice it was hard to create that,” Harter said.

Four nights later, the Hornets would beat the Los Angeles Clippers for their first victory.

On Dec. 23, they would beat the Chicago Bulls at the buzzer in a game that started a sellout streak that would eventually reach 364 in a row.

The Hornets, in the NBA's smallest market, would lead the league in attendance eight times in nine seasons.

“It was a fairy tale of giant proportions,” Muhleman said. “Fairy tales don't have bad endings.”

Eventually, though, the magic wore off. Players came and went. So did coaches. So did many of the fans.

Shinn had personal issues. The arena became a problem.

After the 2001-02 season, the Hornets left Charlotte for New Orleans, looking for a fresh start in a new city.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer