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How Michael Jordan, Kurt Rambis and a single Hornets game ‘changed Charlotte forever’

Charlotte Hornets’ win on Dec. 23, 1988 changed the course of Charlotte’s history

Sports writer Brendan Marks takes you back to that game-winning shot in 1988 and tells the story of how it changed the Queen City.
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Sports writer Brendan Marks takes you back to that game-winning shot in 1988 and tells the story of how it changed the Queen City.

Beating Michael Jordan ... well, that’s one thing.

But beating Michael Jordan on a buzzer-beater, on national television, in his first NBA game back in his home state? In front of a rabid, sellout crowd, with this ragtag group of journeymen and past-their-prime veterans? That’s how you end up with history.

So when the Charlotte Hornets upset Jordan and the Chicago Bulls at home 30 years ago, on Dec. 23, 1988, winning 103-101 on a last-second tip-in by Kurt Rambis, that’s exactly what happened. That victory became a milestone, one with longstanding effects no one could have anticipated.

It gave birth to Hornets hysteria, but more than that, it had tangible consequences for the franchise — and for the city of Charlotte itself.

The Hornets’ 364-game sellout streak began that night, an accomplishment that proved Charlotte belonged in the conversation as a national market. That support eventually brought the NFL and the Carolina Panthers to town, too ... but it’s probably better to let the people who were there tell it themselves.

We spoke to a number of players, executives and media members who were there on the day it all began, and they are identified here by their position in 1988.

Together, they tell one of Charlotte’s great coming-of-age stories. It begins with the birth of the franchise earlier that year, and the man who himself overcame great odds just to land the region’s first professional sports team.

‘We were all trying to prove ourselves’

When Charlotte businessman George Shinn was awarded the Hornets franchise in 1987, alongside a fellow expansion team in Miami, he knew he’d face a challenge. Charlotte had never had a professional sports team at the highest level before, and given the region’s intense loyalty to ACC basketball, there was no telling how the city would respond.

There was also the issue of assembling the first roster. Charlotte and Miami participated in an expansion draft in June of 1988, taking turns selecting non-protected players from the NBA’s 28 other franchises.

Charlotte took guard Dell Curry with its first selection, and also later selected the league’s shortest player, 5-foot-3 guard Muggsy Bogues. The team then filled out its roster through a variety of free agent signings, trades, and college draft choices.

Safe to say, there was plenty of concern about what was in store for the NBA’s smallest market in its inaugural season.

GEORGE SHINN, founder and majority owner: There was a lot of negative media about selecting Charlotte first because it was a smaller market, it was this, it was that. All the negatives.

SPENCER STOLPEN, vice president: Everybody was concerned at the league level and the media level, is this is ACC country. Who cares about the NBA? The most important thing in the world is the Carolina-Duke game. In those days, it was (Mike) Krzyzewski versus Dean Smith. Those were important. Who wanted to come to something like this?

The inaugural year was obviously something that nobody could plan on. I mean, we were a bunch of people that didn’t know what the hell we were doing. I was with George in the process of getting the franchise, and I joke sometimes it was like the dog chasing the car. We caught the car and it was like, ‘Holy crap, what do we do now?’

KELLY TRIPUCKA, forward and leading scorer: How many people knew about Charlotte back then? Thirty years ago, nobody probably even knew where it was.

SAM RUSSO, assistant vice president of business: I was with the Denver Nuggets before I was with the Hornets, and I was actually a consultant to the Hornets before they hired me. I was flying back and forth from Denver, and I had been to Charlotte three times, and never gave it a thought to where it was, what part of the country.

On my fourth trip, I got the magazine out in the airplane to figure out where Charlotte really was. I had no idea where I was going.

TOM WARD, director of marketing: We had a lot of players that no one else wanted, for a large part. (Other teams) had made them available to us, so this was a second chance for them.

KURT RAMBIS, forward and top free agent signing: We were all trying to prove ourselves, that we still belonged in the league.

I knew I could still play. The Lakers offered me a three-year deal, but my playing time with the Lakers was waning, so I wanted to go somewhere where I knew I could play a lot. I just wanted to play a lot. I still thought I had a lot of game left, and I did.

TRIPUCKA: I was kind of getting a reprieve. A new start. I knew a little bit about Charlotte, I’d played there in college in the old, old Coliseum, but that was so long ago. So again, an opportunity to go down south and start fresh, but at the same time, it’s my eighth year in the league and I’m thinking, ‘What’s expansion going to be like?’ Because all I can think of is, we’re not going to win very many games.

The first time we got down there, my wife ... went to the grocery store and the guy says, ‘I’ll take your stuff.’ And she goes, ‘No you won’t!’ She thinks she’s getting robbed. (He laughs.) She thinks they’re taking it, but no no, ma’am, we’ll take it out for you. So she came home and told me this person took the stuff out to the car and put it in the car.

Hey, we’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. That was kind of when we said, ‘This could be a lot of fun.’

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5/14/93 1A MAIN 5/5/93 --George Shinn: The Hornets owner is back in the limelight as the team competes in its NBA playoffs. GARY O'BRIEN

‘We had to excite the community’

Charlotte’s new NBA franchise became the talk of the town. Even without any true star players, there was curiosity about how the city would accept and sustain a professional team — and whether they’d be any good.

The first game was a sellout, Nov. 4, at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Men showed up in tuxedos, and women wore evening gowns. Of course, there was no way to know what would come next.

ROBERT REID, shooting guard: People are coming here in limos and all, and we go out on the court and there are people in tuxedos and formals, and I said, what in the world? This is Game 1. Y’all realize we have 81 more games?

TRIPUCKA: This was an opportunity for them to shine a spotlight on Charlotte at the time, and their new franchise. Unfortunately it didn’t go well that first night and ... we lost by 40.

You don’t like getting beat, one, and you definitely don’t like getting beat by 40. Then with the fans cheering at the end of the game, my thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re cheering for the Cavaliers. This is not good. This is the worst thing that could possibly happen.’

REID: We got spanked. We got spanked, and I hadn’t gotten spanked like that since my daddy got a hold of me. And then, everything was cool because we were all rookies together and we look and we say, ‘Hey, we’re a team. We’re the Hornets. We got whipped.’

TRIPUCKA: Well then the Cavaliers left the floor, and these people are still standing up and they’re clapping. And that’s when we realized that they’re cheering for us. Wow. They’re that happy that they got to come to an NBA game? And we said, ‘This is something that we’ve got to take advantage of.’

STEVE MARTIN, play-by-play announcer: The thing that was interesting was that the crowd never left and they just stood there. There was a standing ovation for the final minute of the ball game. It’s like, it’s happened. Everything you said with the NBA, it’s happened and here we are.

MARILYNN BOWLER, special events director: Charlotte, I think we were big league before we really were. I mean, it’s kind of like a teenager who goes to his first dance and suddenly thinks he’s an adult. No you’re not, you’re still a teenager, just with a better suit on.

WARD: We knew we were going to be bad for a while because we’re an expansion team. We knew we weren’t going to be good for a loooong time, so we knew the product itself was going to be a tough sell for people, especially when you are in ACC country and you have arguably the best college basketball in the country.

It had to be a total entertainment experience, from the music to the halftimes to the entertainment to the giveaways — everything, from Day 1, we had to put all hands on deck to really break the mold from what was the traditional NBA game presentation.

STOLPEN: We were more focused on marketing than we were on basketball.

SHINN: All the things we were trying to do, with promoting our designer uniforms, our mascot (Hugo) that was designed by the Muppets organization, Jim Henson.

STOLPEN: We almost had two mascots, regular Hugo and Super Hugo. Super Hugo could compete with the (Suns’) Phoenix Gorilla, but our regular Hugo was family-friendly, kid-friendly, cuddly.

And the rest of the league was, like, laughing at us. The Knicks would say, ‘What do you mean you have a mascot? What do you mean having music during the break?’

HAROLD KAUFMAN, media relations assistant: George made a point that the name of the franchise — Charlotte — was on the front of the home and away jersey. That was very unusual, because he wanted everybody to understand that that’s where we come from and that’s who we play for.

RUSSO: The only other team up until that time that had their city on the front of their jerseys was the New York Knicks. But we put Charlotte on the front of ours.

Everybody talked about Alexander Julian designing our shirts and they put this on them, and they had pleats and they were teal and purple — everybody talks about that. But everybody leaves out the fact that we put Charlotte on the front of our jerseys.

I think that, in many ways, was another catalyst.

STOLPEN: And we had some characters. We had Muggsy Bogues, a guy who even our head coach didn’t think should be in the NBA at his size. Then about as nice a human being as you could get in Dell Curry and his family. Kurt Rambis, he was this character with the tape on his glasses … that was kind of his signature. We had Kelly Tripucka, who was kind of a showboat guy.

So a lot went into doing that. Those choices were made knowing that we had to excite the community.

‘The whole town was there to see Michael’

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Michael Jordan, now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, scored 33 points against them in December 23, 1988 game in Charlotte. The Hornets beat the Bulls 103-101 behind Kelly Tripucka’s 30 points. Jim Gund - Observer File Photo

After the season-opening 40-point loss to Cleveland, the Hornets didn’t sell out their next few games. But there was hope on the horizon, a holiday gift of sorts from the NBA. Every expansion team was mandated at least one nationally televised game, and for Charlotte, that was Dec. 23, the first night former UNC star Michael Jordan would make his return to his home state. (Jordan declined an interview request for this story through a spokesperson.)

WARD: The spark really started on Dec. 1 when we played the Philadelphia 76ers, and we won at the buzzer. Charles Barkley was called for an offensive foul, a charge, and he threw the ball on the floor and it bounced into the stands, and we won I think 109-107.

So all of a sudden, you’ve got Barkley, who’s a huge name in sports, the 76ers, a storied franchise, and we beat them at home by a bucket.

People went nuts.

MARTIN: I covered the game that night and everybody’s all jacked up, and the station I worked at had a special talk show after the game with the late Woody Durham anchoring the show, and they were promoting the Tar Heels in Charlotte (for a game), and the first three calls he took were people talking about the Hornets. And so now you get your first real indicator, after all these years of everybody being true blue and ACC and all this stuff, people are actually talking about pro basketball. And that’s when it turned in Charlotte.

And then, of course, 23 days later, the Bulls come in.

SHINN: I was always asking questions to other owners about how they did this, how they did that to get advice, and one of my strongest allies and friends during all this was Norm Sonju, who was with the Dallas Mavericks. We were talking about promoting a team and what was the best thing to do, and Norm told me, ‘George, one of the biggest problems, mistakes that most owners make, is that they spend a lot of money on the bad games.’ ...

He said, ‘What you need to do is spend your money on a good game, a star or something like that.’ And what better star than Jordan? That made sense to me, so what we decided to do was to make that an incredible event.

BOWLER: We didn’t just sort of wake up that day and go, ‘Let’s do a skit about Michael Jordan.’ This is planned weeks and weeks in advance, whoever it was coming in. Whether it was Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, anybody.

We knew that the whole area of North Carolina loved Michael Jordan, so we’re not going to pick on him exactly. But we also knew our fans would expect us to do something that’s not a normal game, because it’s Michael Jordan.

TIM KEMPTON, backup center: The whole week leading up the game, the talk was about the Bulls and Michael Jordan coming home and Tobacco Road and everything like that. They weren’t even talking about us in particular. We weren’t the story. It was Michael and the Bulls.

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Michael Jordan, now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, scored 33 points against them in December 23, 1988 game in Charlotte. The Hornets beat the Bulls 103-101 behind Kelly Tripucka’s 30 points. Jim Gund - Observer File Photo

LEONARD LAYE, Observer Hornets writer: (Michael) became a whole bunch like a deity. As a freshman (at UNC) when he hit that shot that gave Dean Smith his first national championship in that ‘82 game, people I know still have pictures up of him making that shot all these years later.

KEMPTON: Everybody expected them to just come in and roll us. In some ways, I think people in Carolina wanted it to happen.

DELL CURRY, top expansion draft pick: He was from North Carolina, so it makes sense.

TRIPUCKA: The Bulls game, oh man. That game got a lot of publicity because it was going to be on national TV, and then the Michael Bulls. …

We were certainly an underdog by a lot, but at the same time, between us and maybe more so the fans, this was a great opportunity for America to see Charlotte.

RUSSO: Having your first nationally televised game was a whole new adventure for an expansion franchise, and especially back then. The technology wasn’t like today. We had to make a lot of preparations for the telecast more than for the game itself.

KAUFMAN: Had to find some space for some extra media seating, for all the media that were being credentialed from throughout the state, where ordinarily they wouldn’t have except we were playing the Bulls and Michael Jordan.

That, in addition to the fact the game was on national television, just added to that feeling of bigger than life, more than a game.

STOLPEN: It was impossible to get a ticket. I mean, I turned down the governor of South Carolina when he first called for tickets. And then when (NBA commissioner) David Stern said he wasn’t coming, I moved to David Stern’s commissioner seats and I gave my seats to the governor.

BOWLER: Of course it was sold out God knows how long in advance. There were Tar Heel footprints going down Tryon Street. The whole town was there to see Michael.

‘The night that defined Hornets hysteria’

The morning of Dec. 23, all of Charlotte was abuzz in anticipation of that night’s game. Television stations and newspapers, especially The Observer, were all trained on Jordan’s return. And considering the game was nationally televised, it was an opportunity to show off the city.

The Observer’s morning sports page was dominated by a page-length illustration of Jordan and accompanying stories. That made sense given the occasion, but it didn’t sit well with the players.

TRIPUCKA: When you think about it even today, you’re the home team. This is our team, and they’re putting an opposing player (in the paper)? I know Mike’s from North Carolina ... but still! Come on. How does that make us feel?

It’s our own paper and you’re putting him on the cover? Who’s playing? The Hornets, come on.

CURRY: It’s a little motivational tactic, too. You’ve got people at home coming to see another guy? Yeah, all right. I know he’s the best player in the world, but all right.

REID: It really hit me like, ‘Hey, we’re going on national TV. We’re going to get to strut our stuff.’ And I knew right then that, hey, I’m not going to have to call nobody for help with Michael.

In my mind, I’ve always felt like, look, I’m not going to stop nobody from scoring, but if I can do my part, whether it be five points less or 10 points less, I’ve done my job.

WARD: Everyone gave him a standing ovation his first time in the Charlotte Coliseum.

LAYE: The standing ovation he got before the game I think irked a few of the Hornets. I know it did, actually.

TRIPUCKA: Arguably the greatest player of all time. We didn’t know it at that time, but he was pretty darn good. And being from the area, being from North Carolina, all of those things come into play, and it’s just a matter of, ‘Hey, we’re here too.’

RAMBIS: They, rightfully so, ended up opening a big lead on us, and probably in some respects played down to us after that. Kind of took their foot off the gas, and we ended up getting back in the ball game.

BOWLER: The feeling was, if we were doing well, it was because either they were playing down to us, or more often, they didn’t think they had to try because it was a given what was going to happen. They thought they’d demolish us, or they’d try to play with us like, ‘We’ll let them get close,’ and then at the end of the fourth quarter, bam bam bam, you’re out of here!

GERRY VAILLANCOURT, sports talk show host: When Michael would touch the ball when people were in the building, there was that certain buzz — ah, this is happening right here in Charlotte.

KEMPTON: You could tell that people kind of switched sides. They were like, ‘Wow, the Hornets may just beat these guys.’ In the third quarter, you could actually feel the building start switching sides, because it was definitely pro-Jordan and the Bulls to start the game. But then they kind of took ownership of their own team when they realized we had a chance and were playing so well.

LAYE: The hometown aspect of having a Charlotte team overrode pulling for Michael at that moment. He had 33 that night, and when he went to the free throw line at the end of the game — it was a tight game — you could hear the boos. Not the whole crowd, but you could hear ‘em.

Michael said the ovation before the game made it feel like home, and the boos late in the game made him feel like he was out of town.

REID: They couldn’t contain Muggsy. … Muggsy was coming down and looking one way and passing the other like Magic, and next thing you know, we walk into that fourth quarter, no one said anything, but you kind of had that look where you say, ‘Hey, we can do this.’

When it came to that last shot and I came off that pick, I was right there at the free-throw line, that’s where I had been hitting them all night, and I pulled up and took the shot. It was a little bit long.

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Kurt Rambis, #31, who hit the winning shot of the game, grabs a rebound. Michael Jordan, now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, scored 33 points against them in December 23, 1988 game in Charlotte. The Hornets beat the Bulls 103-101 behind Kelly Tripucka’s 30 points. Jim Gund - Observer File Photo

RAMBIS: The play got all busted up, and (Robert) ended up with a fairly wide open shot. And then I went up for a rebound, and Tim Kempton, he’s right there in front of me. And I remember I’ve got the ball and he’s right in my way, so I just take the ball and I just shove him in the back briefly enough to create enough space to put the ball up.

I got a pretty good look. I had a good angle, it was a shot — aside from Tim being in my way — an easy layup that I’ve been doing my entire life. I remember almost trying to get it out of my hands as fast as possible to get it up there. ...

And the ball goes through the hoop, and there’s no review or anything like that … and we end up winning the game.

BOWLER: When he hit it, there was an instant of dead silence. And when I say an instant, it was a blink — that much — and then roaring. It was so loud I don’t know how to describe it.

RUSSO: I couldn’t hear anything. It was so loud it went beyond being able to be heard.

SHINN: Oh my gosh. Oh Lord. I ‘bout wet my pants — I hate to say that, but it was just too much. When (Reid) shot it, it hit the rim and missed, and I just knew the buzzer was going to go off. I saw what happened and heard the screaming and the crowd went zonkers.

RAMBIS: I was incredibly excited individually for myself because it was probably about the only good thing I’d done in the entire ball game — it was not a good ball game for me. (He laughs.)

The Chicago Bulls were all stunned. We were all jumping up and down, they didn’t know what to do. It’s like, ‘Holy cow, how did this team just beat us? This is not supposed to happen here.’

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Michael Jordan, now the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, scored 33 points against them in December 23, 1988 game in Charlotte. The Hornets beat the Bulls 103-101 behind Kelly Tripucka’s 30 points. Jim Gund - Observer File Photo

STOLPEN: I was sitting next to Michael Jordan’s mother. To see her excitement, because she’s from Charlotte, she lived in Charlotte. As much as her son just lost, she was caught up in jumping up and down, everybody’s hugging each other.

LAYE: I was doing the side story on Jordan’s return, so I was headed to the Bulls locker room first. I didn’t talk to anyone in there but Michael, but he was great about the ovation, and the loss. …

He was the most competitive guy I’d ever been around in any sport. He was not upset, but frustrated by the loss, and then he laughed when he talked about the boos on the free throw line late in the game. It was just kind of a stunned reaction when (the Hornets) won it.

WARD: You’d think we’d won the NBA championship (laughs). That was our NBA championship that year. The Hive was alive.

KAUFMAN: I just remember Kurt Rambis and (center) Dave Hoppen, just like we’d won the Finals. … The fact that we would be in a game against the Bulls that night on a national stage, they knew how special that was for the city.

That truly was the night that we defined that Hornets hysteria began.

‘After that it just became Charlotte’

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10/18/95 10A FOR SALE? With lean budgets and tight money, the city could see a windfall by selling as asset such as the Coliseum. (UNPUBLISHED NOTES:) Charlotte Coliseum, 1988 file photo by Jeff Siner JEFF SINER

That win over the Bulls on national television changed everything for the Hornets. Overnight, anyone who hadn’t already been enamored with the team adopted the players almost like family. Without any other professional franchises around — It would be almost seven years before the Panthers played their first game — that ragtag group grew into the city’s biggest celebrities.

Dec. 23, 1988, was also the start of the franchise’s 364-game sellout streak, one of the longest in NBA history at the time.

The franchise’s rapid rise in popularity mirrored Charlotte’s. Already transitioning into one of America’s major banking hubs, Charlotte was put front and center by that Bulls game. And as both the Hornets and Charlotte soon found out, there was much more growing to do.

RUSSO: Our phones in the office started ringing that night, and they kept going until we sold out all the rest of the seats we had for the rest of the season.

At one point in time, we had to cut off sales because we didn’t want the whole building filled with season ticket holders, because you don’t get a chance to recruit new customers if you sell everything. I think originally we held back about 2,500 seats, but then at some point in time, we even cut that back and dropped it down to about 1,500.

All these people saw a tip-in at the buzzer to win the game, that’s when they started running to their phones. Cell phones weren’t around back then, so it wasn’t from the building. The people in the building weren’t calling for season tickets — it was the people that were sitting at home watching it on TV.

STOLPEN: We take credit for planning it all, planning the game the way it was, the result of the game, but a lot of it was the planets lined up perfectly for us.

The next morning, the internal analysis was, ‘How do we capitalize on it? How do we keep that momentum and electricity going?’

TRIPUCKA: They got a great taste of it on national TV, and those who weren’t at the game, got to see the game. Just think about it — if you’re sitting at home, you’re like, ‘I’ve got to go to a game here.’

WARD: You’d think there were two million people at that game based on the articles. There were nuns writing in to the Observer, priests, saying they’re praying for us — it was almost like a religious experience that game.

STOLPEN: We had 23,000 seats. The next day, there were 50,000 people who swore they were at the game. You know, everybody wanted to be part of it, and that began us being sold out every single game thereafter for the next eight years.

And you’ve got to realize, we’ve got 23,000 seats so we’re larger than any building in the league.

WARD: First time in history an expansion team had led the league in attendance. I think it was the highest attendance in the history of the NBA.

MAX MUHLEMAN, managing strategic consultant for Hornets expansion: People get excited when the Red Sox win a World Series, but they don’t get excited for three years.

SHINN: I just felt like it was a major, major turning point for our franchise. I thought it solidified that the NBA had picked us first in the expansion draft.

That was by far the most important game that we had played, not just to that point, but in the history of when I owned the Hornets. It just did so much good for the franchise. It gave us, like, overnight, national recognition, because people were talking about that game for the entire season.

BOWLER: The other teams were calling us not only for ticket sales, but just the uproar. We’d go to league meetings and we were like the King of Spain coming in there, treated like royalty.

VAILLANCOURT: Women would go out with guys they didn’t want to go out with just so they can get to the game. I had this friend of mine, he asked this woman to go out four different times, and she told him four different times, ‘No, let’s just be friends.’

So one day he sees her out and he goes up to her and he goes, ‘The Lakers are in town, I’m wondering if you’d join me?’ BOOM! She said yes in two seconds, and then never went out with him again after that (laughs). That’s how big of an impact that scene was.

LAYE: No matter how much they struggled that year, people were just almost beside themselves to have them around. They became definitely the conversation piece.

KEMPTON: (The Chicago game) made people realize how fun the experience was, and we weren’t going to just lay down. We were going to challenge teams and compete every night, even if we did lose.

KAUFMAN: The players were so engaging and they understood the responsibility that this wasn’t your ordinary circumstance, that this was introducing professional basketball to the city of Charlotte. This was, you know, providing something that nobody had ever dreamed the city of Charlotte could support and hold on to.

It was always considered a college basketball town with the Triangle, the ACC, Duke, N.C. State, Carolina, that people wouldn’t adjust or accept the NBA. But what I think we came to realize is that it was such a haven for basketball, that people loved basketball period, and now they were actually realizing that they would start to see it at the highest level.

They’re saying OK, we love the sport of basketball, but now you mean we’re gonna see the greatest athletes in the world on a regular basis? I think that was just part of the lure that brought people out.

CURRY: Every dinner that first year basically turned into an autograph session until the manager of the restaurant stopped it. Then obviously the comped meal followed it. But all the restaurants, they really liked us coming in because it was a little advertising for them. ‘Hey, we’ve got professional guys that eat here.’ Best athletes in the world, so it’s got to be good.

For our older guys, I think it gave them some life. And for me and some of the younger guys, it was like, ‘Oh, this is what it’s going to be like? We kind of like it here.’

It was great.

STOLPEN: About four months later, a season ticket holder who had eight or 10 seats filed for bankruptcy. And the trustee in the bankruptcy called us and said, ‘Can I auction off the rights to this guy’s tickets?’

I met with some people and we talked and I said, ‘Sure, you can auction them off. We’ll honor the transfer.’ Who knew what would happen?

Well, the rights to those tickets sold for $120,000. And the next day, it was like nobody wanted to give up a ticket they ever had. All of a sudden, we created an asset.

SHINN: When I was trying to get the team, one of the negatives I went through a lot of places, and particularly talking to owners, was, ‘Where’s Charlotte? Is it South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia … or where is it?’ But seems like after that, it just became Charlotte. You didn’t have to say North Carolina.

‘They were symbolic of what it became’

Thirty years have passed, but the legacy of that game lingers. The original Hornets eventually left town in an arena dispute, after the 2002 season, but not before they developed into a consistent playoff contender and set numerous NBA attendance records.

The overnight recognition Charlotte experienced because of that inaugural season, and especially the victory over the Bulls, also proved the city’s worth as a major sports market. And if not for the Hornets’ rabid success and sellout streak, there’s no telling if the NFL would have awarded the Carolina Panthers their franchise in 1993.

The legacy of that win over Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls really goes beyond basketball, encompassing underdogs, unforeseen success, and the birth of a modern city.

STOLPEN: We knew (that night) helped the brand and helped the product, but while it was taking place, we didn’t realize that it would turn into the longest sellout streak in NBA history.

Charlotte always had an ego issue. The community, you used to joke they had Atlanta envy.

Even though Charlotte is a much nicer place than Atlanta, it was like, ‘Atlanta has this, Atlanta has that.’ We were the first major league sports franchise, and because of that the Panthers came into existence. That got the attention of the people in the NFL.

Yes there was a quality guy applying for the franchise, but it was like, wait a second, you guys are selling every single game out, 23,000 seats? That’s for 41 home games and we’re worried about eight NFL games for a season?

It became important to the city’s identity.

WARD: That obviously was a key factor in the Panthers getting in there. They saw that, ‘Hey, Charlotte is killing it down there. They’re outdrawing every other NBA team.’ All of a sudden, that led to bringing the Panthers to town, so I think the success of the city as a major league market was just huge.

SHINN: It was so much good that came from all of that that it even helped the NBA. It was all because a city and the absolutely incredible, wonderful fans that we had there in Charlotte that believed in the little guy.

MUHLEMAN: If there was a cornerstone, a linchpin of the whole unbelievably long-sustained excitement and the events of the coming of the Hornets ... it was that game, if you had to pick one.

KAUFMAN: We felt like we were relevant. That was the first time I can suspect that was a real feeling in this city.

MARTIN: You could see what was happening around the league. It was like a groundswell of interest in the NBA. We just got caught up in all of it. And there were some nights, like Dec. 23, 1988, that we were able to get our little piece of the board. It set the town on its ear, and it told it that, hey, you’ve got something special. And that was a feeling that prevailed for a very long time.

RAMBIS: We go in there and we lose by 50, I don’t know if anybody’s coming back. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how it would work out, or maybe it gets delayed, because obviously as time went on they ended up getting better talents, more talented guys in there, and had tremendous success and getting into the playoffs and everything. So maybe all of that interest and the sellouts just gets delayed a few years, but it was coming.

Everything just seemed to grow organically there, and it was all headed in the right direction going from an expansion franchise.

KAUFMAN: I don’t even think for an expansion team today you could repeat that. Because all the markets that are worthy, that could support professional franchises, I think have been tapped into. So you’ll never have what Charlotte experienced. You’ll never have another first time.

KEMPTON: You knew Charlotte was going to be an upcoming town because of the banking industry and other things that go on there, but sports just have an effect that maybe puts things ahead a couple of years. And without a doubt, all of a sudden, we were the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA.

We were a national presence. We weren’t just this nice little town in the Southeast. ...

I think it changed Charlotte forever. I don’t think the Panthers would be here — they may have been here now, but they wouldn’t have come when they did if not for the success in the Charlotte area with the Hornets. ...

For the underdogs in a young growing city, they were symbolic of what it became.

TRIPUCKA: We didn’t even go downtown. We didn’t even know there was a downtown, there was nothing there. Nothing. Nothing.

So now whenever I come to town, it’s like Oz. We’re running through the poppies, and look, there’s Charlotte, there it is! (He laughs.) Great memories, but no question the fans were the reason for this. The city was the reason for this. The people were the reason for this.

That night against the Bulls was the night they put Charlotte on the map, and that’s a good thing.

There’s no better honor.

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