Expansion teams are birthed from a pall of frathouse cruelty. One rich guy pays all the other rich guys in the cartel a big fee to construct a fresh business venture composed solely of talent the established rich guys don’t want. Just an entire roster of eighth men, decent vets with eye-watering salaries, 23-year-olds who aren’t getting a second contract. Nobody wants to coach that crew, so you employ some thrice-fired old timer or apple-cheeked obscurity to wring 20 wins out of your castoffs. You try to construct a culture from next to nothing, knowing the culture is going to be dominated by double-digit blowouts for at least a couple years, that there’s no substance to the enterprise and only the accumulation of time will provide the scaffolding for one. Your fans aren’t dedicated—what are they supposed to dedicate themselves to?—so much as intrigued. Half the reason they buy season tickets is to see the other teams. You’ve got branding, vague promise, and not much else.
Robert Johnson and his minority partners paid $300 million to found the Charlotte Bobcats in the winter of 2002. We’ve gone more than a decade with no Sonics substitute in Seattle, but for some reason the league was extraordinarily attendant to Charlotte’s famous and insatiable hunger for NBA basketball. They didn’t go eight months without their old team before being assured of a replacement. There were Hornets still sorting out their living situation in New Orleans when the Bobcats were voted into existence.
Of course they didn’t have that maligned name right at the outset. They were the TBAs until the following offseason, when the fans took a liking to the idea of the Charlotte Flight. (A WNBA-ass moniker, to be sure, but one with some regional resonance.) That got nixed due to—here we rely on Darren Rovell’s characteristically vague to the point of useless reporting—”the fact that the war against Iraq had just begun and missiles were raining down on Baghdad in mid-March.” Ownership thought people would see “Flight” and think of bomber planes or American imperialism or something? Anyway, they went with Bobcats, because the Carolina Panthers (est. 1995, named after a type of cougar that is now literally extinct) had apparently set an unbreakable precedent that pro sports teams in Charlotte should have cat names.
The first Bobcats squad that landed in 2004 offered a dazzling array of Guys: Jason Hart, Brevin Knight, Jason Kapono, Keith Bogans, Melvin Ely. Emeka Okafor would age into Guy-dom, but he’d been the not at all unreasonable second selection in that year’s draft and was pretty good immediately—15 and 11 and about the best defense you could expect from a rookie—before back injuries grounded him in his mid-20s. Gerald Wallace is remembered primarily for being the rapidly depreciating “asset” Portland moved in 2012 to acquire the pick they used to land Dame Lillard, but he was an exciting player in his younger days, a spectacular if inconsistent slasher exploring the limits of what someone could accomplish with terrifying athleticism, hustle, and the pure basketball skill of a sixth man at Marquette.
It goes without saying that this collective was terrible. (Their 18-and-64 record perfectly mirrored their cousins’ dismal 2004-05 performance in the Big Easy.) That’s what happens when Kareem Rush is getting serious run. Slightly more surprisingly, there was next to no enthusiasm for the new franchise. The 1988-born Hornets were a phenomenon, leading the league in attendance eight of the first nine seasons of their existence. The Bobcats were 28th in their inaugural year. They landed in a dilapidated market—Charlotte was a boom town with an expanding population in the late 80s and early 90s, but that growth had slowed by the time the millennium hit—soaked in resentment. When Hornets Mk. I owner George Shinn had asked for public money for an arena in 1997, the same year a local woman accused him of kidnapping and sexually assaulting her, the relationship between the franchise and its community soured. Charlotteans were mad at Shinn for trying to hit them up for cash, mad at the NBA for taking the Hornets away, and mad that their knockoff replacement team was owned by Johnson, a guy who didn’t seem to have much interest in the city itself.
And the Bobcats stunk. During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, they recorded the worst performance, by winning percentage, in league history. It took them until 2016 to win their first playoff game. And they were called the Bobcats, and when they switched back to Hornets in 2014, it felt profane. These were not squads, puttering along as miserably as they typically had, that belonged to the same hip lineage as Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning, and Glen Rice. That hasn’t changed since the teal and purple made a comeback. You may have a certain fondness for a particular iteration of the Bobcats or Nü Hornets—I’ve a weakness for the 2009-10 fellas, among them an increasingly bloated Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson at the end of his prime—but the organization is broadly a bummer, unloved and poorly run. You see Charlotte on your favorite team’s upcoming schedule and you make other plans.
Coincidentally, the Hornets aren’t involved in the NBA restart that’s beginning on Thursday night. They lost Kemba Walker last summer and have bottomed out, in more ways than one. They were dead last in attendance before the pandemic shut the league down, which is where they were when Shinn moved the old outfit to New Orleans. Expansion franchises usually feel weird and fake for a while, because they are, but eventually over time become ordinary and identifiable—something with a history, something you know. The Hornets lack that familiarity, even with 16 seasons and counting in the rearview. It’s enough to start wondering when this project is going to acquire meaning, if it’s going to. A sports team must moor itself to its city, light up a node within the league’s culture, otherwise it’s just trademarks and a color scheme, marketing myths, in-arena commands to make some noise echoing off cold plastic seats. The Charlotte Hornets, born the Bobcats, their only colorful history purchased from a franchise in New Orleans, continue to drift dimly and uneasily, far off in the distance. We’re not sure they’ll ever come close.