The Charlotte Hornets were a model franchise of success, becoming instantly popular and a leader in attendance for several seasons . So what exactly led to the team moving away after fourteen years? In today’s video we’ll take a look back at how one owner’s personal scandals led to a major rift between the city and team causing the NBA to have no choice but to step in and intervine.
By the mid-1980’s the NBA was ready to expand the league, and they decided on adding four new franchises over a two year period. Taking the league from 23 teams to 27 teams by 1989. George Shinn, a businessman from Kannapolis, North Carolina was interested in bringing pro basketball to the area. Shinn, along with a number of local investors, pitched their idea of starting a team in Charlotte to the NBA. The city of Charlotte seemed like a perfect fit for an NBA team, as the city had one of the fastest growing populations at the time, while the state had a strong connection to the sport with the North Carolina Tar Heels college team as well as being the former home to the ABA’s Carolina Cougars. But the biggest advantage that Charlotte had over other prospective cities, was that the city was building a brand new state of the art arena near downtown Charlotte, named the Charlotte Coliseum. With 24,000 seats, the arena would have the NBA’s largest seating capacity and would also be the biggest arena ever built for basketball only purposes. On April 5, 1987 the NBA granted a franchise to Charlotte, with them set to begin play the following season in 1988. Charlotte would also be joined by Miami as the two new teams for 1988, and later Minnesota and Orlando would begin play in 1989.
Initially, the team was set to be called the Charlotte Spirit, but after a fan vote the team decided to change the name to the Charlotte Hornets. The name hornets actually dates back to the revolutionary war, where British general Charles Cornwallis supposedly described the city of Charlotte as a “hornets nest of rebellion” during the battle of Charlotte in 1780. The Hornets chose their primary colors of purple and teal, which during the late 1980’s and early 90’s was clearly a very popular color choice. The Hornets also became known for being the first ever NBA team to wear pinstripe uniforms, which other teams later adapted as part of their look as well. For the logo, the Hornets used the block letters “C” and “H” for their first year in 1988. This logo was quickly replaced the following year with the team’s more well known, and iconic branding that featured a cartoon looking hornet. The team would use this logo for the next 13 years while they were in Charlotte. In the 1988 expansion draft, the two new clubs, The Hornets and the Miami Heat were allowed to pick unprotected players from each of the other NBA teams. Before the draft, a coin flip decided which team got to pick first, with the Hornets winning the toss. However, Charlotte opted to let the Heat pick first in the expansion draft, which allowed the Hornets to have the higher pick in the regular NBA draft that would take place in a week’s time. In the expansion draft, the Hornets selected Dell Curry (also known as Steph Curry’s dad) from the Cleveland Cavaliers as their first pick. Most of the players that the Hornets drafted were gone after only a few seasons, with the exception of Curry and Mugsey Bogues who both had long successful runs with the Hornets. During the regular NBA draft, Charlotte drafted Rex Chapman from the University of Kentucky as the eighth overall pick. Some of you may not know that before Chapman became a social media influencer and had over a million followers on twitter, he played in the NBA 12 years, starting with the Hornets for whom he played for the next three seasons, before being traded to the Washington Bullets half way through the 1991-92 season.
The Early Years (1989-95)
After two years of construction, the Charlotte Coliseum officially opened on August 11, 1988. Things got off to a rocky start however, when literally the next day after it opened the 40,000 pound scoreboard fell and crashed onto the court after it was being repositioned. This forced the team to have to replace both the brand new scoreboard and court in time for the Olympic basketball team to play an exhibition game that night. The Hornets played their first home game a few months later on November 4th, in a 133-93 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The club got its first win four days later, when they defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 117-105. Fans in Charlotte embraced the team almost immediately, becoming one of the league’s best attended home teams. In fact, over the Hornets first seven seasons the team led the NBA in attendance and sold out 364 consecutive games. As popular and successful as the team was in attracting fans to the arena, the Hornets were not as successful on the court. The team finished their first season with just 20 wins and 62 losses, and making matters worse the Hornets general manager Carl Scheer left after just one season due to a contract dispute with the team’s owner George Shinn. And there were further departures as well, after the Hornets got off to a poor start in their next season, head coach Dick Harter (that’s what she said) was let go and replaced with the team’s assistant coach Gene Littles. The coaching change did little to help, as the Hornets continue to struggle finishing their second season with 19 wins and 63 losses. The following season started off decently, with the Hornets winning 8 of their first 15 games, but the team quickly fell into a cold streak, dropping eleven games in a row. One of the few bright spots of the season was that Charlotte hosted the 1991 All Star Game, with the Eastern Conference narrowly beating the Western Conference 116-114. At the end of the season head coach Gene Littles was also let go, and replaced by Allan Bristow.
That summer during the 1991 NBA draft, the Hornets selected power forward Larry Johnson out of the University of Nevada as the number one overall pick. Drafting Johnson would mark the beginning of a turnaround in the team’s play, as Johnson would go on to win Rookie of the Year in 1992. The Hornets also managed to improve their record somewhat from the previous few seasons, with 31 wins and 51 losses. During the next year’s draft, the Hornets once again had a high draft choice, where they selected center Alonzo Mourning as the second overall pick. With Johnson, Mourning, and Kendall Gill who the Hornets drafted a few years prior in the 1990 draft, the team was filled with young talent that could make a push towards the playoffs. The very next season, the Hornets finished with 44 wins and 38 losses which gave them the fifth best record in the Eastern Conference, thus clinching the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. In the first round Charlotte matched up against the Boston Celtics. And in the five game series, the underdog Hornets dropped the first game but stunned the Celtics winning the next three in a row. In dramatic fashion, Alonzo Mourning hit a series clinching shot with 4 tenths of a second left, giving the Hornets their first ever playoff series win. However the Hornets luck would run out in the next series when they fell to the New York Knicks in 5 games in a best of seven series. After a disappointing 1993-94 season, where the Hornets missed the playoffs after finishing with a .500 record, the team bounced back the next season, once again returning to the playoffs. The Hornets ended the year with a franchise best 50 wins and 32 losses, earning them a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately for Charlotte, they faced off against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the first round, where the Hornets were swept in four games.
Big Changes (1996-98)
After the 1995 season ended, the Hornets traded Alonzo Mourning to the Miami Heat for three players, Matt Gieger (GUY-GER), Khalid Reeves, and Glen Rice. While the trade initially was successful, with the three players contributing and playing well, the Hornets ultimately finished the 1995-96 season with a .500 record of 41 wins and 41 losses. But the offseason would mark big changes for the club, with their all-star guard Kenny Anderson opting not to re-sign with the team and playing for the Portland Trailblazers instead. Larry Johnson, the team’s former number one overall pick was traded to the New York Knicks for Anthony Mason. With all of the changes to the roster, it marked the end of one era and the start of the next for the Hornets, who hoped that the new additions would help them reach the next level. During the 1996 NBA draft, the Hornets had the thirteenth pick and they selected Kobe Bryant from Lower Merion High School out of Philadelphia. Of course, Kobe would go on to have a legendary hall of fame career with the Hornets, winning multiple championships and forever changing the course of the franchise – Ok obviously none of that last part happened, what actually happened was Kobe Bryant was indeed drafted by the Hornets as the thirteenth overall pick. But the Hornets never intended to keep Bryant, as they had made a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers to send Kobe to LA in exchange for Vlade Divac, seen here just as shocked as everyone else that he was traded. The Lakers wanted to shed salary by trading Divac so that they could sign free agent Shaqille O’Neal, while the Hornets in their infinite wisdom preferred to have veteran depth over the developing rookie talent. Kobe did of course go on to have a hall of fame career with the Lakers, while Divac, who also had a fall of fame career, only played with the Hornets for two seasons before leaving to play with the Sacramento Kings as a free agent.
The changes to the team paid off initially, as the Hornets finished the 1996-97 season with their best record in franchise history to that point of 54 wins and 28 losses. But Charlotte once again met the New York Knicks in the playoffs, who swept the Hornets in three games in a best of five series. Just two games into the next season, Tony Delk and fan favorite Mugsy Bogues were traded to the Golden State Warriors for B.J. Armstrong. Bouges, who has the distinction of being the shortest player in NBA history with a listed height of 5 feet 3 inches, had been dealing with a knee injury that prevented him from playing at his usual high ability. By 1998 Bogues had been with the Hornets for the team’s first ten years, and was reassured by owner George Shinn that he’d be able to finish his career as a Charlotte Hornet. However, after an MRI revealed that Bouges knee injury was more serious than previously thought, Shinn backtracked on his promise and traded him instead. Feeling betrayed by the Hornets, Bogues vowed to cut all ties with his former team, but later Bouges and Shinn would appear on the cover of Charlotte magazine together seemingly burying the hatchet. The trade left Dell Curry as the last remaining original Charlotte Hornets player still on the team.
Legal Troubles (1998-00)
The 1998-99 season was shortened due to a league-wide lockout that lasted from July 1, 1998 to January 20, 1999. Because of this the season was shortened to just 50 games. The Hornets struggled that season, barely managing to have a winning record at 26 wins and 24 losses. The team’s head coach Dave Cowens resigned half way through the season, and was replaced by Paul Silas (SY-LUS). Not long after this, tragedy struck the team in January of 2000, when shooting guard Bobby Phills was killed in a car accident. Phills and teammate David Wesley were allegedly racing at high speeds at over 100 miles per hour, while also making erratic moves, when Phills lost control of his car and spun into oncoming traffic. Phills collided with another car, which in turn caused a separate crash with a minivan. The other drivers managed to survive the wreck, but Phills was pronounced dead at the scene, he was only 30 years old. David Wesley, who was not directly involved with any of the car accidents, was later charged and convicted for reckless driving. The tragedy of course came as a shock to the team and the Charlotte community, who chose to honor Phills by retiring his number a month after the accident. As of the recording of this video, Phills number 13 is still the only number retired by the Charlotte Hornets franchise.
Despite having yet to win a division title, over the next three years the Hornets made the playoffs each season. In back to back years, between 2001 and 2002 Charlotte reached the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Unfortunately for the Hornets, they fell to the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games after being ahead in the series 3-2 during the 2001 semifinal and they lost to the New Jersey Nets in 2002. As disappointed as the team was, they were facing even worse news. By the early 2000’s, the home attendance at Hornets games had declined significantly. Charlotte went from having the best attendance in the league in 1997, averaging 24,000 fans a game to having the worst attendance in the league in 2002 with just over 11,000 fans on average per game. So how can a team who was enjoying success on the court, reaching the playoffs in multiple years and was easily selling out games just a few years prior suddenly have attendance numbers that fell off a cliff? To answer that, we have to flash back to the fall of 1997, as mentioned the Hornets were enjoying success on the court and in the stands as the team had never been more popular. However, around this time owner George Shinn was facing serious allegations of sexual misconduct. Shinn had been accused of sexually assaulting a young woman he met while visiting his nephew at a health center. Allegedly, Shinn offered to help the woman with her child-custody battle and offered to drive her to his lawyers offices for legal advice. The woman claimed that Shinn instead drove her to his home, and forced her to perfom oral sex. Shinn seen here unironically wearing a I’ve been good Santa Hat, admitted to the extramarital sexual encounter but claimed that it was consenual. The accusation lead to a trial that was nationally broadcasted on Court TV, where Shinn admitted to having multiple sexual relationshps outside of his marriage, including one with a member of the Hornets cheerleading squad. But throughout the trial he continued to deny any wrongdoing, and ultimately Shinn was found not guilty by a jury in 1999. But, the admission to the extramarital affairs permanently damaged Shinn’s popularity within the Charlotte community, and marked the beginning of a fracturing between the Shinn and the city’s relationship.
Not long after the trial, and after seeing attendance drop due to his personal scandals Shinn began to withdraw from public appearances, while also growing more and more dissatisfied with the Hornet’s home arena, the Charlotte Coliseum. The arena at that point was only 13 years old, but Shinn was frustrated over the few luxury boxes and lack of modern amenities compared to what newer NBA arenas had. Knowing how difficult it would be to get a new arena built, and how disliked he was in the Charlotte community, Shinn even considered relocation to Memphis in 2001, before the NBA granted approval to the Vancouver Grizzlies to relocate there instead. After losing the relocation bid, Shinn then threatened to move the Hornets if the city of Charlotte didn’t pay for a brand new arena, at no cost to him. Naturally, Charlotte refused to even consider such a plan, so Shinn began to look for potential relocation sites. There were only a handful of cities that met the criteria for becoming home to an NBA team, and they were pretty much the same ones that the Grizzlies had looked before they moved to Memphis from Vancouver. The short list came down to Louiville, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Norfolk, Virginia. Of those cities, only two of them already had NBA caliber arenas built, which were in St. Louis and New Orleans.
During this time, the city of Charlotte realized how serious Shinn was about moving the team, and decided to put the idea of constructing a new arena to a vote as part of a much larger city wide building referendum. This pleased Shinn, who immediately turned his attention into getting the referendum passed and even withdrew his bid for relocation to the league. It appeared through polls that a majority of voters were in favor of the referendum and that it would likely pass. But just days before the vote, the Mayor of Charlotte Pat McCrory decided to veto a living wage ordinance that would have raised the minimum hourly rate for Charlotte’s city workers to $9 an hour. The veto sparked a campaign by a community organization named Helping Empower Local People, also known as H.E.L.P, to reject the arena referendum. Their feeling was that it was immoral for Charlotte to spend millions of dollars to build a brand new arena but also refuse to pay its workers a fair living wage. Helping Empower Local People successfully swayed public opinion on the issue, and the referendum failed to pass with 57 percent of voters rejecting the idea.
Charlotte Gets A New Team (2003-10)
After the vote, Charlotte’s city leaders went back to the drawing board to come up with a new plan. The city leaders desperately wanted to keep the Hornets from moving, but were fed up with having to deal with George Shinn as the owner. Charlotte publicly stated that they would do whatever they could to build a new arena, but only if Shinn would sell the team. At this point the NBA had become concerned about the growing public rift between the city of Charlotte and George Shinn. The NBA knew that essentially forcing Shinn to sell the Hornets would anger every other owner in the league, setting a dangerous precedent of forcing owners out anytime a a city and ownership disagreed on a matter. They also knew that the situation couldn’t be resolved by having Shinn and the Hornets remain in Charlotte, as the city was adamant about Shinn selling the team. So in May of 2002, just as the Hornets were facing off against the New Jersey Nets in the playoffs, the NBA formally approved of the team’s relocation to New Orleans. Shinn chose New Oreleans over other cities because two months before the move was even approved, 55 luxury suites and 8,121 season tickets had already been sold. With New Orleans showing an impressive interest in luring the Hornets, and Shinn claiming that the team had lost nearly 20 million dollars that season, the team was as good as gone. The NBA, to their credit, did not want to see a repeat of what happened with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns when they moved to Baltimore after the 1995 season, which triggered a series of lawsuits. So the NBA made a deal with the city of Charlotte, that they would receive an expansion club by 2004 as long as they could get a new arena approved.
With a new expansion team on the way, there were several notable potential investors who had interest in making a bid for the team. One group was headed by Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird, while another group was led by Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television or BET, which included hip-hop artist Nelly as a minority owner. With the price tag of $300 million dollars, Johnson was awarded the franchise on December 18, 2002 and a few
weeks later the NBA officially approved of the expansion team joining the league. This made Johnson one of the first African-American majority owners of a major professional sports team. The next step for the team was to come up with a name, so the club held a fan vote where the winning name was the “Charlotte Flight ” in honor of the Wright Brothers inventing and flying the first plane in North Carolina. But when owner Robert Johnson heard the results of the fan vote his reaction was more like “Oh hell no”. The reason being reportedly strongly preferred an animal name similar to that of one of Carolina’s other pro sports teams, the Carolina Panthers. With that the name Charlotte Bobcats was settled on, with the team colors being orage, blue, and grey. Another part of the deal for expansion was that Charlotte had to build a new arena before they could start play. After the Hornets left town for New Orleans, Charlotte’s city council approved a plan to build a new arena without the need for a voting referendum. The plan called for the facility to be built in Uptown, Charlotte, closer to downtown than the Hornet’s old home, the Charlotte Coliseum which was out by the airport. The new arena would have just over 19,000 seat capacity for basketball, about 5,000 less than the Coliseum. It cost $265 million dollars to build and opened on October 21, 2005 as the Charlotte Bobcats Arena, later renamed the Spectrum Center as it’s known today. Meanwhile, the Coliseum closed permanently a few days later on October 26, and would later be demolished on June 3, 2007.
Sale & Rebrand (2010-14)
Between 2004 and 2010, during the Bobcats first seven seasons the team managed to never finish better than fourth place in their five team division. They did however manage to make the playoffs in 2010, losing in the first round to the Orlando Magic. Around this time, NBA legend Michael Jordan, who had been a minority investor in the team since 2006, bought out Robert Johnson’s majority share of the team. The sale of the team came at a time when the Bobcats were not faring well financially, losing 30 million dollars in 2010 alone due to lack of sponsorship deals and dwindling attendance. The sale made Jordan the new majority owner of the Bobcats, and the first former NBA player to ever own a team. And speaking of ownership sales, George Shinn sold his stake in the New Orleans Hornets to the NBA for $300 million dollars at the end of 2010, which made the league the majority owner of the club. It would be another two years before the NBA finally sold the team to a local buyer in Tom Benson, who also owned the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. Benson purchased the Hornets for $330 million dollars, and almost immediately began the process of rebranding the franchise.
Benson felt the team should have a name that better suited the region and city, and he preferred to reclaim the old “Jazz” name from Utah Jazz who were formally known as the New Orleans Jazz before moving to Salt Lake City in 1979. But there was one problem with that, the Utah Jazz weren’t interested in selling their name back and wanted to keep the name they’d had for over 30 years. By the end of the 2012 it was rumored that the team had chosen the nickname “Pelicans” in honor of Louisiana’s state bird. The New Orleans Pelicans also happened to be the name of a former minor league baseball team that played in the city from 1901 to 1957. On January 24, 2013 the Hornets officially announced that they’d be changing to the Pelicans for the following season, while also rebranding with all new team colors and logos.
The name change opened up an opportunity for Charlotte, where on May 21, 2013 Michael Jordan officially applied to have the Bobcats name changed back to the Charlotte Hornets. A year later, and after approval by the league, the Bobcats officially became the Hornets on May 20, 2014. The change allowed Charlotte to reclaim all of the Hornets old records, history, team colors, and branding that had been in New Orleans. This meant that for records purposes, the Charlotte Hornets franchise was now to be considered as inactive between the seasons of 2002 and 2004, while the Pelicans were now viewed as an expansion club that started in 2002. The new look Hornets brought back the old purple and teal colors, introduced updated logos, and also launched a local marketing campaign called “Buzz City” to spread the word that Charlotte Hornets were back.
So what did you guys think about George Shinn and the Hornets moving to New Orleans, and then later having the Bobcats rebrand back to the Charlotte Hornets? Let me know in the comments below!