Hornets fans turn anger toward owners

From Associated Press

The petition starts innocently enough as an open letter to NBA commissioner David Stern. “We the people of Charlotte and the Carolinas want the NBA to know that we want to keep professional basketball in Charlotte,” it reads.

By the second paragraph, the bitterness between Charlotte’s basketball fans and Hornets co-owner George Shinn is made clear through a laundry list of Shinn’s actions over the years.

From his civil trial on sexual assault charges--he won although testimony exposed relationships with cheerleaders and other lurid behavior--to his unwillingness to pay top dollar to keep free agents, it’s all listed and sums up the basketball situation in Charlotte: The fans don’t hate the Hornets, just the owners.


“The legal issues Mr. Shinn has faced are great sources of irritation for many of the fans I have talked to,” said Pete Volk of Charlotte, who is circulating the petition and hopes to have 15,000 signatures to give to the NBA.

“You have to understand, this is the Bible belt and people don’t take kindly to airing your dirty laundry. ... His actions began the tarnishing of Charlotte’s good name and tuned many people out.”

The city seems on the verge of losing the team it loved unequivocally for so many years. Shinn and co-owner Ray Wooldridge have agreed to a lucrative deal to move the franchise to New Orleans and only need NBA approval to seal the deal.

The potential move--set in motion in June when voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum on a new arena--has left many wondering what happened so quickly to sour what was once one of the best NBA markets. Charlotte led the league in attendance seven straight years and sold out 364 games over 10 seasons.

“It’s a shame, quite honestly, because we’re talking about a great basketball market that from its inception and long past its honeymoon period was the best market out there,” said Mark Packer, host of Charlotte’s afternoon sports radio show.

“This is a city that understands basketball, loves basketball, but unfortunately has an ownership group who has thrown this market under the bus and turned most everyone against the team.”

There’s no doubt the situation is ugly. Callers to Packer’s show refer to the owners only as “Shinndridge,” combining Shinn and Wooldridge’s names to create a two-headed monster.

Fans have stayed away from The Hive in droves--fewer than 1,000 turned out on a snowy night earlier this month to watch the Hornets beat the Golden State Warriors--and cite their disdain for ownership as their reason for not supporting the team.

“In the two years I’ve lived in Charlotte, all it has been from ownership is threats to move,” said fan John St. Martin, who wants to buy season tickets but won’t because the team has no long-term commitment to the city.

“I can take the grief because I love the team enough to still go to games. But my friends and neighbors, they are so fed up with the owners, I can’t even give them tickets for free.”

With the level of animosity so high, and poor attendance and a lack of luxury seating in the coliseum costing the team an estimated $1 million a month in losses, it’s no wonder Shinn and Wooldridge want to leave.

The Hornets said Shinn would have no comment about the petition. Last month, he said relocating the franchise wasn’t an easy decision.

“How do you explain what something like this means? I grew up right down the road, I came from nothing, but what can I do?” Shinn, a native of nearby Kannapolis, told The Associated Press. “I don’t care how rich a person is, you can’t sustain the losses and you have to find a way to stop the bleeding.

“So I guess you just have to build yourself up mentally on the possibility that you might have to start all over again in a new place, rebuild it all over again.”

But Charlotte isn’t giving up without a fight, with many fans believing that if the NBA refuses to let the team leave, the owners will be forced to sell and the passion will return.

So Packer has organized a “Celebrate Basketball” night for Feb. 15, urging residents to make The Hive buzz once again.

The night is a tribute to a 17-year-old Indiana Pacers fan who regularly called his show mocking Hornets fans for their lack of support. Jeff Grey, dubbed “Indiana Jones Jr.” on the show, died in a car accident in November.

“I don’t want this night to have anything to do with Ray or George,” Packer said. “Leave the signs hating them at home this one night. Instead, let’s use this one night to show that this is a great basketball town and it always will be.”

The city, meanwhile, is working on its own deal for a new arena--albeit without keeping Hornets ownership abreast of the details.

Two major banks and a utility have pledged $100 million for the construction of a new arena, and the city will decide Feb. 11 if it will match the funds. Mayor Pat McCrory has admitted the plans are being presented to the NBA, not the team.

It’s his hope the NBA will view New Orleans as a quick-fix for the franchise’s financial woes and recognize Charlotte’s commitment as a long-term solution.

“We firmly believe that the city of Charlotte is still the best place for the Hornets and the facts prove that,” McCrory said. “We’ve got the corporate structure and fan base to support this team.”

The NBA has been clear on its stance that the ideal scenario is for the Hornets to stay in Charlotte with a new arena. But some think NBA ownership--only 15 of 29 owners need to approve the move--will view New Orleans’ deal as just too good to turn down.