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Ball Don't Lie

If New Orleans becomes the ‘Pelicans,’ can the Charlotte Bobcats become the ‘Hornets’ again?

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie

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Kenny Gattison, Muggsy Bogues, Rex Chapman, Dell Curry. This team set fashion trends. (Getty Images)

Somewhat lost in the scintillating news that the New Orleans Hornets could change their nickname to the more Louisiana-appropriate "Pelicans" next season is the long-rumored possibility that the Charlotte Bobcats could re-take the "Hornets" nickname once New Orleans abandons it. There's a distinction, because the "Hornets" never stopped being the "Hornets" after moving from Charlotte to NOLA in 2002, so it isn't as if the Michael Jordan-owned Charlotte franchise would be taking on what is rightfully theirs.

And though a change in nickname may come off as a cosmetic move to some, there is a cost. Rumored to be around $3 million, as the team takes to completely overhauling its appearance and nickname for the second straight season (assuming Charlotte is allowed to become the Hornets in time for the 2013-14 season). That's not an insignificant number for any team; much less a group in Charlotte that continues to struggle at the gate despite much improved play, and has been in cost-cutting mode since making its lone postseason appearance in 2010.

Would the move be worth the payoff? The Charlotte Observer's Rick Bonnell has been writing about NBA basketball in Charlotte since the Hornets were buzzing, and he chimes in with a well-sourced feature on the possible switch. From Bonnell:

"This was one of the first teams to go with a designer — Alexander Julian. It was a departure from the standard look of NBA uniforms," said [Joe] Favorito, who formerly worked in media relations with the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers [and is now a professor of advanced sports marketing at Columbia University]. "They introduced something that really caught on, both in Charlotte and around the country."

It's still hot too. The NBA still sells Charlotte Hornets gear, which has become something of a fashion statement among teenagers and young adults for its distinctive look.

"What was cutting edge then is retro now," Favorito said. "The Hornets playing in the Hive was probably as good a time as there's been for (NBA) basketball in the Carolinas.

"With our economy being what it is today, people tend to look back for things they remember as good times."

That's true, though it's important to remember that Charlotte's initial NBA exposure came in the midst of a recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though the finance industry-heavy Charlotte area was considered a bit of a boom town during the years leading up to the NBA handing a team to the city since the first time since the ABA's Carolina Cougars spun wins under the steely leadership of Larry Brown and Doug Moe.

And Julian is right when he points out that what could have been another anonymous NBA expansion team out of a small market really turned sports on its ear, fashion-wise.

For (terrible) years after the Hornets became a hit teams in both basketball and baseball got into the habit of including teals and pinstripes on their uniforms, while franchises from all sports wholeheartedly embraced a teal revolution that's only hope is to be appreciated in retro light.

Just as we enjoy the thought of the current Hornets switching out to a "Pelicans" nickname because of the area's love for that imagery being used to represent the team and the city, we're well behind Charlotte re-grabbing the "Hornets" name for ways that go well beyond a kick in the teal revenue-wise.

A good portion of NBA fans already know that the team was named as such initially as a tribute to the area once described by flustered British General Charles Cornwallis as "a veritable hornet's nest of rebellion," as he tried to establish English order in the colonies during Revolutionary War times. Bonnell reminds us that the city was also home to a much-loved minor-league baseball team from 1901 to 1973 that was named the Charlotte Hornets as well. The name is part of the city.

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Charlotte's well-received current uniforms (Getty Images)

Former owner Robert "Bob" Johnson, is perhaps less so. We kind of dug Johnson slyly naming his expansion team after himself when the Bobcats started getting their expansion act in order in the wake of the Hornets' move to New Orleans; but Johnson was not careful in his planning with the team, mixing win-now principals and skinflint practices before selling to Michael Jordan in only the team's sixth season. Jordan, in making the word "Cats" most prominent on his team's uniforms and potentially embracing the Hornets nickname, appears to want to forgo the entire Bob Johnson era — even as he possibly embraces a nostalgia-tinged route in returning to the Hornets nickname.

Even if both teams hope to be just 10 months removed from playing their first exhibition games in their new uniforms, there still is quite a bit of work to go.

The NBA hasn't signed off on a name change since the 1997-98 season, when the Washington Bullets changed to the Washington Wizards. And even then, that move was embraced because the team was moving into a new arena with its new name, an easier move considering the logistics, and because owner Abe Pollin put the wheels in motion for the name change several years in advance. Not months.

Logistics, and not the price, could get in the way. David Stern wants to do all he can for his owners — right down to embracing a lockout that set the fortunes of thousands of NBA-tangential workers into a fret-filled state during the 2011 holiday months — but the speed in which the change needs to take place could be too much for him. Especially as both the Hornets and Bobcats are happily in a patient rebuilding mode. It's not likely, despite spirited play from both squads this year, that either team will be working under old names during the 2014 playoffs.

It should happen, though. New Orleans loves its "Pelicans," and there was talk all the way back in 2002 that the NBA should force then-Hornets owner George Shinn to leave the nickname behind as penance for leaving salted earth back in Charlotte as he ran to New Orleans. There aren't a lot of win-win-win three-team deals in the NBA, but this move between Charlotte, New Orleans, and the NBA's league office could serve as one of the few.

The only pause for concern is that price tag for Michael Jordan. Don't discount that.

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