Originally created 05/11/02

Mayor defiant, fans sad as Hornets get move approval



CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For seven seasons, Camilla Saunders has been a fixture in the upper arena at the Charlotte Coliseum, shaking noisemakers and yelling for her beloved Hornets.

On Friday, as NBA owners approved the team's move to New Orleans for next season, she could only hope her team, still alive in the NBA playoffs, will extend its season a few more weeks with a run to the NBA Finals.

"I don't think it's going to hit me again until our season is actually over," Saunders said. "I'm hoping and praying they're going all the way to the end, so Charlotte will see what it's lost."

Trailing the New Jersey Nets 2-1 in a best-of-7 Eastern Conference semifinal, the Hornets will play at least one more game - on Sunday - at the Charlotte Coliseum, their home for all 14 seasons they have existed.

NBA approval of the move had been viewed as likely for months and a near-certainty since May 2, when a league relocation committee voted unanimously to recommend the transfer.

"It was expected news," Mayor Pat McCrory said Friday. "I continue to state that in the long run, the NBA's made a bad decision, but in the long term Charlotte's made a good economic decision because we weren't going to get in a bidding war."

Guard David Wesley, who has played five seasons in Charlotte and has close ties to the community, said players now can plan for the future, even as they try to focus on playoff victories.

"There's a lot going on right now that's pretty important - not to say (the move) is not important - but we have a focus of trying to win a championship and trying to win the next game to get to that point," he said.

Guard Baron Davis said Friday's vote was a formality.

"It's been official, really," he said. "We've all known for the past week or so that we're moving, so it's not really going to change our mentality or change what we're trying to accomplish."

The 11,363 who attended Thursday's win over the Nets were a far cry from the team's glory days, when the Hornets sold out 364 straight games.

The 1988 expansion team helped put Charlotte on the national sports map, and the Hornets' distinctive teal-and-purple merchandise was among the league's top sellers.

But the team failed to hold players who were fan favorites, including Alonzo Mourning, and attendance declined. Disenchantment grew during the 1998-99 NBA lockout and a civil trial in which founding owner George Shinn was accused of sexual assault. A South Carolina jury found against Shinn's accuser in that case.

After negotiations to sell part of the team to Michael Jordan fell through in 1999, Shinn sold a minority interest to Atlanta businessman Ray Wooldridge. Put in charge of the team's effort to win approval of a new, skybox-filled arena, Wooldridge alienated civic leaders with his demands.

When an arena proposal finally was put to voters last June as part of a package of center-city projects, they rejected it soundly.

This season, attendance plummeted to a league-worst 11,286 per game.

In January, Shinn and Wooldridge applied to move the team to New Orleans. Charlotte made a late effort to save the Hornets that hinged on new ownership, but Shinn and Wooldridge refused to consider a sale.

"I wanted the Hornets to stay in Charlotte," McCrory said. " ... But the fact of the matter is we had an ownership team that made fans not want to come to ball games."

Saunders said city politicians let ego get in the way of a deal to keep the team here.

"They didn't think about how much the Hornets were doing for Charlotte and giving to Charlotte," she said.

Timeline of professional basketball in New Orleans

  • 1967: The New Orleans Buccaneers join the American Basketball Association (ABA). Players include Doug Moe and Larry Brown. Team advances to the ABA Finals in its year, losing to the Pittsburgh Pipers in seven games.
  • 1970: The Buccaneers leave New Orleans after the 1969-70 season and become the Memphis Pros.
  • 1974: New Orleans becomes an NBA expansion city when the Jazz play their first season in the Municipal Auditorium before moving into the Louisiana Superdome.
  • 1979: The New Orleans Jazz move to Salt Lake City and become the Utah Jazz.
  • 1993: The Louisiana Legislature authorizes $215 million in bonds for a sports package that includes money for what is supposed to be an $85 million, 18,000-seat arena with 64 luxury suites.
  • 1994: Top Rank of Louisiana, a business group formed by former Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz, tries to buy the Minnesota Timberwolves and move them to New Orleans.
  • 1995: Top Rank enters involuntary bankruptcy, prompting the NBA to reject the deal for the Timberwolves and keep the team in Minnesota. Hofheinz is later indicted on charges he and others spent $1.4 million to influence business deals in Louisiana, including the Timberwolves deal. He is included in a broader federal investigation of since-convicted former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.
  • 1996: Reports surface that New Orleans is trying to lure the San Antonio Spurs, whose owners have talked about the need for a new arena. New Orleans officials deny those reports.
  • 2000: The Charlotte Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers play a preseason game in the New Orleans Arena. Doug Thornton, general manager of the Arena and Superdome, gives Hornets co-owner Ray Wooldridge a tour of the arena, asking Wooldridge to keep in touch if the team doesn't stay in Charlotte.
  • February 2001: New Orleans and state officials announce they will make a pitch to lure the Vancouver Grizzlies, who have applied to move. New Orleans would become a finalist along with Memphis and Louisville, Ky.
  • March 2001: The Hornets apply to move to Memphis, but are forced to withdraw after the NBA grants the Grizzlies permission to move from Vancouver to Memphis.
  • June 5, 2001: Charlotte voters defeat a referendum to finance a new arena for the Hornets.
  • Jan. 9: Hornets owners George Shinn and Wooldridge visit New Orleans, which joins Louisville; Anaheim, Calif.; Norfolk, Va.; and St. Louis as cities trying to attract the Hornets.
  • Jan. 17: Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster announces an agreement to bring the Hornets to New Orleans, while the team files an application with the NBA to move. The team also announces season ticket commitments it needs by March 15 to cement the deal: 8,000 general seating season tickets, 2,450 club seats and 54 luxury suites.
  • March 15: Hornets owners announce they have come close enough to meeting sales targets to move the team, having sold 55 luxury suites and 8,121 season tickets.
  • March 20: NBA relocation committee visits New Orleans to study the proposed move. NBA commissioner David Stern calls the presentation among the best he's seen.
  • April 19: Foster signs a bill adding the Hornets to a tax rebate program designed to bring "quality jobs" to Louisiana that are high-paying and offer health insurance. The Hornets could get up to $3.65 million a year based on a tax credit from a percentage of the team's payroll.
  • April 30: Foster signs legislation for $10 million in improvements to New Orleans Arena. The work includes finishing luxury suites and improvements to locker rooms.
  • May 2: NBA relocation committee unanimously recommends that NBA team owners approve the Hornets' proposed move from Charlotte to New Orleans.
  • Friday: NBA owners approve Hornets' move to New Orleans.