Charlotte Hornets

The original Hornets – and their fans – were a wild bunch

I researched the original Charlotte Hornets last week in preparation for a story about why that team so thoroughly captured the city’s imagination 25 years ago. In fact, I gathered too much interview material and couldn’t fit it all in.

So here – as we await the NBA governing board’s inevitable approval Thursday of the “Bobcats to Hornets” nickname switch – are 10 facts I hated to leave out of that column.

1. After former coach Allan Bristow once punted his suit coat in exasperation at an official, the Hornets held a halftime contest in which fans were judged on the length they could punt a suit coat.

2. Larry Johnson had a charming solution for forgetting someone’s name – one that I may adopt. He would say, “Hey, big guy!”

3. Eager to capitalize on Alonzo Mourning’s menacing persona, the Hornets would play the first few bars of Darth Vader’s theme song from Star Wars whenever Mourning entered the game.

4. The populations of both Charlotte and the Charlotte metro area are almost exactly double today what they were in the late 1980s when the Hornets began to play. Here are the figures our great newsroom library found for me:

Metro area estimate in 2012: 2,296,569.

In 1987: 1,100,000.

Charlotte population estimate in 2012: 775,202.

In 1988: 363,977.

5. The Hornets used to interview a star of the game live in postgame at midcourt, and frequently it was a standout for the other team. Magic Johnson did it once while he was with the Lakers, and before the interview began he pulled on a Hornets T-shirt someone had handed him. The crowd went wild. Team owner George Shinn had a picture of Magic in that Hornets T-shirt for years in his office, as did several other Hornets officials.

6. The most important game the Hornets ever lost was Game 6 of a 2001 playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Charlotte led the series 3-2 at the time and, with a win at home, would have gotten to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time. The Hornets led by 10 at halftime but ultimately lost in the last minute.

Two weeks later, the arena referendum in Charlotte was voted down. A number of Hornets officials remain convinced that if Charlotte had won that game (the Hornets also lost Game 7 in Milwaukee a few days later) the resulting momentum would have meant the arena referendum passed and the original Hornets never would have left.

7. After Mourning’s famous jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining that put Charlotte ahead 104-103 and ultimately won the playoff series against Boston in 1993, the Hornets’ Kendall Gill may have actually goaltended or fouled Dee Brown on a clever Celtics inbounds play as the buzzer sounded.

No call was made, but the replay on one local TV station showed the Hornets may have gotten lucky there.

8. That 1993 Celtics team the Hornets beat 3-1 in a best-of-5 series really wasn’t that good. Larry Bird was already gone. The squad’s best player, Reggie Lewis, fainted in the first game due to serious heart issues and didn’t play the rest of the series. Lewis would die a few months later.

9. For the 1992-93 season, at the height of his “Grandmama” commercial craze, Larry Johnson’s No. 2 Hornets jersey was second only to Michael Jordan’s in jerseys sold nationwide. (That detail came from Observer writer Rick Bonnell’s excellent book on the Hornets 20 years ago called “Sharpening the Stinger.”)

10. In the Hornets’ very first year (1988-89, when the team went 20-62), a Houston newspaper polled NBA players about the greatest homecourt advantages in the league. Charlotte ranked third, trailing only Chicago and Boston.

Carl Scheer, the Hornets’ first president and general manager, summed it up well. He said he constantly told his staff in those frantic early days to stand back and realize how rare that sort of team popularity actually was.

“Like your first girlfriend,” Scheer said, “your first team is always special. You may not marry her, but you always have fond memories.”

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