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First in flight
by Pete Johnson / April 4, 2002

The Hornets have never been the most beloved team in North Carolina - having to compete with time-honored institutions such as Duke and UNC who’ve stood as the age-old torchbearers of the North Carolina’s athletic tradition; the veritable Yankees and Dodgers of the Triangle. And although there is a deep connection between the people and these college teams, the Hornets were the first professional team in North Carolina, and the first franchise to give national athletic recognition to the area. Bitter or sweet, their departure will be felt.

Game attendance and television ratings have slipped steadily since the Hornets inception, leaving many to believe the impending exodus has nothing to do with the team’s star quality or caliber of play. Ask anyone in or around Charlotte and they’ll tell you how happy they are with their team’s 38-35 season and a second place spot in the central conference. However, they will also tell you they would have been even more excited if it were not for all the extracurricular speculation going on. The move, and subsequent fan apathy seems to have nothing to do with the players or their relationship with the fans. The reason lurks somewhere closer to the front office… As always.

Owner Ray Wooldridge wants out and apparently no one is stopping him. Not the media, players, local businesses or the city of Charlotte. All the people I’ve spoken with are surprisingly dismissive, expressing an
indifference you’d likely find in a ‘good-bye’ given to distant cousin at the close of a Christmas dinner. Most Carolinians (super-fans and those in closer financial proximity to the organization excluded) seem disinterested
in anything the Hornets have to offer at this point. For the most part the seasons past and their anticlimactic conclusions have done little for the denizens of Charlotte and North Carolina at large. Now that they’re leaving,
the collective vibe feels as if most Carolinians are more inclined to make a bag lunch and send them packing down I-85 than to endure anymore conjecture.

Some say the reason for the passiveness, in many people’s opinion, is poor marketing. The average Joe isn’t attending games or tuning in because he hates the team. No, he doesn’t go or watch because their there’s no buzz—no connection to the outcome, no love. Business 101 dictates a lack of marketing is due to a low budget or desire to discontinue a product. Most people in Charlotte refuse to believe the prior, which inevitably leads to
voices speaking about corporate greed in hushed tones. And if you live around these parts you would know that local news organizations barely touch the subject, opting instead for a denial enmasse, creating a vacuum of
silence around the issue.

However unresponsive the local media may be, Charlotte fans know the NBA is about business, and at the core of a franchise’s actions are red flags all pointing to the bottom line. The simple truth is that Hornets fans were not
showing up for games, and no one wanted to build them a new stadium. What’s happened is what always happens when people can’t seem to get it together: they get divorced. The Hornets have essentially separated themselves from a 14-year suffocating love affair with the city of Charlotte for a new, more exciting partner. For management, it’s a long awaited catharsis to a situation that was bottled up, hidden by the media in a back room, chained to a wall, and fed Baby Ruths. For the city it seems to be an eviction of mediocrity no one really thought would happen, a slow death to what was once a promising union.

Charlotte is wondering how they let this happen. Like any one who feels they’ve been disposed of unjustly from a long term relationship they will first go through denial, and then partake in the requisite act of [metaphorically] eating ice cream directly from the carton. Soon followed by trolling the singles scene for solace in the arms of someone similar to their departed love (perhaps even waking up from a wild night wearing a Wizards jersey and feeling dirty about it).

In the end both sides will get what they deserve. Charlotte will still have another professional team in the Panthers to provide their identity, and Wooldridge and his boys will have a spanking new city with eager season ticket holders and a horde of new fans to dress up in their merchandise. The kinetics of Charlotte’s winter sports momentum will transfer to the Big Easy rather easily, and the Hornets fans of old will again turn their gaze to
those old proven lovers, Duke and UNC, to sate their voracious basketball needs.

Pete Johnson is a freelance writer based in North Carolina and a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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