If you were a young UK Basketball fan growing up in early 1990’s there’s a good chance you shunned the traditional Lakers, Bulls & Celtics attire and sported an Orlando Magic or Charlotte Hornets jersey , thanks in part to Larry Johnson & Shaquille O’Neal. The former number one draft picks & Back to Back “Rookies Of The Year” were heavily marketed by the league and their respective shoe companies alike as the new faces of a post Dream Team NBA.
The NBA hadn’t expanded since the Dallas Mavericks entered the league in 1980, so by 1987 there was a queue of cities ready to pony up the $32m entry fee and build shiny new facilities. At the front waving his cheque book around with the promise of building the $50m Charlotte Arena was local businessman George Shinn. The growing, white collar, bible belt town with a population then under 400,000 seemed a long shot to host an NBA team despite North Carolinas rich college basketball history, but after some heavy campaigning by Shinn & Co, Charlotte were named alongside Miami, Orlando & Minnesota as the four new NBA franchises that spring. The Hornets & Heat set to begin play in the 88/89 season with the Magic & Timberwolves to follow the year after.
In the Expansion Draft the Hornets set their backcourt up for the next decade, wisely nabbing sharp shooter Dell Curry & point guard Muggsy Bogues who had starred locally at Wake Forest with their first & third picks. Five days later picking 8th in the NBA draft they passed on the likes of Dan Majerle & Rod Strickland, selecting high flying Kentucky sophomore Rex Chapman. The rest of the roster rounded out by unwanted veterans and unproven youngsters was so heavily Caucasian that locals could squint and pretend they were watching the Boston Celtics. Kurt Rambis brought his rings and wasteman look over from the Lakers, whilst a trade brought in Ben Stiller/Dodgeball lookalike Kelly Tripucka who had worn out his welcome in Detroit & Utah. Soul Glo’s Robert Reid & Tim “Dr.K” Kempton added to the cast of misfits in what promised to be a season of highs & lows for a rowdy local crowd.
An opening night 40 point loss to Cleveland, was thankfully not heavier thank to observant Cavs players pointing out the three foot short college 3 Point line prior to tip off. An area so steeped in College Basketball tradition would have a few teething problems adapting to the pro game. Yet Charlotte Arena was rocking just a few days later when they got their first win over the Clippers & positively riotous after a Christmas time buzzer beating victory over local boy MJ’s Chicago Bulls. The Hornets looked dapper in their Alexander Julian designed uniforms & the locals came out in their droves, setting a league attendance mark despite winning just 20 games. The NBA was here to stay (well, for now) in Charlotte, and the best was yet to come.