Last of its kind: Charlotte Coliseum to be demolished Sunday

Updated: June 1, 2007, 4:26 PM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Charlotte Coliseum helped bring a once-sleepy town into the sports mainstream. It hosted the city's first major pro sports team and was home to the Final Four and the NBA All-Star game.

The building won't reach its 19th birthday.

The Coliseum will be demolished Sunday -- five years after its lack of luxury suites and premium seating led the NBA's Hornets to leave town and two years after it was made redundant by a glitzy replacement.

Charlotte Coliseum
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe Charlotte Coliseum's lack of luxury suites and premium seating hastened the Hornets' move to New Orleans in 2002.

A facility that hosted 364 consecutive NBA sellouts, the 1994 Final Four, numerous concerts and even a speech by Mother Teresa will be reduced to rubble, making way for an office park.

"As nice as the building was, it was as someone said, the last of the propeller airplanes before the jets came," said Max Muhleman of Charlotte-based Private Sports Consulting.

Construction of the 24,000-seat arena began in 1986, with Charlotte intent on staying in the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament rotation. Plans included luxury boxes, but only eight of the high-priced suites.

The Palace of Auburn Hills in suburban Detroit opened the same year with 180 luxury suites and expensive club seats, a key difference that became a financial boon for the Pistons.

The Coliseum's deficiencies were masked for years by the Hornets' success. Before the $52 million building's completion in 1988, the NBA awarded George Shinn an expansion franchise, giving the arena a major tenant. His team lost its first game by 40 points -- and received a standing ovation.

"They were standing pretty much the entire game," former Hornet Dell Curry said. "From that point on, you knew that the city and fans were going to be behind you."

The Hornets sold out every game for seven seasons, and the "Hive" was considered one of the toughest places to play in the NBA. Perhaps its loudest moment came in 1993, when Alonzo Mourning's buzzer-beater against Boston gave the Hornets their first playoff series win.

"I made the pass to him," Curry recalled. "It was hysteria."

Charlotte hit the big time a year later when it hosted the Final Four. President Bill Clinton watched from one of those eight suites when his beloved Arkansas won the national title.

But the suburban Coliseum was becoming a dinosaur. Following The Palace's example, most NBA teams added suites or got a new arena. So did franchises in other sports, and almost all built their facilities downtown.

"It provided as much a financial edge to cities that without one, your city and your team couldn't compete," Muhleman said.

Less than nine years after the Coliseum opened, Shinn asked for a new arena. By that time, Charlotte's love affair with the Hornets was fading. Shinn let stars Mourning and Larry Johnson leave, and there was a string of player arrests. The sellout streak ended.

The Final Four didn't return because the NCAA started holding the event in domes. The city and Hornets never brokered an arena deal, and voters rejected plans for a replacement in a 2001 referendum.

A year later, the Hornets played their final game in Charlotte in front of nearly 11,000 empty seats -- in the second round of the playoffs.

After the Hornets moved to New Orleans, Charlotte struck a deal to bring in an NBA expansion team in exchange for a publicly funded downtown arena.

The Bobcats played their first season at the Coliseum, in front of thousands of empty seats with a scoreboard that always seemed to malfunction. In 2005, they moved to Charlotte Bobcats Arena, which seats a more modest 19,026 for NBA games.

The Coliseum was shuttered. Atlanta-based developer Pope & Land, which bought the arena and land from the city, will use 550 pounds of explosives Sunday morning. An office park, condos, a hotel and a park with walking and biking trails will take its place.

As a former Hornets season ticket-holder, Fred Whitfield remembers how loud the Coliseum got. As the Bobcats' president, he's hoping to recreate that. While the new arena features suites, club seats, a flashy scoreboard and fancy restaurants, you don't need earplugs.

"The energy in that building is what we're trying to get back in this building," Whitfield said. "When you would leave, the fans felt like they had won or lost. They felt they had played the game."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press