There’s not a day that goes by when we don’t wake up being thankful for being a sports fan in North Carolina. This November, the SportsChannel8 team and a panel of peers from NC media will be counting down to Thanksgiving with the top 25 things we have to be thankful for in this great state.
There was a great deal of fanfare surrounding Charlotte’s NBA franchise at the start of the 2014-15 season. They were coming off their first trip to the playoffs since 2010, the team was built around All-NBA center Al Jefferson — a true back-to-the-basket, throwback big fella, and most prominently: the name change. After ten years of Bobkittens, the city finally had it’s preferred nomenclature back — The Charlotte Hornets had returned. Buzz City!
Unfortunately, much of that excitement died down quickly, and playoff aspirations evaporated. The team dealt with numerous injuries (Big Al missing time was a killer), played at a snail’s pace (93 possession per game, No. 20 in the league), and the offense just never got off the ground, for a variety of reasons we don’t need to get into (100.1 points per 100 possession, No. 28 in the NBA). Lance Stephenson showed up in Charlotte, collected $9 million, and proceeded to to put together the worst three-point shooting season in the history of the NBA; this is not hyperbole; this is so true that it will shock you. Lance went 18-105 (17.1%) from the Land of Milk and Honey — an unfathomably bad digit.
The team finished 19th in attendance, which was a solid improvement over previous seasons.
I bring all of this up to remind you that while it’s cool and fun to go retro and try to rekindle that nostalgia into ticket and merchandise sales, there’s no perfect way to appreciate what has now become vintage. And truly, you won’t find a bigger fan of the name change, color scheme (one of the best in the league) and court design than Stat Boi — all of that stuff is fantastic. But we need to be thankful for the way things used to be.
The Charlotte Hornets entered the league as an expansion team of NBA cast-offs in 1988. Their first three seasons in the NBA saw this group of lovable misfits win just 65 combined games. (Remember: the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors won 67 last season.) Despite the horrendous record, Charlotte lead the league in attendance two of those three seasons, and finished second in the other. Yo! We freaking love basketball in North Carolina.
Things started to change drastically soon after, thanks to the 1991 NBA Draft; with the No. 1 overall selection, Charlotte drafted a 6-6 250 pound all-purpose scoring titan out of UNLV, better known as Larry Johnson.
During his rookie campaign in 91-92, Grandmama lead the Hornets in scoring as the franchise won 31 games. Another foundational element would be added during the follow year’s draft: the Buzz selected Georgetown big fella Alonzo Mourning with the No. 2 pick. Bang, just like that the Hornets had their trio of young super stars: Muggsy Bogues, LJ, and Zo.
Look at this freaking picture! It’s wonderful. If you grew up in North Carolina, and didn’t own a replicate jersey of one of these three dudes, then gtfo; I don’t know you, nor do I want to.
And of course, everyone loved Muggsy. I mean, how could you not love rooting for a guy who stood 5-3, and could freaking hoop amongst the trees of the NBA? This guy wasn’t a sideshow act; he twice lead the team in win shares and averaged double digit assists during two different seasons. The basketball camp he hosted in Winston-Salem was the first camp of any kind I ever attended. He was a really nice and down to Earth dude (and not just because he was literally closer to the ground than most humans).
I had the following exchange over the summer with my closest friend:
Her: “Random, but who was your favorite player for the Hornets growing up?”
Me: “Hmmm. You know, I loved Glen Rice, but it’s gotta be Muggsy Bogues. Easy.”
Her: “Me too! But, gotta say though, kinda surprised you picked the most obvious choice.”
Me: “Shut up! He’s the best! SOMETIMES THE MOST EVIDENT ANSWER IS THE CORRECT ONE. ALSO BARON DAVIS WAS COOL TOO.”
A few weeks later, a Muggsy throwback jersey was delivered to my apartment. GLORIOUS. I look like a dweeb in a basketball jersey — in my defense, most people do — but I rock the hell out of it around my apartment. So yeah, I’m thankful for that, too.
In 1992-93, the team broke through, making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The Hornets would advance to the second round of the playoffs that year after defeating the Boston Celtics three games to one in the first round, which came to it’s conclusion when Mourning hit perhaps the most iconic shot in team history:
Note: Steve Martin was and still is a national treasure, you guys.
(And, oh, I spy future Virginia coach Tony Bennett clearing out valuable real estate under the rim on that play. Atta boy, 25!)
Starting with that season, which ended at the hands of Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks in the next round, and ranging until the end of the 2001-02 season — when the franchise was hijacked away from North Carolina — the Hornets made the postseason seven times in that 10-year window. In those first 14 years in Charlotte, they led the league in attendance eight times; that’s absurd.
However, the old school adaptation of the Hornets I most vividly remember, though, started when Glen Rice showed up in NC. Those from a generation before me fondly reflect on those early-90s squads, but I grew up on Rice and Anthony Mason. Those were my guys. Mason could do everything on the court, including check all five positions. And at that point in my life, Rice joined Dell Curry as the two sweetest shooters I’d ever seen.
Rice was ahead of his time, too. During his three seasons in Charlotte, he was named to the All-Star game each year, and launched 1,143 three-pointers (an off-the-charts number for the mid-90s), connecting on 44.4% of those attempts. He even made the cover of a video game, which I totally owned!
The landscape of the NBA is completely different in 2015, than it was in the 1990s — duh. And Charlotte is a smaller market franchise doing everything in their power to get back to relevance (still bummed they missed out on our future basketball overlord Anthony Davis during the 2012 draft lottery); the rebranding as the Hornets was a nice step in that direction. But it’ll never quite be the same, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Thank you, Vintage Hornets.