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They're Celebrating the NBA in Charlotte

February 05, 1989|HAL BOCK | Associated Press

For the NBA, opening night in the spiffy new Charlotte Coliseum last November was exceedingly upbeat.

The launching of the expansion Charlotte Hornets was conducted in a party atmosphere, the event celebrated by people in tuxedoes and the building festooned with balloons, bands, whistles, all the appropriate trimmings for the new team's debut.

And then they almost spoiled everything by playing the game.

"I couldn't wait for it to end," said Carl Scheer, vice president and general manager of the franchise.

Final score: Cleveland 133, Charlotte 93.

That's a 40-point loss in the Hornets' first game, a game in which the team was ... well, awful might be a generous description. This is not the very best way to introduce your product to its new market.

Scheer, a 20-year veteran of pro basketball with scars that go back to the ABA's Carolina Cougars, a regional franchise that hopscotched the state from Charlotte to Raleigh to Greensboro, and luggage stickers from NBA stops in Denver, Los Angeles and the Continental Basketball Association, was ready for trouble.

And then an amazing thing happened. The hometown Hornets, beaten up so badly by the unsympathetic visitors, left the court to a standing ovation from the crowd.

"That's when I knew," Scheer said, "that we had something special here."

Special, indeed.

Buried in last place in the Atlantic Division, Charlotte is nevertheless selling out the building with advance ticket sales guaranteeing that the team will lead the league in attendance.

We're not talking about some bus league here. This is the NBA, a successful operation of long standing with high profile winning teams and hotshot stars in media centers like New York and Los Angeles. You expect record crowds in Madison Square Garden and the LA Forum. You don't expect them for an expansion team that loses about three of every four games it plays.

Selling a loser usually takes time. In Charlotte it took, oh, about 48 minutes, the length of that first game. And the sale was completed under difficult circumstances because the Hornets play in an arena with a capacity of 23,500, largest in the NBA.

Truth be known, Scheer would have preferred a smaller building, something on the order of Miami Arena's less ambitious 15,000 seats. He did not have a choice, though. Charlotte's building came before the franchise, built primarily to attract the ACC tournament and, perhaps eventually, the NCAA tournament to this college basketball market. The prospect of a losing NBA team playing in front of sections of empty seats frankly frightened Scheer.

Not to worry. The town was not concerned with anything so pedestrian as wins and losses.

"This was a community yearning for a major league team," Scheer said. "It wanted that more than anything. The timing was good. The facility is beautiful. Everything was fortuitous."

Now, three months after that opening night embarrassment, Cleveland is back in town for another visit Sunday, and if you're looking for a ticket, well, you're out of luck. The game is a sellout, another one in a season that will generate an estimated $8 million profit for this franchise.

The Hornets are a box office smash and will finish their first NBA adventure with nearly 1 million in attendance, second highest in league history. Only Detroit, which drew 1,066,505 in the cavernous Silverdome last year, finished with more than the estimated 940,458 Charlotte will draw if it continues to fill the building at the current 98.1 percent of capacity.

Ask Scheer how the Hornets have done it and he shrugs.

"If I knew that, I'd bottle it," he said. "I'd love to tell you I knew this would happen but it's amazed me. I'm an optimistic guy but I never would have believed the intensity and momentum we've seen here."

The town has embraced this team of castoffs. Pint-sized Muggsy Bogues, all 5-foot-3 of him, became a folk hero. So did Kurt Rambis, with his world championship Laker rings, and Rex Chapman, the genuine blue chip first round draft choice from Kentucky.

Charlotte had the good sense to win its second home game, beating the LA Clippers which, considering the condition of that team, was no major accomplishment. Later, however, there were consecutive home court victories against Miami -- a must win situation against the league's other new franchise -- and Philadelphia. Scheer calls the win against the 76ers the turning point.

It was the kind of win that teams searching for an identity relish. It was David kayoing Goliath. It was the 96-pound weakling throwing sand in the face of the beach bully. And Charlotte went bonkers over it.

Now the Hornets are front page news, win or lose. A town that once concerned itself almost exclusively with the NASCAR races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and the Sun Belt Conference fortunes of North Carolina-Charlotte, is buzzing over the Hornets.

The franchise's original marketing strategy, suggested by the Dallas Mavericks who were the NBA's last expansion team, was to sell the stars of the league, people like Kareem and Akeem, Magic and Isiah, the headliners who would be stopping by Charlotte.

So, for ex-North Carolina star Michael Jordan's first visit to his old stomping ground with the Chicago Bulls, the Hornets prepared a poster promotion that seemed like an entirely sensible idea. Maybe not.

"We got calls complaining that we were publicizing the enemy," said Scheer, a touch of bewilderment in his voice.

Not surprisingly, Jordan needed a fistful of tickets to satisfy friends and family. He called Scheer for extras and was told he was out of luck. In Charlotte these days, there are no extra seats for the newest hit in the NBA. Even for Michael Jordan.

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