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Charlotte Hornets Return to the Hive

The NBA Charlotte Hornets bring back more than just "buzz." They bring back part of the city's history as well.
The Charlotte Hornets returned to their hive in the Queen City beginning in the 2014-15 season.
The Charlotte Hornets returned to their hive in the Queen City beginning in the 2014-15 season.
By Devin Young with contributions from Alex Bazin
 
On a hot summer day in 1989, with cameras rolling, Charlotteans proudly lined the streets of the city and cheered as teal-and-purple-clad Charlotte Hornets playersparaded through Uptown with confetti raining down. Some may wonder what the team did to deserve all this joy and jubilation. It was not to celebrate a championship victory. The team had just completed their inaugural NBA season, finishing with a record of 20-62. They were far from a playoff caliber team, but they were Charlotte’s home team and the fans were passionate. The Hornets were Charlotte’s first major professional sports team in fact, and the team became a source of great pride for the city that continued for many years to come.
 
The Rise of the Swarm
Charlotte was awarded the 24th NBA franchise – the Charlotte Hornets – in April 1987, to begin play in the 1988-89 season. Playing in the former Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road, the team was a runaway hit with Charlotteans, breaking NBA attendance records, for eight straight seasons with 364 consecutive sell-outs to crowds of almost 24,000 people. The team silenced critics who thought Charlotte could not support a professional sports team. The Hornets-mania did not end in Charlotte. With their unique purple-and-teal color scheme and pinstriped jerseys (a first in the NBA and a trend later adopted by many other NBA teams), the Hornets were not onlyfashionable, but they became a pop culture phenomenon. Larry Johnson, the Charlotte Hornets’ first-round pick in the 1991 NBA draft, also sported a teal Hornets jacket when he starred in the popular “Grandmama” Converse commercials. And other team stars like Muggsy Bogues and Alonzo Mourning and celebrities like rap duo Kriss Kross embraced the color scheme and made it cool for everyone else to wear.
 
But the Charlotte Hornets were more than just a name and a color scheme; they represented the soul of Charlotte. Some fans may not be aware of the historical connection, but the Hornets name represents the heritage and personality of the Queen City. In the years preceding the American Revolution, unrest and rebellion was on the rise among the colonist, especially within Charlotte, then called “Charlotte Town.” Different factions, those loyal to the British crown and those wishing to separate, were constantly at odds with each other. When a series of events led to Mecklenburg County declaring its independence from the crown a full year before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, sparks of rebellion turned into a full-on blaze. In the fall of 1780, in the closing days of the war, General  Cornwallis came to Charlotte on his way to destroy the Continental Army, but he only stayed for 10 days. The local rebellion was just too strong for him, and he later referred to Charlotte as a “hornet’s nest of rebellion,” giving rise to the symbol of the “hornet’s nest” seen all over the city today including on the badges worn by officers in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
 
After 14 seasons with many ups and downs both on and off the court, the Hornets moved to New Orleans for the 2002-03 season. The Queen City felt the sting of their departure, and the NBA opened conversations for the possibility of an expansion franchise in Charlotte.
 
The Bobcats' Lair
On Dec. 18, 2002, the NBA awarded Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), a new franchise, which was officially named the Charlotte Bobcats the following June. The Bobcats played their inaugural season  in the Charlotte Coliseum, former home of the original Charlotte Hornets, and opened the 2005-06 season at the new Charlotte Bobcats Arena (now Time Warner Cable Arena). During the Bobcats 10-year history, the team embodied much of the scrappy, fierce and tenacious characteristics the Hornets brought to the court and made two NBA playoff appearances. Notably Michael Jordan bought the team in 2010, making him the first former player to become majority owner of an NBA team. But the Bobcats name lacked the historical heritage the Hornets had, and the city longed for that connection.
 
Return to the Hive
In late 2012, it was reported that the New Orleans Hornets would change their name to the New Orleans Pelicans beginning in the 2013-14 season, opening up a possible return of the Hornets name to Charlotte. This fueled a local grassroots marketing campaign called “Bring Back the Buzz” that helped bring the team name back to Charlotte. “I grew up in Charlotte. I’m from here, and that never quit, fight-till-thelast shot mentality that went with the Hornets wherever they played is what bonded the team to the city. Knowing the history behind the name was even more reason for it to return home,” said Evan Kent, who started “Bring Back the Buzz” with his brother Scott.
 
On July 18, 2013, news broke that the beloved Hornets name was returning from the bayous back to the Queen City. Charlotte erupted with excitement and retro Hornets memorabilia sprung up all across the city. After the announcement, new ticket sales for the 2013-14 season shot up by nearly 60 percent. The majority of those sales were for a two-year season ticket plan that included the Hornets’ first season back in Charlotte. And not only was the name back, but the Hornets reclaimed the history and records of the original team from 1988 to 2002.
 
December of 2013 kicked off several key rebranding initiatives, starting with the official roll out of the new team logo and the triumphant return of the mascot, Hugo the Hornet. The team is utilizing a modified version of the original purple-and-teal color palette, with  lack, gray and light blue accents. The primary logo features a fierce-looking Hornet and the basketball court includes a honeycombshaped cell pattern, officially solidifying the return of the Hornets to their hive in Charlotte.
 
Hornets President and Chief Operating Officer Fred Whitfield says the name has brought back renewed excitement for the team and NBA basketball in the city of Charlotte. “Enthusiasm and interest are the highest they’ve been since the mid-1990s, when the Hornets were at the height of their popularity. This can be seen in ticket sales, merchandise sales, sponsorship deals and even the number of people walking around the city wearing Hornets gear on a daily basis,” Whitfield explained. “The nostalgia factor and the memories that the name brings back has brought a lot of excitement to the city. The original Hornets were like the city’s first love. They were Charlotte’s first major professional sports team. The games were more than just basketball; they were events, places to be seen. The players were larger than life. The people who were growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s are adults now and the return of the Charlotte Hornets means the return of their childhood memories.”
 
The rebellious and steadfast spirit that earlier Charlotteans possessed and many still carry are qualities that personified the original Charlotte Hornets. It’s why fans hold the team so dear to their hearts. The homecoming of the Charlotte Hornets is not just about the return of a name, it’s about a piece of history and identity being restored to the city.
 
This story was published in the November 2014 issue of Charlotte Happenings.