Basketball

Original Hornets were heartily embraced

Twenty years ago, when it came time for the Charlotte Hornets to build their first player roster, they understood the challenge.

They were asked to build a team from players other teams didn't want.

Leftover parts. Broken pieces. Odd fits.

“We were nobody else's first priority,” is the way Tim Kempton remembers the group of players that first charmed a city bedazzled by its own professional basketball team.

They might not have mattered in other NBA cities, but in Charlotte, they were stars.

There was high-scoring Kelly Tripucka in the second half of a memorable career.

There was Kurt Rambis, famous for his horn-rimmed glasses and the fact he had been a Los Angeles Laker playing alongside Magic Johnson and James Worthy before arriving on his own accord in Charlotte.

There was Rex Chapman, the wonder kid from Kentucky and the team's first draft choice.

There was 5-foot-3 Muggsy Bogues one year removed from Wake Forest and Dell Curry, cut loose by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

They were an unlikely band of brothers dressed in teal, purple and white.

“It was a rather unsophisticated way we chose our team,” said Carl Scheer, the team's first president and general manager.

The Hornets and the new Miami Heat were allowed to pick players from other teams' rosters, but only after those teams had protected several players.

The new teams operated with less than a full salary cap number and were given the eighth and ninth picks in the college draft, not the first two.

It led to a team with some familiar faces – particularly Tripucka and Rambis – but one short on muscle and interior power.

“We had some good shooters,” first-year coach Dick Harter said. “If we had just lined up and played shooting games, we'd have won our share.”

The Hornets never won more than two games in a row the first season, but at least they were better than Miami, which lost its first 17 games.

For the most part, the players who came to Charlotte liked what they found in the new NBA city.

Rambis chose to come, signing a free-agent contract after being part of consecutive NBA championship teams with the Lakers.

“That first year (in Charlotte) was nothing but a great experience for me,” said Rambis, who would be traded to Philadelphia in the second season. “For me, it was a great opportunity to start at the foundation of a franchise in basketball-hungry country.

“There was nothing but plusses there for me. I just had to adjust my expectations about winning there.”

It was Rambis who provided one of the most electric moments of the first season, scoring the winning basket in the final seconds to beat Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in December, the game when the 364-consecutive sellout streak began.

“The fans embraced us and the players embraced the community,' said Rambis, now a Lakers assistant coach.

Dave Hoppen, the starting center, came from Golden State where he said some people didn't know who the Warriors were.

“It was like we could do nothing wrong, even though we won only 20 games that first year,” said Hoppen, who owns a financial management company in Omaha, Neb.

Few were embraced like Kempton, the big redhead from Notre Dame. A marginal talent, Kempton happily played to the city's enthusiasm, posing for a photo in surgical garb after being nicknamed “Dr. K.”

He also publicly followed through on a wager that he could eat a Burger King Whopper in one bite.

“It was about making the most of the situation,” said Kempton, now a radio broadcaster for the Phoenix Suns. “Basketball is supposed to be fun. If not, then why do it?”

As Rambis remembers it, the Hornets were only blown out of 10 games, keeping most of their 62 losses competitive.

At home in Los Angeles, Rambis still has his Hornets uniform, practice gear and other mementoes from his time in Charlotte.

When he signed with the Hornets, Rambis talked with Scheer and owner George Shinn about being part of the franchise after his playing days ended.

“My wife and I have wondered what it would have been like had everything worked out the way it was envisioned,” Rambis said.

“But mostly it's good memories.”

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