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Trading in old loyalties generates buzz

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.