Kemba’s Gone. Can The Hornets Ever Get The Old Magic Back?

Jul 8, 2019

I’ve been thinking about buying tickets to the Charlotte Hornets’ home games with the Boston Celtics next season. But I’ve been wondering if that would be too much like looking up an old girlfriend on Facebook.

You probably know that Kemba Walker, the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer, decided to leave town and sign with Boston as a free agent. He signed with Boston for $141 million over four years. Through the arcane rules of contracts in the NBA, the Hornets could have paid him a lot more, although apparently they didn’t offer all they could have. Kemba was going to get rich no matter how you slice it.

But this isn’t so much about Kemba’s contract as it is about the Hornets – both the current team, and the weird place they hold in Charlotte’s history.

The current version of the Hornets is in NBA hell. They’re not good enough to make the playoffs and not bad enough to be in line for a top draft pick. And they’ve wasted most of the picks they did have on players who didn’t pan out. So instead they’ve signed free agents to long-term deals and watched those players fade faster than the ink on the contract. Drafting Kemba was the one great thing the team has done in the last decade. But because those other deals are weighing down the Hornets’ books, they couldn’t build a winning team around him.

Michael Jordan might still be the greatest basketball player of all time. But as an owner, he’s been a scrub.

The other problem the Hornets have is their history. When I came to Charlotte in 1989, the Hornets were about to start their second season, and they were the biggest thing to ever hit the city. They sold out a 24,000-seat arena every night. First Union Bank painted a mural of Hornets players on the side of one of their buildings. The Hornets’ purple-and-teal gear was a hit all over the country.

But then the owner George Shinn moved the team to New Orleans. Voters turned down a new arena but the city built it anyway. The Bobcats came to town and were mostly terrible. Jordan bought the team. They became the Hornets again. And they’ve continued to be stuck in the middle -- the Hornets are one of just three teams in the NBA that have never even made the conference finals.

A winning team would obviously draw more fans, although losing Kemba makes that even less likely in the short term. But winning won’t completely fill the hole. Sometimes you do want to go look up old flames on Facebook. The old Hornets were our city’s first old flame. It’s going to take a lot to bring that feeling all the way back.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.