‘The Place Went Nuts’: An Oral History of the 1988 Charlotte Hornets
An oral history of the 1988 Charlotte Hornets, 30 years later
FOR EVERY GAME they won, they lost three. They had no superstars. They were short, and they were tall. They wore “baggy” shorts. They weren’t good with neckties. They were castoffs. But in 1988, the inaugural version of the Charlotte Hornets took the court anyway. The story of that season lives on, though. And it is perhaps the greatest Charlotte sports story ever told.
“WHO THE HELL IS GEORGE SHINN?”
RICK HENDRICK, owner of Hendrick Motorsports and Hendrick Automotive Group and an original investor in the Hornets: George (Shinn) backed me when I first went into the automobile business. He was a customer of mine, and then when I got my first dealership, he was an investor with me. So George and I were friends. Max (Muhleman, a sports marketing agent) was helping me in the racing business. George watched my racing operation, and he said he wanted to do something in sports. So I said, “Max, call this guy.”
FELIX SABATES, owner of yacht and car dealerships and an original investor in the team: One of my friends was the COO of First Union Bank, a gentleman by the name of John Georgius. He called me and asked if I would sit down to meet with George Shinn. I said, “Who the hell is George Shinn?”
I was already involved with professional sports in this town. I helped bring in the now-defunct World Football League. I brought professional soccer to Charlotte. Of course I was involved in racing. I met with George, and we discussed some possibilities of ownership.
GEORGE SHINN, founder and majority owner: I … tried baseball. I called Bobby Brown, who at the time was the president of the American League. I had met him before, and we had become pretty good buddies. I asked him would he let me share with him my financial worth and him tell me if I would be able to own a baseball team. That was my ultimate goal.
I even talked to (former Major League Baseball commissioner) Peter Ueberroth about trying to get a baseball team for Charlotte. Peter told me Charlotte was much too small. This was 25 years ago. It just wouldn’t work. You had too many games, and it would just be too much. You needed a much bigger market for Major League Baseball.
So after I left Ueberroth’s office, I went straight to the NBA and found out they were expanding. In other words, baseball closed the door on me. Basketball didn’t close the door. They left the door cracked. But I really had to show them some stuff. We had to sell tickets; we had to do all these things before we even had a team.
MAX MUHLEMAN, a sports marketer hired by Shinn: We went over to see (NBA commissioner) David Stern in his office in New York. We sat down on his sofa. He pulled out a big cigar and pointed it at us and said, “Why Charlotte?” I was ready for that one. What I had done was show Charlotte not as a metropolitan market but as a regional market. I felt the effective drawing area was 50 to 100 miles.
DAVID STERN, NBA commissioner: I remember that George came up (to formally apply for a franchise). He was accompanied by the governor—Governor Jim Martin—and a couple of state policemen. They were guarding the governor. And this little jumping bean named George Shinn. He was talking the talk. Honestly, I’m not sure I knew where Charlotte was when he came in.
The reality was, I was instantly impressed at the data of the market and the enthusiasm of the governor and George. From the beginning, I was a huge fan of Charlotte and a big believer in the NBA in a single-team market. The reality is that you just cannot measure a market by its size. You have to measure the available consumer dollars, the available corporate dollars, the avidity of fans, the cash-basis of where your fans will come from, and the presence or absence of other sports, which has a direct impact on suite sales, sponsorship sales.
SHINN: At one time there were 11 cities trying to get it. Charlotte was always last in the pickings. For a guy that graduated last in his high school class, I thought, I had been there before. I had been on the bottom before. Keep your faith, keep pushing, keep believing. All these things continued to motivate me.
HENDRICK: I never thought we had a chance.
THE PREACHER MAN AND HIS PULPIT
(Shinn, Hendrick, and Sabates traveled to Phoenix to present their case for Charlotte to the NBA on October 20, 1986.)
SABATES: When we got to Phoenix, they were laughing at us. It was like, “Who in the heck are these cowboys, these hillbillies from North Carolina?” It was George Shinn, Rick Hendrick, Max Muhleman, and myself.
Everybody went to a cocktail party the night before the presentation. People from Miami (one of three other cities to eventually get a team in this expansion round) were walking around sticking out their chests. Nobody would talk to us.
We went golfing the next morning before the presentation. It was funny–not even the starter could pronounce our names. It was Mr. Shine, Mr. Molahoon. They murdered our names. No one took us serious.
We went in to make the presentation to the board of trustees. I’m going to tell you, George Shinn got up and made absolutely the best speech I’ve ever heard in my life. He waited until the end, and then he said, “I have 10,000 ticket reservations for my team.” I remember Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics, he was the first one to stand up and start applauding. He came over and hugged George. It was pretty emotional.
STERN: I was in George’s column long before he knew it. I was in favor of Charlotte. He had to sell the owners. I remember he made a great presentation, because George has a little bit of the preacher man in him.
SABATES: The next morning, the front page of the newspaper said the only franchise that Charlotte is going to get has golden arches, meaning McDonald’s.
MUHLEMAN: It was a good line. In fact, I enjoyed it very much. Yeah, we’ll see. I thought we had a better story than pretty much anybody. What we were fighting was a lack of recognition.
SABATES: Two weeks later, when George called and said, “We got the franchise,” I think the most surprised person in the whole deal was George Shinn.
MUHLEMAN: I’m sitting in my house looking at the door he came to, which was at the time a rear porch. He drove up to the back and came to the door. He had a chalky look on his face. Kind of white. I said, “Oh, heck, it didn’t go well or something.” I went to the door and said, “What is it?” He said, real quiet, “David Stern just called me.”
“And he said, ‘George, this is April Fool’s Day, but this is no April Fool. You’ve been selected No. 1.’ ”
We hugged each other. Shed a few tears. One of the best moments in my sports marketing career, for sure. It was sort of incredible. And then it continued to be incredible, which you know by the reception we got.
COLORS AND A MASCOT
How Shinn convinced Alexander Julian to chip in (Hint: chopped pork)
SHINN: Alexander Julian (a famous designer from Chapel Hill) was the one who came up with the colors.
ALEXANDER JULIAN, clothing designer: I said, “Do you have any ideas of what you’d like to do?” (Shinn) said, “Yes, if you can, we’d like to use the colors that we’re putting in the new stadium that’s being built.” I said, “Well, I can try. What colors are you using?” He said teal—I said, “Well, hang on, George, teal is one of my signature colors.” Then he said Carolina blue—I said, “Yeah, cut me up and I bleed Carolina blue, because I was born and raised in Chapel Hill.” He said white. Then he said pink. I said, “pink, uh, OK. Well, you know, all I can do is try. Send me the colors.”
Teal and purple were my signature colors. They were the colors my kids, who were young at the time, thought that I invented. There are people in the fashion industry who still think I get a royalty anytime somebody uses teal and purple. I wish it was so.
So he sent me the colors. What he was calling teal was actually green, more of what I could call mallard, a forest green. My teal, my signature teal was much more blue, it’s a blue-green.
I’m a great fan of Thelonious Monk. First of all, he was a Tar Heel. Secondly, he made his own notes up. He would hit two keys at once to play a note that didn’t exist on the piano. That’s what teal does to me. It’s a blue and a green combined. The reason I used it for fashion, along with purple, is it looks good on everybody. All skin colors look great in teal or in purple. There’s a wide range of skin colors in the NBA. It enhances everybody at the same time.
When I found out he was talking about green, I put my foot down. I said, “I know your architects have chosen this for your stadium. But your uniforms are not going to be that color. They’re going to be my teal.”
He said fine.
SHINN: He wanted to know how much he was going to be paid. This is really clever. I said, “I’m not going to pay you anything.” I said, “You’re going to have the privilege of doing this for Charlotte’s first major league sports franchise.” He agreed to do it, but he wanted me to send 10 pounds of North Carolina barbecue to him every month for the next couple years.
JULIAN: George said, in his country accent, “Can I afford you?” I said, “George, I would be honored to design the uniforms for free. But if you sell copies of them, then I would like my standard 5 percent royalty.” He got his face all screwed up. He said, “I don’t think I can do that.” I said, “It sounds fair, what’s wrong with that?” I didn’t know that it’s all shared revenue (in the NBA).
I could have gotten at least six figures from George. But—and this sounds terrible to say—I really didn’t need the money in those days. I had this idea: What good is money if you can’t buy barbecue? I call it Carolina caviar. … I said, “I’ll give you ownership of the design for five pounds of Carolina barbecue a month.”…
A (writer) asked me to sum up the whole experience. I said, “Well, George got rich, and I got fat. I traded $10 million worth of royalties for a gut.”
SHINN: After we were rewarded the franchise, I had to come up with a team name. I decided I would get some of the bluebloods of Charlotte to help me name the team. We had a meeting to make a decision on naming the team at WBTV studios. I remember getting up and going to the restroom. When I came back, they had already made up their mind that they wanted the team to be called the Spirit.
I said, “What?”
Their attitude about it was so positive. They said, “Look, you accomplished this goal against all odds. Nobody thought you’d do it. You ended up being picked first. The spirit of this city, and your spirit, is what made this happen.”
So I reluctantly agreed, and we announced the team was the Spirit.
The next day in the news, it was the most negative thing. It just destroyed me. One sportswriter, I think it was Tom Sorensen, I’m not sure. Tom is pretty funny. He said, “What’s Shinn’s mascot going to be, Casper the Friendly Ghost?”
I thought, “My God, that’s humiliating me.” I realized it was a mistake. So I said, “OK, let’s just let the fans vote, and we’re going to see if they like the name Spirit. But we’re going to throw in some other names.” The Hornets was just the overwhelming name.
I wanted to get the best mascot, the sharpest mascot I could. I had to get somebody who could do a Hornet.
CHERYL HENSON, designer and daughter of The Muppets creator Jim Henson: I had recently completed a degree in textile design. I went to interview with Alex Julian. He said he wasn’t hiring for fabrics, but he had recently gotten involved in this project to do the uniforms for the Charlotte Hornets, and (he asked if I was) interested in doing the mascot.
I said, “Here’s my portfolio. It’s much more puppets and full-body characters.” I said, “That’s not really what I do, (but) that’s really the direction I want to go. But I know someone who does that professionally.” He said, “No, why don’t you give it a try?”
I said, “OK, I’ll give it a try.” It’s something I knew how to do. I had been doing that kind of work for The Muppets. So I built the mascot. It was great fun.
I did not design the character. The character was a graphic logo already. I put that graphic logo into a full-bodied costume. What I really liked about what I did with it was I kept the integrity of the character in the logo. The sneakers were big, the wings were big.
I loved Alex’s choice of colors. Purple and teal were really innovative at the time. I worked hard on getting those colors right. The original Charlotte Hornet had a flashing light in the tip of his tail. I’m not sure that got used all that much but that was a fun little detail.
I did, in fact, hand-sew almost all of the original. I hand-sculpted the head. I was very proud of it.
“WE’RE GOING TO PICK MUGGSY.”
SABATES: I remember sitting down with George. He goes, “Do you believe we’re going to be an NBA owner?” I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “Do you know much about basketball?” I said, “No, and neither do you, and neither does anybody else. We’ll have to bring in somebody who knows what he’s doing.” That’s when I suggested to hire Carl Scheer. I knew Carl since 1977.
Carl helped us put the organization together. We were just like Dumb and Dumber. We didn’t know what to do with anything.
CARL SCHEER, the team’s first general manager: George Shinn didn’t know anything about basketball. But he insisted on being front and center in the hiring of the coach. It’s his team, and he had that right. Almost every interview I did, he was there.
Larry Brown had Kansas in the NCAAs and won it that year. He was in Nebraska at the regionals. We went there and visited him there. That interview fell apart so fast. It was an interview he did as a favor to me. He wanted to get back in the NBA. He always looked at every opportunity.
There were some positives about it. But he knew he would lose 60 games no matter how good of a coach he was. He didn’t know if he could take it. That was the determining factor. When I asked him in front of George if he thought he could handle 60-loss seasons, he was quite candid. He said no. He didn’t think he could.
We talked to Tommy Heinsohn, who wanted to get into coaching. We didn’t think he had the right temperament. We talked to Gary Williams from Maryland, right before he went to Maryland. I thought he was very good, very knowledgeable on the fundamentals of the game. He had interesting theories about how to play it. But he was emotional. I didn’t think he could do long, 82-game schedules. He turned out to be a very good coach at Maryland.
What was interesting about (Dick) Harter was he was the best prepared I’ve ever seen a coach seeking a job in my 40-plus years in basketball. He wore his white shirt and tie and jacket. He had every principle that Shinn believed in, from the Bible to Basketball for Dummies. He had every answer to George’s questions. I wasn’t sure he was the right man for an expansion team. But in any case he was well prepared, and I was OK with that. George loved him right from the beginning.
HAROLD KAUFMAN, the team’s first public relations rep: We had the pick of everybody’s 9th through 12th guys. In that expansion draft, we picked Dell Curry, and we got Muggsy Bogues. If you can imagine, in that highly unlikely expansion draft, you have two players who last for 10 years and become a piece of your organization. It was mostly D-league caliber players.
There were two guys who made nice careers for themselves.
SHINN: Dick didn’t want us to pick Muggsy, and I did because I was selling tickets. I called (UNC coaching legend) Dean Smith and asked Dean, “Would you pick Muggsy? Give me a description of what you think of Muggsy.” He said, “Well, one thing I always told my players when we’re playing Wake Forest: ‘If you don’t see Muggsy, if he’s not in your vision, hold the ball high in the air because he’s going to take it away from you.’” To me, that was just respect. I said, “We’re going to pick Muggsy.”
SCHEER: We tried to stay young and build through the rookie draft, but it was very hard to do that. We had the 8th pick. We chose Rex Chapman from Kentucky as our first pick.
We thought he was going to be a great player. We thought he would give us the excitement that we needed. We thought Rex Chapman would grow to be an outstanding player. And he was a good player, but he just wasn’t the great player we expected him to be.
SABATES: I remember the night of the drafting party. Everybody was thinking we were going to draft a big man. I was standing there with Dell Curry, having a beer and speculating on who we were going to take.
When they announced Rex Chapman as our first draft pick, I thought Dell Curry was going to have a stroke right there. He came in thinking he was going to be the starting guard. I remember telling him, “Look, don’t worry about it.”
He said, “Why?”
I said, “George probably picked somebody because he could remember what his first name was.” He cracked up laughing, but he was real concerned. George came out and said, “Hey, kid, don’t worry about it. You’re our man.” It turned out Dell was with us for many, many years, and Chapman didn’t make it very long.
A SEASON OF FIRSTS: BIG WINS. UGLY LOSSES. AND BAD TIES
LOOKING THE PART
DAVE HOPPEN, a 6-11 center who played a total of three seasons in two stints: We were still flying commercial. The Hornets had established a rule that everybody had to have at least a sport coat and a tie. We get on our first bus, we’re going to the airport. Kurt Rambis has a sport coat on, but he doesn’t have a tie on. I don’t think the sport coat really matched the pants. I think he went out and bought one just for the occasion. He was very casual.
Coach walked up to him and said, “Kurt, I hate to do this, but you’re one of our captains. You’re going to have to be the first official fine for a clothing problem. You don’t have a tie on so I’m going to have to fine you for that.”
He says, “No, no, hold on a second, Coach.” And he rummages through his gym bag, and he pulls out this old tie that was brown on one side and blue on the other side. It was reversible. He lifted it right up to his neck and said, “Look, I have a tie.” Coach Harter just started laughing. “OK, that counts.”
TOM TOLBERT, a forward who was released in December. He returned to the team for the 1994-95 season: It was like a neoprene tie, like what you’d make wet suit material out of. He popped that bad boy on. It was black on one side and blue on the other.
I’m not much of a dresser. I hate ties and never wear ties. But I had never seen a tie like that before. I was like, “Where’d you get that, the scuba shop? That thing is incredibly horrendous. Even by my standards, it’s horrendous.” I remember Kurt telling me, “Look Tom, when it comes to fashion, if it’s free, it’s me, and I’ll take three.” And I told him, “You don’t need three of those. One’s plenty.”
MUGGSY BOGUES, a 5-3 point guard and fan favorite: I remember him having the tie in his bag, just one tie, for the whole trip, for the whole season. Whatever it was, it was black one day and white the next. It was a reversible tie. Truly, he always kept it in his bag.
KURT RAMBIS, the team’s top free-agent acquisition: It was blue on one side, gray on the other, something like that. Because it was neoprene, you could stretch it, you could wad it up and throw it in the bag. You could do anything you wanted with that thing.
A friend of mine who works for Body Glove, he made a lot of the pads that players would use to pull over their knees or neoprene ice-bag holders that had Velcro on it so you could wrap it around your knee. He was goofing around one day and made that tie.
I was known for … not getting dressed up. I did not enjoy getting dressed up. So I was like, “Oh, we have to wear ties? OK. I’ve got a tie for you, right here.”
TOLBERT: The players with the most seniority got first class. After first class was full, everybody had to do coach. They would do two players for three seats. I remember the first flight I got on. There’s Dave Hoppen, 7 feet tall, didn’t quite make the seniority cut list, so he had to go sit in the back. Even with the two for three seats, he has his knees up in his face. Here’s Muggsy Bogues, sitting in first class while Dave Hoppen is eating his knees. During the flight, Muggsy was sitting there, with his feet in the little magazine holder, sleeping. Something didn’t seem quite right about that.
KELLY TRIPUCKA, the team’s leading scorer: Nobody knew how to make reservations to get on the plane, or how the uniforms fit. We went through issues with the jockstraps in the preseason. The uniforms didn’t fit, they hung way too big, or way too small. We were a mess. We were a bunch of misfits going through this. We have to tell them how the uniforms are supposed to fit here. We’re taking our jockstraps off at halftime because they’re not washed, and they gave them to us new, and that’s a problem.
JULIAN: I have a blowup of the picture (of the unveiling of the uniform with Tripucka) in my store in Chapel Hill as well as one of the original uniforms.
All these kids today look at it. I tell them, “Guys, look at those shorts. Those shorts were considered so radically long and baggy when we introduced them—this is a true story—that Kelly and the entire team, without telling me, they hid it from me, went to my tailor in Charlotte and had all of their shorts shortened and taken in. They were afraid of being laughed at for having such long, baggy shorts.”
SCHEER: We didn’t know if the NBA would fly. There was very little NBA talk before the Hornets. So we had an education to do, to our fans and even to the local media. We were teaching and learning at the same time. We thought we were better than we were. We were that naive. …
We were the Katzenjammer kids. We were messy. We left cookies on the table. But we had some fun.
THE FIRST GAME
November 4, 1988: Cleveland Cavaliers 133, Charlotte Hornets 93
HOPPEN: Opening night, I went to get a haircut that day. The girl had no idea who I was. She’s cutting my hair. She said something about being tall. I said, “Well, make sure you do a good job. There’s going to be millions of people seeing this haircut tonight.” She said, “What are you talking about?” I told her we were playing on TV, I was with the Hornets. She about started screaming in the place.
HENDRICK: The first night, when we pulled up at the coliseum, the TV trucks were all there, it was such a buzz. And you walked in and the crowd was nuts, and we were all dressed (up). You couldn’t believe it was really going to happen. It was like the feeling I had the first time I walked onto pit road at Daytona. … I was so proud for our city.
HOPPEN: We had a pretty good idea that we were going to have a pretty good fan base there. Opening night, playing the Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland had a really good team. They had Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance and Mark Price.
We had already played them a couple times in the preseason. We had actually played them pretty well, but they weren’t always playing their best players in the preseason.
BRAD DAUGHERTY, Cleveland Cavaliers center, former UNC star: I was excited, because I’m from North Carolina. I was so excited that there was a pro basketball franchise going to be in North Carolina in Charlotte. Being able to come back and play in the inaugural game was fun. I think they had pictures of me and Kelly Tripucka on the tickets that night.
It was fun, a festive atmosphere. A lot of my friends came, and they had their Hornets garb on. They were kidding me. “Yeah, we pull for you, but we’re pulling for the Hornets tonight.” We were just laughing and carrying on.
TIM KEMPTON, a 6-10 power forward from Notre Dame: Coming out and seeing everybody in formal wear, the guys in tuxedos and the women in long dresses, it made that night so memorable.
TRIPUCKA: We were all very excited about what was going to happen. At the same time, we didn’t know what was going to happen. Great enthusiasm, certainly having a sellout, knowing how much they sold it. We were coming to a city that was more known as a college area with the ACC. You had Duke fans and North Carolina fans, N.C. State fans and whatever.
We had to do our best to get these fans interested in professional basketball. Most of the guys had a lot of pride and wanted to get off to a good start. We also had to be realists and know we’re putting together a team of guys coming from other teams and rookies, and it would be difficult to win on a consistent basis. We were playing a very good team in Cleveland.
We wanted to get off to a good start and hopefully have the type of night that would make people proud of us.
That went out the window pretty quickly.
ROBERT REID, a veteran small forward: By halftime, with the new uniforms, we were all itching all over our legs. We had to change material. Everybody was like, “Man, what’s going on here?”
SCHEER: We went from 10 points down early in the game to 40 at the end of the game. All that I was hoping for was that the clock would malfunction, let us get out of there quickly. It was my worst nightmare, the game itself.
TOLBERT: It was so bad I got in the game. It was cool. I enjoyed that day. I hit my first jump shot of my NBA career, a left wing jumper to cut it to 37. I thought we had a chance at that point.
HOPPEN: The thing that really hit us as a team was to get beat by 40 points and get a standing ovation as we’re walking off the floor.
STERN: It was wonderful to behold.
DAUGHERTY: We beat them really bad. I thought they were cheering for us because we had put on such a stellar performance kicking their behind.
BOGUES: I couldn’t believe it. We thought they were cheering for Cleveland. But as they walked off and Cleveland was no longer on the court, they were just going crazy, going bananas, cheering and yelling in their tuxedos and their gowns, letting us know how they appreciate us.
TRIPUCKA: With the clock winding down, all of a sudden the crowd starts standing up and cheering. My first thought was, “Oh, this is great, now they’re cheering for the other team because we got killed. Now they’re applauding the performance of the Cavaliers.”
Then all of a sudden Cleveland had already left the floor. That’s when we realized they were actually cheering for us. For whatever reason, losing by 40, I can’t say they had a great time, but I guess they did in some sort. They were proud to now call us their team. I tell you what, from that moment on, after getting that kind of reception, after getting blown out by 40, from that moment on, we realized that this could be something.
RAMBIS: I was a little embarrassed at the end of the ball game, obviously getting blown out like that. That did not set well for me. I came from the Lakers, where we won championships. That was my mindset, how I viewed everything, what you should get cheered for.
REID: We were ecstatic and happy that the fans stayed and applauded us. But let me tell you something. When we got in that locker room, the older players, Kurt Rambis, Robert Reid, Kelly Tripucka, and Earl Cureton, the ones who had been in the trenches, there was no laughing. There was no, “We did OK.” No. We took it personally.
Mr. Shinn came in there with his people to meet us. (I said), “Hey, you’ve got to get out of here. Get out. No. You don’t come in here shaking our hands. This is our job. We’ll meet you outside.” Me and Kurt stood up and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. We didn’t do nothing to have people come in and say, ‘Hey, how you doing?’” That right there set the tone for coach Harter, the assistants and the players. …
There was no begrudging the Cleveland Cavaliers. Don’t you quit on us. We’re not no wimps. It was good, hard basketball.
That let us know what was going to be expected.
TRIPUCKA: During the course of the year, I had the first point, I had the first free throw, all these firsts. They also had something with the local news, anybody who scored 40 points would get to do the weather, so I did the weather one night on the local news. I ended up doing it three times. We had the green screen. I was there with the weather guy.
The perks of scoring 40 points man! You don’t get the $100,000 raise, you get to do the weather. That’s great stuff!
November 8, 1988: Charlotte Hornets 117, Los Angeles Clippers 105
SHINN: That day, there was a big group meeting of primarily media and other folks about wanting to change the name of the coliseum. I did not want to change the name. I wanted to keep it Charlotte Coliseum. The reason is because when I was first trying to get a team, nobody knew if Charlotte was in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia.
At that meeting, while I was speaking, my left arm jerked several times, kind of uncontrolled. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I remember when I left, when I parked the car, I was just sweating. I felt like I was going to faint. Thank God I didn’t.
I laid down just for a minute, and I felt better. So I got up and went to the office. Spencer Stolpen, who worked for me, he came back to my office and said, “George, you don’t look good.” I said, “Well, I wouldn’t come back here if you’re going to tell me I don’t look good.” He said, “No, you look pale, you look sick. What’s the matter?”
I said, “nothing.” I didn’t feel a problem. I laid down on the couch and fell asleep. After he woke me up, something was wrong, and he took me to the hospital. I had had a stroke.
The next two weeks of my life are totally erased. I can’t tell you anything that happened during that time. But eventually I survived the thing.
I’ve still got that basketball that the team gave me, all the players signed it. It was our first win—I had the stroke during that day. I almost died to get our first win. It’s all hysterical. It’s like a movie script. Who would write something as crazy as everything that happened?
“THE BIRTH OF HORNETS HYSTERIA”
December 23, 1988, on national television: Charlotte Hornets 103,
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls 101
REID: What a lot of folks don’t know, that whupping (against Cleveland) is what set the tone for us to beat the Bulls. We knew the Bulls would be thinking, “If Cleveland can do it, it’s going to be easy. We just have to go in there.” You have lost your mind.
TRIPUCKA: We know who is on the other side. Michael is on the other side. He played his college basketball in the state. He’s going to have a lot of people in the crowd. But you know what? It’s funny karma that even though he still has those fans there that night, the Hornets took precedence. They were Hornets fans. They probably wanted Michael to do well, but they wanted to see the Hornets win.
For those who couldn’t be there, it gave the national TV audience a chance to see what that whole scenario was about.
KEMPTON: You have North Carolina royalty coming into the building. We were an expansion team. Everybody thought we were just going to get run over. At that time, you think it’s a little bit of a novelty. But beating the Bulls—OK, they are a legitimate NBA team. These guys are here, and we really are a big-time NBA city. That kind of gave it some legitimacy.
BOGUES: We just kept around, hung around. It came down to an opportunity where Kurt was able to tip the ball in for the win. It kind of shocked them as well as shocked everybody in the arena.
RAMBIS: We ran a play that ended up being a busted play. Someone ended up taking a shot that was short. I ended up tipping it up, it came right back off the backboard to me. One of the funny things I remember about that is, it seems like I had to push Tim Kempton out of the way to get my balance after I grabbed the rebound from the tip.
What I remember about it is it was a very frustrating game for me. I don’t think I played well at all. Finally one good thing happened at the end of the game. It just happened to be a huge basket for that game and for myself. The place went nuts. It went absolutely nuts.
KEMPTON: The absolute noise after he made that bucket, from the stands, is what I remember. That’s what was so shocking, was how loud it got right after Rambis made that bucket.
KAUFMAN: That was the birth of Hornets hysteria. That was the first sellout of 364 consecutive sellouts—in a 24,000-seat arena, in the smallest market in the league. It was more than a sports story. It was part of the popular culture to be a Hornets fan, to wear the colors. It was a cultural phenomenon. It wasn’t just a sporting event. In terms of something that transformed a city and a franchise and set it on a certain path, I think that one game did that more than anything else.
FUN TIMES—THE STORY OF MAGIC JOHNSON AND THE HORNETS SHIRT
SHINN: I’m not a basketball guy. I’m not an expert in basketball. But I was an expert in people and trying to figure out the best I could do to make the people happy. When I would go to games, and we played certain music, or we had certain entertainment, I would watch the crowd. I could tell by the way they were responding if they liked what they were watching or hearing. These are things we would continue to do, and try to give more to the fans, because we didn’t have a good basketball team.
KAUFMAN: I still have the photo on my wall in my office. George Shinn has it, too. I think it was the Lakers’ first time through, which was a big deal, with Magic (Johnson) and Kareem (Abdul Jabbar) and James Worthy, Showtime at their best. In those days, after the game, we used to interview the star of the game on the radio. We used to do ours at center court. It was done over the loudspeaker, and fans would wait after the game to watch the player.
I would be the one to go back and grab the player. Back then, we were introducing the NBA to our community. If we lost, we’d ask one of the opposing players to come out and be the star of the game show.
The Lakers came in and beat up on us. I asked Magic Johnson if he would come out and take part in “star of the game.”
Between 5,000 and 10,000 people are waiting to watch this.
We threw Magic a Hornets T-shirt. He’s sitting there, on a chair on the coliseum floor with 10,000 people watching, and he puts this shirt on. The place goes nuts. I’ve got that picture here in my office of Magic with that Hornets shirt on, smiling. It was just a cool moment, that he would see fit to amuse our home crowd and put that shirt on.
It would not work today. Back then, this was a brand new market, a brand new team. These people came for a show. They loved Magic. It wasn’t about he was the guy who just beat us. This was Magic Johnson in our city.
THE INCOMPARABLE DICK HARTER
SCHEER: Muggsy was probably our premier local hero. He was 5 foot 3. George Shinn could relate to him, as could many of the fans. He was George’s favorite. Dick Harter wanted to trade Muggsy. Every single day he would come into the office and say, “can’t win with a 5-foot-3-inch guard. We’ve got to trade him. We’ve got to trade him.”
Every day, I would say, “Dick, that’s the one guy George would put his foot down. He’s not going to trade him.”
My suggestion was forget it.
But he wouldn’t forget it.
Finally he got to me, and I said, “I’ll get Shinn, OK? You and I will sit up in this conference room, and I’ll give you one shot at him. You make your presentation, and that’s it.”
He said, “OK.”
I set the date up. George at that point was always dressed in a suit and white shirt and tie. He comes in and sits at the end of this long conference table. I’m at the other end with Harter. We actually had an echo it was such a big room.
I said, “OK. Dick, go ahead.”
I turned around, and there’s no Harter. He’s on his hands and knees, with his nose up on the conference room table, sort of looking over it. And he goes, “This is what Muggsy sees when he’s playing defense! This is what Muggsy sees!” He’s got his eyes just over the top of the conference table, and he’s on his hands and knees.
I look down at George, and George is not laughing. I’m about ready to bust. Here we are in a meeting to talk about a player, and he’s on his hands and his knees, with his nose on the table.
When that was over, I said, “Dick, that’s the most creative presentation I ever saw. Too bad you’ll probably be fired.”
SHINN: We had a boardroom outside my office. Dick said, “Come here, George. Stand up. Stand in front of me.” He got down on his knees in front of me. He said, “This is the way Muggsy is going to be out on the court.” He held his hands up.
I remember telling Dick, “Look, he sells tickets because he’s short. And he’s so fast and quick. We’re going to keep the guy. It’s that simple.” I was impressed with Dick and what he was trying to do. …
I was going somewhere to speak in the Gastonia area. I remember getting lost. This was pre-cell phone, so I couldn’t call somebody. So I stopped at a convenience store. I walked in, and I said, “Look, I’m lost, I’m looking for this particular place, can you tell me how to get there?”
This girl who worked at the convenience store, she looked at me and said, “I know who you are.” I said, “You do?” She said, “Yes, I do.” I said, “Who am I?” I swear to God, she said, “Muggsy Bogues.”
I thought I would cry. I said, “God bless you.” I said, “No, I’m not Muggsy. I’m about as short as Muggsy.” I told her who I was.
She said, “Oh my God, I knew that. What am I thinking?” But it was hilarious. I told that audience that. They laughed until they cried.
KAUFMAN: (Harter) was a character. Dick and I were close. I’m the PR guy; he’s the head coach. He depended on me for this and that. He used to tell me, “The PR guys in the past, on Sunday morning, would always deliver The New York Times to me.” I was 22 years old. I didn’t know any better. I said, “OK, coach, be glad to.” I used to go to a national newsstand. I’d drive it to his house and drop it off to him. We had some of our best conversations then. He’d invite me in, thank me for the paper, and we’d end up chatting.
HOPPEN: We went up to Philadelphia and played the Sixers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We upset them. It was an afternoon game, during the middle of the week. The day before, coach Harter had come on the bus. We were going to the arena to have our shootaround. We made a stop at the Philadelphia Art Museum, where Rocky ran up the steps. He made us all get out.
REID: We stopped, and we looked at it. Everybody goes (hums the Rocky theme), and then he opens the bus door, everybody goes running out of there like it’s the first day of school, running up the steps to see who would be the first one there. That was something else.
HOPPEN: We had our Hornets warm-ups on. We all went up to the top of the steps and all took pictures with our hands up in the air. It was kind of goofy. But he wanted to get it in our minds that we were champions.
We all had big 8-by-10s made. We went out the next day and upset Philadelphia. I remember coach Harter getting on the bus and saying, “Beer’s on me at the hotel bar.”
He was so happy. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him so happy.
EARL CURETON, a veteran center: (Harter) gave a halftime speech in the locker room. He just kind of broke down each player and what they needed to make themselves better. We laughed at it forever, some of the things he said. Dick could be pretty hard on you. When it was all said and done, it was pretty funny. It was pretty constructive criticisms. …
I remember Dick Harter telling Muggsy he was too small to play in the league. He told Dell Curry he had been with three different teams in three years. He went down the line ripping guys. It was pretty funny when we looked back on it. We laughed on it four or five years later.
We had a history, so he didn’t say much to me. He knew me from the Detroit days. He said something about I didn’t play with heart that particular night. He was pretty pissed off about some game we had lost.
KEMPTON: The thing I remember is how quick we picked up on it: Uh-oh here we go again, another one of Dick Harter’s rants. He started in one corner, and as soon as he turned around, that player was laughing. We came together as a group, the players against coach, here we go again, we have to put up with this again.
BOGUES: It was against the Lakers. He went off. He went around the room telling about guys, who ain’t this, who ain’t that. He got around to the last guy, he just looked at him and (gravelly voiced Harter impression) said, “Ahh, eff you.” He ran out of everything to say.
CURETON: He told Dave Hoppen somebody needed to chase him around the building with a baseball bat to make him tough. He got to Kempton, and he looked at Kempton and said, “Ahh, eff you,” and just went to the next person. That speech is one of our historical speeches that we always talk about.
KEMPTON: I think Dick was a little afraid of me. I think he thought I was one of the guys who might just get up and punch him.
TRIPUCKA: I played for Dick in Detroit. I was a big fan of Dick Harter. I miss him a lot. He was mild as a professional coach versus what he was as a college coach. That was his style. He knew he had to change a little bit. But sometimes the old Dick came out. Sometimes it was very entertaining. And sometimes it was very scary.
RAMBIS: We were all sitting in a circle. He lunged himself at me. You’ve got to throw your body at people. He was talking about defense. He got himself parallel to the floor, but he wasn’t able to hit me hard enough to knock me off balance. So he hit me and dropped straight to the floor. I’m like, I’ve never had a coach do that one before. He was trying to get us to be tougher and nastier as a ball club, which you absolutely need in this league.
BOGUES: One time he said, “You gotta get tougher. You gotta get tougher.” He rammed his shoulder up against the wall real hard, telling them how tough you’ve got to be. Right afterward, he had to wind up in the trainer’s room with ice on his shoulder.
(Editor’s note: Dick Harter died in 2012.)
THE END OF A MAGICAL (20-62) SEASON
CHARLOTTE LOVES A PARADE
TRIPUCKA: After all this is over, they want to throw us a parade like we won the championship. We’re going, “You don’t get parades when you win 20 games in an 82-game schedule. But, hey, let’s see what this is all about.”
I’m not sure we all thought this was going to fly. There was probably some hesitancy as far as what this is going to look like. Lo and behold, we’re in open-air cars, Corvettes, Mustangs, all these convertibles. My goodness, there’s thousands upon thousands and thousands of people lining the street.
We’re rock stars. We’re NBA champions. Except we won 20 games that year.
It was a lot of fun. You really had to be there. If you explain this, nobody’s going to believe you. But somewhere along the line, somebody’s got video of it, and I’m not the only one telling the story.
KEMPTON: At times you’re almost embarrassed by it, like the first game when we had to come back out after getting drilled by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was neat. You just understood how special it was for those people to have a team and call it their own. They went out of their way to make us feel special.
RAMBIS: I got it. I understood it. A little embarrassing for me. Because again, you’re looking at parades for winning a championship. I understood the whole PR campaign of it, letting the fans know we appreciate them, it’s not easy coming out to watch loss after loss after loss. I did understand why the organization would want to develop that relationship with the fans. It was the right thing to do. But there was still a part of me that was embarrassed about it.
REID: When we had that parade, and we got up on that stage, there was no mention of our record. It was, “Hey, thank you for bringing some fun and excitement to our coliseum, and to our family, this year.”
THE FIRST HORNET BABY
TRIPUCKA: I have nothing but fond memories. The year couldn’t have ended any better. It was the birth of my first son, after the season, after the parade. He became a big topic as the first Hornet baby. He was on the news. That was big. That was huge.
We were going to have the baby in Charlotte. That became news: a Hornet baby is going to be born. Sure enough, she had it on May 3, 1989. I had to go to the hospital under cloak and dagger. They put me under an assumed name (Kelly Brentwood).
They didn’t want people at the hospital to know we were there, or what hospital we were at.
SABATES: I was there. We were very close (friends). He said, “Have you ever been to a delivery room?” I said, “yeah.” He said, “I think I’m going to be scared.”
He had one of those big old cassette camera things.
TRIPUCKA: They had a big press conference after she had it, because the news had spread. They were all in this big conference room. Every station in Charlotte was there.
“IT LEGITIMIZED CHARLOTTE.”
DAUGHERTY: I remember saying to myself, “Wow, this is going to be a great ride for these guys if they ever become competitive and the fans don’t burn out on the struggles. This would be an unbelievable place to play as a player.”
The fans here were second to none. They were the best in the league, in my opinion.
I don’t remember a lot of games, because I played so many in the NBA. But that (first) game’s really vivid in my memory. I was really pulling from day one for that franchise to do well. I just knew this city would embrace any type of professional sports team. It absolutely rocked in there. Every time we came to play, the Hive shook. I thought it was the greatest place to play basketball.
MUHLEMAN: (Shinn) would not have been on the list (of potential NBA team owners in Charlotte). He’s a little guy in stature. He and Muggsy Bogues saw things eye to eye. That was part of the charm of the story, I thought. The little guy in every way. Unknown, small market compared to New York or Chicago. And small in stature, pulling off the David-and-Goliath act of the 20th century. It was fun, it was really fun to see it happen. People just went nuts over having the team.
KAUFMAN: You know how when you leave a concert sometimes and you have a ringing in your ears? That’s how you felt when you left the Charlotte Coliseum. Twenty-four thousand people from start to finish were literally screaming at the top of their lungs. We had great game presentation back then, and we incited the fans.
CURETON: Grocery store, restaurant, any place we went, they pretty much took care of us. It was first class, everywhere we went in that town.
HOPPEN: Charlotte was still a fairly small city. It wasn’t a big huge metropolis. We didn’t have any other professional teams. We were the big thing in town.
TRIPUCKA: It was the thing to do in Charlotte. If you had a choice between going to the movies and going to the theater, the opera, the symphony, whatever, it’s going to the Hornets game. It became an event. People made it a night out. It was like that every night. It was certainly a lot of fun for the players, that’s for sure.
KEMPTON: The way Charlotte has grown exponentially is unbelievable. It was a banking hub, but it was still a small southeastern city, with not a lot of growth to it yet, but you could see it coming. Every time I go back, there are still people who come up and say hello to me. …
It legitimized Charlotte. (As in), “We’re here. Look at us over in the southeast of America.” That led to the Panthers coming here. Do they put the Panthers there if the Charlotte Hornets don’t work? Who knows. It’s a stepping-stone.
It does make a tremendous amount of business and other opportunities for the city. Now you’re holding Final Fours, you have bowl games. Not only is it something fun, but it also economically gives a city and the state another avenue for revenue and for people to come and have pride in Charlotte, North Carolina.
STERN: We caught Charlotte at a relatively vulnerable time, which I never quite understood. There is a kind of validation that occurs. I remember, if you go back and look at the headline in the Observer on opening night, the first regular season game.
As I recall it, it was (a) triple-size, banner headline (“In the big time”). I always thought they had it wrong. I thought they were always a major-league city. They didn’t need our validation. We were happy to have Charlotte validate us.
HENDRICK: Everything was perfect. The timing—the city needed something like that. We had a great bunch of guys. It was a lovefest. …
Nothing means as much to people anymore. As soon as the Super Bowl’s over, it’s “What’s next?” Nothing has the content that it had back in the ’80s. The world changes so fast, something that’s real hot news today, tomorrow it’s over and three days from now nobody even remembers it. Our attention span, our love affair with an event, it’s just so quick.
I’m not talking about Charlotte. I’m talking about everywhere in the country. Everybody’s so hot and cold. …
Charlotte was a fairly unknown city. Not unknown, but it was before the banking centers, it was before the NFL, it was before all of that. It was the first opportunity to open up our city to show the rest of the world, and the United States, this is the Queen City. This is Charlotte, North Carolina, and it’s big enough to have an NBA team.
It was just a different time. People weren’t always in a hurry. … I miss those times. I miss that wholesome fun.
RAMBIS: We loved it there. It was such a great change of pace from L.A. How slow a pace it was. People were more connected, in a small-town type of environment. That was very pleasing, come from Los Angeles.
People were just extremely nice. They were very nice in general, anyway. I don’t think it had anything to do with us playing for the Hornets.
It was my understanding, at the time, we may have been a part of what was almost going to naturally transpire in the city anyway. A lot of companies were getting tax advantages to move to Charlotte. They had an awful lot of land, there was building going on, homes, golf courses.
The (city) started to have higher end restaurants. We heard talk of all these companies wanting to come down there. There was this whole development of that city, and the growth of the city. When I go back there now I don’t even recognize the place. That’s how much it’s grown since I was there. I think we hit it almost on the ground floor. …
A lot of my memories are about my two young boys at the time. We lived in a cul de sac. Nobody had fences around their homes. The people were all nice. Their doors were open, their garages were open. There were other kids in the cul de sac.
Wherever they were at lunchtime, that’s whose mom fixed lunch. They never cared about who came and grabbed whose bat and ball or anything. It was just a real cool family environment.
SHINN: It was the most gratifying time of my whole life. It was just absolutely breath-taking enjoyable.
BOGUES: Every night we had 24,000 screaming, night in and night out, regardless of a win or loss. People just wanted to get into that game, get into the building, get into the arena. It was kind of tough to get in. It was a special time.
You get recognized everywhere. You were like a rock star in Hollywood even though you were in Charlotte. It was a marvelous experience for everybody. They wanted to show their appreciation. We were trying to get to know the city, and the city was introducing itself to us. It was a match made in heaven for all of us.
Matt Crossman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte. Reach him at mattcrossman.com or follow him on Twitter at @MattCrossman_.