The Charlotte Hornets staged a storybook comeback Wednesday night. The city’s NBA team opened its season with a name, logo and color scheme that are technically new but are also a return to the iconic brand that Charlotteans called their own from 1988 to 2002. The replacement team, the Bobcats, decided to buy back the Hornets name. And Wednesday night, a sold-out arena watched the team erase a 24-point deficit to win its first game as the Hornets, 108 to 106 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
About three hours before tipoff, Matt Parlier was standing at the front of a line for Time Warner Cable Arena, wearing a faded shirt with an old-school Hornets logo.
"My dad gave it to me back in the '90s, and I'm just going to keep the tradition up and keep wearing it for him," he said.
Parlier has vivid memories of the mascot (named Hugo), the dancers (called Honey Bees) and the parade of purple and teal in the old Charlotte Coliseum.
"It's almost like our own colors in a way," he said. "The Hornets, I feel like that's our trademark team, and hopefully it will be for a long time from now."
The Hornets were Charlotte’s first major professional sports team – and the first in the Carolinas. At the Hornets original home opener in 1988, people wore tuxedos and ball gowns.
Wednesday night, fans got a taste of that nostalgia as soon as they walked in the arena.
"Sparkling cider for you?" a Honey Bee asked a fan, offering a plastic champagne glass. "It’s nonalcoholic, so you’re good."
Rebekah Hansen thought it was a fun touch.
"It's a toast to the town, a toast to the people, and a toast to the team," she said.
There was also a certain kind of t-shirt waiting for fans in every seat. Roman Davis and his wife Kim immediately put theirs on.
"Oh yeah, we’re wearing tuxedo t-shirts, which pays homage to the first night when everybody dressed up in their finest," Davis said.
He and his wife were there. They’d been married three years at the time, and they’ve been going to games ever since.
There are all kinds of stories like that. After all, the Charlotte Coliseum was always packed. From December of 1988 through November of 1997, the Hornets sold out every single home game.
Christa Beaty grew up going to those games.
"I remember it was like a really good atmosphere, and it was totally different than what it was for the Bobcats," she said.
That’s the name of Charlotte’s second NBA franchise, which took the court two seasons after Hornets owner George Shinn took his team to New Orleans. The Bobcats were never very good or popular, so when the New Orleans team changed its name to the Pelicans, the Bobcats spent more than $4 million to transition to the Hornets name and colors.
Beaty said now it feels like the team belongs here.
"Because the Bobcats never really fit the city," she said, "it's nice to have the Hornets since it's historic to our area and has a lot of meaning to it."
British General Charles Cornwallis once called Charlotte a hornets’ nest of rebellion.
Last night, the sound of hornets swarming blared on the loudspeakers, and when Hornets player Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored the team’s first points, the sold-out crowd was rocking.
But during long stretches of the game, they didn’t have much to cheer for. The Milwaukee Bucks eventually built a 24-point lead.
In the 4th quarter, the Hornets – and the crowd – came roaring back. About 20,000 people went nuts when Kemba Walker drained a three-pointer to finally tie the game with one second on the clock. The crowd danced into overtime.
As the clock ticked down in the extra period, Walker once again had the ball in his hands. He nailed a step-back jumper with five seconds left.
The Bucks missed their next shot, and the Hornets won 108-106. It was the biggest comeback in Charlotte NBA history.
After the game, Hornets coach Steve Clifford said the crowd was great.
"When I was with the Knicks and we used to play in the old Coliseum, this was one of the toughest places to play," he said. "And I think that if our team plays the way it’s capable of and we have a good year, we’re hopeful this can be an every-night thing."
As fans made their way out of the arena, 10-year-old Jawad Mohammed had a big grin. He was there with his dad.
"I would like to come to more games with him," he said.
Jawad will get his wish. His dad, Mustafa Mohammed, bought season tickets.
"It’s the first time I have ever become a season-ticket holder for any professional team, and I’m just happy to be part of the city and part of the excitement of the Hornets coming back to Charlotte," he said.
And, Mohammed said, part of a new generation of fathers and sons starting their own tradition.