My sister and I have an ongoing war over our father’s old purple Charlotte Hornets sweatshirt. More than once, it has changed hands illegitimately. She took it out of my laundry. I pilfered it from a closet while helping her move in college. She discretely slid it off the back seat of my car and into her bag soon thereafter. It’s a reminder of good times with fun teams. As we grew, that sweatshirt became the only piece of Hornets paraphernalia our family owned that was still wearable. The rest was too faded or tattered to save. A Muggsy Bogues shirt I wore when he and I were the same size would be a belly shirt today.
Similarly, the Hugo-backed Starter jackets that dotted North Carolina playgrounds 20 years ago don’t fit their former owners anymore. Those Hornets may have managed to break through the state’s college basketball obsession, but that adoration made their departure all the more heartbreaking. And even if time could have healed that wound, the Charlotte Bobcats definitely didn’t let it. For the Charlotte fan, the love of a lifetime walked out the door in 2002 and only now wants back in the picture. The Hornets want to win back that love and trust. They’ll have to win games to do it.
Last year, when Michael Jordan formally announced that Charlotte would soon shrug off the Bobcats name and reclaim the Hornets moniker, it was a cause for celebration. In the decade prior, wearing old Hornets gear had been either an anti-"Bobcats" act of defiance or an attempt at vintage chic. Overnight, it became a victory sign.
Celebrations had been few and far between in the intervening years of Charlotte basketball. With rare exception, fans had a difficult time feeling as if watching the Bobcats was anything other than watching the ersatz Hornets. Our team, with a name taken from the Revolutionary War, was replaced by one that would have been merely boring if it didn’t happen to be a narcissistic expression by then-owner Bob Johnson. The Bobcats’ best effort at local heritage, the NASCAR-themed checkered flag jerseys they briefly wore, was an obvious and doomed attempt by interlopers to pass as native. Even when they failed to make the playoffs, the Hornets grabbed national attention because players like Alonzo Mourning, Larry Johnson, and Baron Davis made them cool. That validation mattered to fans, and it was terribly missed when the Bobcats became the target of the basketball world’s jokes.
Now, the franchise would like the Hornets renaming to erase the bad times and poor decisions. They want the pandering NASCAR jerseys and Bob Johnson embarrassments eradicated from memory. Rightfully, they want everyone to forget the 7-59 season forever. Even mascot Rufus Lynx, for some stretches of time the only popular member of the Bobcats' organization, is being forced into retirement now that Hugo’s back in town.
But even if they would rather forget, the fans remember. New old uniforms can only do so much. Despite the promising moves made by general manager Rich Cho, coach Steve Clifford’s revelatory impact on the team’s defense and the most recent playoff berth, the doubts and worries that plagued yesterday’s Bobcats still exist for today’s Hornets.
A different paint scheme won’t fix Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting motion, and it won’t change Jordan’s predilection for cronyism in hiring. There’s also worry that Jordan may expect the team’s rebranding to fully placate Charlotte’s fans. But the support that had the Hornets routinely packing the old Charlotte Coliseum in the ‘90s must be earned. While the Bobcats started their end of the bargain by recently putting together a praiseworthy 43-39 season, the franchise still has a long way to go.
We may see how much the Hornets name matters if things aren’t as rosy next season. The draft and free agency may change the outlook, but right now it is not unreasonable to believe the Charlotte Hornets won’t match the Bobcats’ current win total. Though Bobcats players missed more games to injuries than all but seven teams in 2013-14, Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson each kept their absences in the single digits; more severe injuries to either would be catastrophic.
Next season, if the rest of the Eastern Conference rises from its near nadir and Charlotte gets leapfrogged by two or three teams, the momentum may erode. Fans may root for the laundry, but the laundry won’t keep them rooting if the team plays poorly. Old colors on new uniforms will stir good memories and help many decade-dormant fans give the Hornets a chance they never would have allowed the Bobcats. But Hugo, a honeycomb court and a familiar name will only bring them in. It will take good basketball to keep them around.
Welcome home, Hornets. Times were tough without you. But don’t think we’ll cut you any slack just because the town is draped in teal and purple again.
Matthew Poindexter is a writer in Durham, N.C.