With change to Hornets OK’d, Charlotte chasing its past

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Muggsy Bogues, the NBA’s shortest player in history at 5-foot-3, ran the point at a frenetic speed, pestering any opposing guard who thought it prudent to dribble in his building. “Grandmama” took off the wig and elderly woman’s dress to attack the glass and the rim with a bounce and aggressiveness that made him every fan’s favorite player. Chants of “Zo” caromed around The Hive after another Alonzo Mourning block party.

They were the early ‘90s Hornets and perhaps the NBA’s most fun act outside of Michael Jordan. The Hornets were the only game in town and the only one that mattered.

The city is hoping to recapture that feeling with Thursday’s approval by the NBA Board of Governors for the Bobcats to change their name back to the Hornets — bring the buzz back to hoops in Charlotte.

Has there ever been a front office decision more popular in Charlotte?

“It was overwhelming the commitment and dedication to wanting the Hornets name back,” Jordan said at a press conference a couple months ago to announce the name change. “They wanted to see the name come back this way.”

It’s a move that makes sense for everyone involved. It’s a chance for the Bobcats to press the restart button and put the last 10 putrid years behind them. It’s a chance for the NBA to keep a brand that still resonates and merchandise that still flies off the shelves. Most importantly, though, it’s a chance for this city to reunite again around professional basketball and fully embrace this team as its own. This team is theirs and the front office listened to them for a change.

Before George Shinn became the villain, he was Superman in this city. He was from here and believed in this city. He brought NBA basketball to the city no one thought would support it and the city repaid him in full, leading the league in attendance for the first eight years in the state-of-the-art, 24,000-seat Charlotte Coliseum.

It didn’t matter that the Hornets’ record was 96-232 over their first four seasons. Every game remained a sell out.

Slowly the basketball came around, too. The Hornets scored Kendall Gill, Larry Johnson and Mourning in successive drafts, forming the league’s top young trio and a playoff berth soon followed.

The Hornets missed the playoffs the next year but bounced back with a 50-32 record and a return to the playoffs. That’s when the glimmer of Shinn started to wear off. That’s when the transition from hero to villain began.

Shinn began ruling the Hornets with the old Donald Sterling method of ownership — do it as cheaply as possible. He therefore traded Mourning, one of the best centers in the league and a fan favorite, for Glen Rice and Matt Geiger.

The trade wasn’t so bad from a basketball perspective as Rice went on to become one of the league’s best players during his time in Charlotte, but it signaled to the city that Shinn would never pay to have a consistent contender. As long as the arena continued to sell out win or lose, why should he reward their loyalty and spend unnecessarily?

Shinn’s refusal to pay market value continued the following offseason and Johnson was traded to the Knicks for Anthony Mason. Neither trade went over well. The Hornets were better on the floor, finishing with their best record in franchise history, but they bowed out early in the playoffs again. The frustration wasn’t over the product on the floor but rather the core they’d come to love -– Bogues, Gill, Johnson and Mourning — were never allowed to grow together.

A year later Shinn was accused of rape and the snowball effect was in full force. He was eventually acquitted, but his reputation was never the same. He was Charlotte’s pariah and the city wanted nothing to do with him. Attendance slouched and professional hoops continued to lose its footing.

As the interest waned, every player that came to define the franchise continued to be shipped out. Rice was traded to the Lakers, and Shinn further irritated fans by refusing to cede Michael Jordan control of basketball operations in a deal for Jordan to acquire part ownership.

Shinn would further his mission to make an entire city hate him shortly thereafter by attempting to strong arm the city into building him a new arena 13 years after it had already done so. His ultimatum goal was simple: build a new arena completely funded by taxpayers or I’m taking my team.

The city balked but would eventually acquiesce to build the Hornets a downtown arena. The deal came with a caveat though: The arena would only be built if Shinn was no longer the owner. As strongly as the city initially embraced him, they now equally rebuked him.

Shinn responded the only way he knew how: the easy way. He took his team to New Orleans in search of a city who would once again love him. Charlotte eventually got a team back but never regained their signature pinstripe uniforms or the fan support that had come to define the Hornets time in Charlotte.

Charlotte’s finally got what it desired and deserved all along: Shinn-less Hornets.