Tom Sorensen

UVA coach Tony Bennett thankful for years with Charlotte Hornets

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett directs his team against Belmont during the second half of an NCAA tournament game Friday in Charlotte.
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett directs his team against Belmont during the second half of an NCAA tournament game Friday in Charlotte. AP

Tony Bennett was curious and excited as the airplane approached Charlotte. Down on the ground was whatever came next.

“It was a time like no other,” he says.

The Charlotte Hornets had selected Bennett out of Wisconsin-Green Bay in the second round of the 1992 NBA draft. He was flying to Charlotte to report for work.

“I didn’t know what to expect from the Queen City,” he says. “But what a wonderful time, the way the town embraced us. Basketball just took off, and it felt great.”

Bennett, 45, returned to Charlotte on Wednesday for the NCAA tournament. His Virginia Cavaliers play Michigan State at 12:10 p.m. Sunday at Time Warner Cable Arena.

He calls from the bus that will deliver the Cavaliers to Charlotte.

You took a plane to Charlotte 23 years ago, and now you have to take a bus?

“The NCAA has a rule that if you’re within 350 miles of the site, you have to bus,” Bennett says. (Charlotte is about 250 miles.) “Maybe if we were a 1 seed we would have flown.”

Nice. Despite having the ACC’s best record, the Cavaliers are a No. 2 seed.

A point guard, Bennett backed up Muggsy Bogues for three seasons in Charlotte. He averaged 3.5 points and two assists. What do you remember about the 1992-95 teams?

“I always remember how Muggsy never quit,” says Bennett. “I remember how Dell (Curry) would just get on fire. I remember Zo’s (Alonzo Mourning) intensity.

“We had so many good guys. Hersey Hawkins, Kevin Lynch, Tom Hammonds, Muggsy, Dell, Zo. And everybody was young except Mike Gminski and Robert Parish.”

You can almost hear him smile over the phone.

The son of a coach, Bennett undoubtedly used his time in Charlotte to better prepare him for his trade.

Did you know then that you were going to coach?

“No,” Bennett says immediately. “I thought I’d play 10, 12 years and move to a beach in Hawaii. My dad (Dick) was a coach and my sister (Kathi) was a coach (she coaches the women at Northern Illinois) and I saw the ups and downs. I played overseas (Auckland, New Zealand, in 1996) and got hurt. The coach said play when you can, and when you’re hurt, coach. I thought, ‘It’s a pretty cool way to stay close to the game.’”

Bennett returned to the U.S. in 1999 and worked for his father as a volunteer assistant at Wisconsin. He became an assistant there and an assistant at Washington State and in 2006 the Cougars’ head coach. Virginia hired him in 2009.

Even though you didn’t plan to coach, what were you able to take with you?

“I learned from players I played against like Mark Price (now a Hornets assistant) and Reggie Miller,” Bennett says. “I learned from (Charlotte coach) Allan Bristow how to give players room. Maybe some fans don’t see that because they think we don’t score enough points.

“But I’ve always been observant and inquisitive. I understood how to be good. I look at myself and ask: What gives us a chance to be good? I want to strip away what doesn’t work and use what does.”

The 2014 and ’15 ACC Coach of the Year, Bennett’s Virginia teams have improved annually since he arrived.

Along with the concepts he took from Charlotte, he took a wife. He met Laurel at Forest Hill Church near the end of his rookie year. He saw her and devoutly asked, “Who is that girl?” Bennett says the family of senior pastor David Chadwick, who played basketball at North Carolina, became a second family to him.

Bennett likes to tell his players he was a starting point guard and NBA All-Star. But if they can get into Virginia, they can figure he might be kidding. He doesn’t have to tell them he was a Hornet. A fan shows up at John Paul Jones Arena wearing Bennett’s No. 25 Charlotte jersey. Bennett says he thought the Hornets had retired it.

“I am so thankful for those three years,” he says. “I met my wife, and it was a unique time in professional sports. The only other place like it, maybe, is Oklahoma City. People embraced us the way they do a college team.

“It was joyous. And I got to play a small part in something very big.”

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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