In the midst of the worst season in NBA history, the Charlotte Bobcats had a rare opportunity to win at home against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Cats kept it close well into the fourth quarter, but in the end they just couldn’t hold on. But the loss – one of the team’s 59 that season – does not stand out in particular, except for one exchange that remains etched into my memory.
As frustrations boiled over, Bismack Biyombo told Grizzly Rudy Gay, “This is my house,” pointing toward the hardwood.
Gay shared his response with the Charlotte Observer after the game: “Who are you kidding? This is everyone’s house, who plays here.”
This statement incensed me. I didn’t care that Gay won the war of words with Biyombo. Gay’s words stung because it brought to light what everyone thought about Charlotte as an NBA destination: Time Warner Arena is essentially a neutral court that opponents can commandeer on a nightly basis to embarrass our team and our city.
Charlotte wasn’t always the laughing stock of the NBA. In fact, the Charlotte Hornets were one of the most successful small market teams in professional sports. Last year, I learned that a local group called Bring Back the Buzz sought to reclaim the Hornet’s namesake. I was ecstatic.
The Hornets boasted the NBA’s highest attendance in eight of the 14 seasons they called Charlotte home. They may have never raised a championship banner in the now-demolished Charlotte Coliseum, but the attendance banners attested to the city’s successful entry into professional sports. Riding the coattails of the Hornets’ success, the Carolina Panthers became the region’s second professional franchise with their inaugural season in 1995.
Charlotte shouted to the nation that we may be a small, Southern town masquerading as a city, but we had made it to the big stage.
Then, the NBA lockout happened, and George Shinn’s alleged sexual misconduct happened and George Shinn’s demand for a new arena happened. By the year 2000, it was clear the Hornets would relocate. Oddly enough, many of us washed our hands clean of our once beloved franchise and said, “Good riddance.”
Sometime during that acrimonious divorce between city and team Charlotte’s attitude about professional sports changed. “Maybe we don’t need to have professional sports here,” we told ourselves as we licked our wounds from Shinn’s flight to New Orleans.
The NBA had a different plan. Commissioner David Stern reflected on Charlotte’s high attendance figures and believed it was still a viable market for his league. The NBA quickly announced Charlotte would be home to an expansion team, and Bob Johnson would be its owner.
One would think that the Hornets’ ignominious departure was Charlotte sports hitting rock-bottom, but as we would soon find out, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The NBA and Johnson simply half-assed professional basketball’s return to Charlotte. They were blinded by dollars signs and couldn’t recognize that Charlotte was a scorned lover. The Hornets were our first girlfriend. We had already planned for marriage, kids and the house with the white picket fence.
Well, she dumped us and we learned an important fact of life: No relationships, no matter how special, are permanent.
How a businessmen as savvy as Bob Johnson failed to take the city’s pulse is baffling. He mistakenly thought that by bringing basketball back that the city would grovel at his feet. Not so fast my friend. We learned about heartbreak, and our expectations for the courtship of our next relationship were high. A few free t-shirts and smiles at press conferences would not suffice this time.
His brand, the Bobcats, never caught on in Charlotte, and the product on the floor wasn’t worth the price of admission.
The tables had turned, and now Johnson was the scorned lover. He sold the team in 2010 and bashed Charlotte in a post-breakup interview. He said, “Charlotte is a very, how would I call it, close-knit, arrogant, sometimes incestuous town … It’s close-knit, and if you come to this town, and you look like you’re one of those people that might break some glass … it’s going to be tough for them to relate to.”
Although I’m a firm believer in taking criticism, I believe Johnson’s perception of Charlotte shows how out-of-touch he was with city – one of the main factors contributing to his failure to woo fans.
Citing Charlotte as an “incestuous town” could not be further from the truth. Much like Atlanta, Charlotte attracts transplants from the Northeast and the entire country. After living in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Orleans, I can confidently say Charlotte is the most open place to newcomers. We don’t judge. We want you in Charlotte.
Whereas we still embrace all people in Charlotte, we no longer embrace our NBA team. Disregarding how poorly the Bobcats have played the last few years – and trust me, I understand how hard it is to forcefully remove that from your brain – they are ours.
What made us fall in love with the Hornets was regardless of how well – or poorly – they played, they belonged to Charlotte. Unlike the majority of teams, who have their franchise name stitched on the front of their jerseys, the fronts of all the Hornets uniforms proudly displayed “Charlotte.”
We are almost painfully aware of how our city is perceived by outsiders. Charlotte has all the amenities and sites of other cities, but our identity has not been cemented. Returning home every two years, I find it hard to believe that this is the city of my childhood. It’s hardly recognizable. The Charlotte that was once a small southern town masquerading as a big city has become the Charlotte of suburban conformity, and the Charlotte of urban sprawl, and most importantly, the Charlotte that still just doesn’t quite know who it is yet.
The Hornets provided us a foundation to explore that identity – whatever it might become. Their loss spelled the end of an era for Charlotte, and the Panthers and Bobcats haven’t been able to fill that void.
Some say that recapturing the Hornets’ storied past is impossible. Naysayers, who argue the support for the Hornets was an aberration, have never been able to riddle me this: how did Charlotte sustain such a strong passion for the Hornets for all those years? It extended far beyond the novelty of the city having its first professional sports team, and we never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. Most importantly, it extended beyond an identity crisis. That passion lasted because the Hornets franchise became a part of who we are.
It’s about our mascot Hugo, named after the hurricane that wrecked our state in 1989. It’s about the Hornet greats: LJ, Zo, Muggsy and Dell, who embraced us with open arms. It’s about the Teal and Purple. It’s about Lord Cornwallis, who called Charlotte “a veritable nest of hornets” during the Revolutionary War. That history and that pride can never be taken from us. That’s our identity.
There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss my hometown. My connection to our teams remains a source of pride and my one tangible tie to the city. I know it’s different for those of you, who still have the privilege of calling the Queen City your current home. Maybe, like Bob Johnson, I haven’t properly taken Charlotte’s pulse. Maybe, we are done with sports.
Yet, I’m not convinced that the fandom that filled the Hive every night has left the people of Charlotte. I believe it’s simply waiting to be tapped.
Michael Jordan and the Bobcats now have the golden opportunity. With the New Orleans franchise renaming themselves the Pelicans, our namesake is ripe for the picking.
We’re at a crossroads, and I’m not entitled to choose the fork we take. I’m only one person, and hell, I don’t even live in Charlotte anymore. But the city faces a choice: to fully embrace professional sports for the future, or to merely accommodate them without a care whether they stay or go.
Call me naïve. I know that professional sports teams are businesses, but Charlotte does have power to keep this franchise here forever. Some marriages do survive; they just require some hard work. I just hope we haven’t become a completely jaded lover, unable or unwilling to make a commitment after our first messy breakup.
Obviously, I have made my choice, and I hold out hope that the majority of my fellow Charlotteans will support reclaiming our namesake. But a return to the Hornets will mean nothing, if we can’t love them with the same reckless abandon that led to those attendance banners and those wounds that still haven’t healed.
Can Charlotte get burned again? Of course. But we need to take the plunge for better or for worse.