NBA Basketball in Charlotte: At a Life or Death Crossroads/A “We Beelieve” editorial by Steve Abramowski
For years, Charlotte’s basketball fans have pondered the idea of the beloved Hornets name returning to the Queen City. People have said, “wouldn’t it be cool if someday, New Orleans moved, or changed their name? Maybe we could get OUR name back!” For a while, that seemed like just a pipe dream, as Bob Johnson would never part with his “Bob”cats. However, things slowly began to change. Johnson sold his ownership of the team to the legendary Michael Jordan, then rumors came of the Hornets possibly leaving New Orleans (maybe to become the second incarnation of the Seattle SuperSonics), and then, the big nail in the “oh, it’s just speculation” coffin: Tom Benson. The longtime Saints owner recently purchased the Hornets, immediately saying in his relaxed, Delta drawl, “we want to change the name from Hornets … to something that means New Orleans and Louisiana.” If there was ever a court that would decide if Charlotte could have a crack at its historical name, just refer to the new Hornets’ owner as Judge Benson, and envision him deciding in favor of this golden opportunity as he proclaims, “Charlotte, the “Hornets” ball is now in your court!” The gavel slams the bench, the dream is alive.
The Bobcats have been very quiet in terms of the possible rebranding of their franchise. In fact, as such public discussion by one team on the assets of another is frowned upon by the NBA, you can’t entirely blame them. However, the mystery of what is going on in Michael Jordan’s head is driving Charlotte’s basketball fans crazy. Does he want the team to remain the Bobcats? Will the ABA’s Carolina Cougars name be returning? Does Michael remember the passion behind the Hornets when he would visit the old Hive as a member of the Chicago Bulls? Until a statement is made confirming any of these possibilities, the future of the franchise’s identity is unknown, and to many, in crisis. Never before in modern professional sports have we heard of a team having one name (Bobcats), branding itself on some nights under a retro name (Cougars), and being wishfully referred to by a third name (Hornets) by a solid legion of fans. If this isn’t an identity crisis, then Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde must’ve been twin brothers that pulled off one of the biggest pranks in the history of literature.
The point I want to make is a very simple one, and it is very clear to anyone who has been keeping their eyes and ears on the news of recent weeks. All restrictions that could have possibly kept the Bobcats from reclaiming the Hornets name for Charlotte are now gone. The way it stands now, the decision to rightfully return Charlotte’s name, which has history dating back to the infancy of these United States, solely rests in the hands of Michael Jordan. To Mr. Jordan, to team president Fred Whitfield, to general manager Rich Cho, and to whomever else has an influence on this decision, I strongly urge you to listen to your community. Charlotte is a passionate, caring city that will come together and support something they feel cares about and identifies with them, which is a sentiment symbolic of the relationship the Queen City shared with its beloved Hornets. From the team’s inception in 1988 and through the decade that followed, Charlotte proved it was the best city of NBA fans in the history of the league. The squad not only led the league in attendance at the old Charlotte Coliseum, the league’s largest arena at that time, but they sold out that old Hive for 364 consecutive games in a span of nine years. There were great players, a signature mascot in Hugo, unique chants, and memorable evenings that electrified the city, yet they were stolen in the most heartbreaking fashion in 2002, when disgraced owner George Shinn packed up his team for a permanent trip to the Big Easy. When the Bobcats came to town, they never brought in real impact players, they never fielded a team with a chance to win big, and they never made a successful attempt to reach the hearts of Charlotte’s lovelorn fans. Drafting of players like Emeka Okafor, Adam Morrison, and Sean May never came close to the significance of Rex Chapman, Larry Johnson, and Alonzo Mourning. The branding of the Bobcats screamed a blend of junior college (in name as well as its logo and color scheme) and narcissism, as it was clear the team was named after owner Bob Johnson. Due to the Bobcats’ record of failed experiments, distant ownership, and mediocrity on the court, the greatest disconnect in professional sports has developed between the team and its city. With the culture that buzzed around the lovable Hornets, and the culture that faintly claws onto the laughable Bobcats, there simply could not be a greater change of attitude in a city.
Teal and purple has once again emerged on the streets of Charlotte. Hornets gear from the team’s Queen City days not only dominates the apparel of the town’s current NBA tenant, but it is a best-seller all across America. You can easily find ten times the amount of Charlotte Hornets hats at Buffalo, NY’s Walden Galleria than you can Charlotte Bobcats hats at Concord Mills. Grassroots groups, such as We Beelieve and BringBackTheBuzz, have rallied the old Hornets faithful to the point where Time Warner Cable Arena has been swarmed by fans sporting Hugo, which has caught the attention of the local media, and is slowly making an impact on a national scale. With fans creating a noticeable buzz around Charlotte, and with Tom Benson’s announcement to rename the New Orleans Hornets, Metrolina’s major newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, asked the monumental question: which name do you favor for Charlotte’s NBA team? With thousands of entries, the city responded with an overwhelming support of 84 percent to return the Hornets name, whereas those who wanted to retain the Bobcats moniker only accounted for 3 percent of those who’d submitted a vote. Basically, that states for every single Charlotte fan who stands by the Bobcats name, twenty-eight want to bring back the name that is most recognizable with professional basketball in the city. Numbers didn’t lie from December 1988 to November 1997, and they certainly aren’t lying in April 2012.
In closing, I must state the most drastic point of all. Mr. Jordan, the ball is in your court. You were a hero of a generation on the basketball court, and you can be a hero now as an NBA owner. Your city, the beautiful city of Charlotte, features a sleeping giant of a fan base, one which feels disenfranchised by the decisions and actions of the owners who came before you. Mr. Jordan, you have an opportunity to take all of the wrongs, all of the heartbreak, and all of the apathy that surrounds professional basketball in this city, and crush them in your hands. You can make things right, heal our broken hearts, and return the passion for Charlotte basketball that has been dormant for many years. However, you also have the opportunity to further drive the stake into our hearts, killing our dwindling passion for the NBA in this town and driving thousands of us away forever. The Bobcats name is nearing extinction in one of two ways. If you return the Hornets brand to Charlotte, the Bobcats will be no more, but what you will see is a return of fan support, a growth of merchandise and ticket sales, and an identity that will seal your team’s security and success in Charlotte for many years to come. The general public is behind it, and these great people will support your team and bring increased revenue for you, so it is the obvious way to go in terms of business, your legacy, and the best interests of the city. If you choose to keep the Bobcats name, or choose an alternative such as the Cougars, you will see thousands of fans who are hungry for the Hornets look down upon you as if you had missed the determining final shot of a title game; one you could have very easily won. The hopes and dreams of these fans will be dead, and so will be their relationship with your team, which will eventually lose enough support and enough capital to no longer survive in the Queen City. Mr. Jordan, if you return the Hornets name to Charlotte, you will win, Charlotte will win, and our team will thrive, full of life that it has never experienced, but if you decide to turn down this golden opportunity that could seal your legacy in this town, you will lose, Charlotte will lose, and the once vibrant presence of the NBA in this town will eventually wither, decay, and die.