Trading in old loyalties generates buzz

Updated: December 15, 2004, 12:51 AM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Hornets left this basketball-crazy city two years ago in a dispute over a new stadium, leaving behind angry fans and leaders disappointed with losing the first big-time pro sports team ever based in North Carolina.

They returned to town Tuesday as first-time guests of the Charlotte Bobcats, the franchise that replaced them. The team welcomed them by letting fans exchange their once-beloved teal-and-purple Hornets merchandise for free Bobcats caps.

"I'm converted," said Jim Gist, who didn't hesitate before he tossed an old Hornets ball cap into a plastic bag. "It's time to move on."

Gist, 60, described himself as a devoted Hornets fan for many years before they moved to New Orleans two seasons ago.

"They're gone and now we have to support the new team," he said.

Fans who shared his sentiments eagerly forked over everything from Hornets T-shirts to caps -- even some old Hornets game programs and at least once trash can.

Shawn Smith, 34, of Charlotte, felt a little twinge right before he turned over an old program for a new Bobcats cap.

"We went through some withdrawal for a while," he said, "but now that is gone."

One fan, Willie Ryder, 33, of Charlotte, said he had some difficulty turning his back on the Hornets -- a team he rooted for when they were very bad and also when they became a playoff contender right before they left.

"I still like them, but a lot of their better players are hurt," he said, still wearing the Bobcats hat he received in return for an old Hornets shirt.

For many fans in Charlotte, recalling how the Hornets left town remains painful since the franchise smashed NBA attendance records despite a losing record. The team sold out an NBA record 364 straight games from 1989-97.

The city has been slow to embrace the Bobcats as they did those early Hornet teams.

After forking over $300 million for the franchise, Bobcats owner Bob Johnson has tried a number of different ideas to generate enthusiasm for the NBA's newest team, which has lost 14 of its first 19 games even after beating the Hornets 94-93 in overtime Tuesday.

"Conversion Night" is the latest brainstorm from Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television who has delighted local fans by repeatedly promising that the Bobcats will never leave like the Hornets did.

As bad as the Bobcats have been on the court, the Hornets are even worse with a dismal 1-19 record. They have the NBA's worst record and an 11-game losing streak.

Some fans got free tickets to the game by trading in old Hornets items at a local YMCA.

All of the collected Hornets items will be donated to Goodwill Industries for use in overseas distribution programs.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press