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Volume 22 No. 19
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Closing Shot: Jump back to 1991

The Hornets were the talk of the NBA when the league last held its All-Star Game in Charlotte nearly 30 years ago. Still, minority owner Felix Sabates recalls how getting the city ready for its close-up was no slam dunk.
David Robinson (left) and Patrick Ewing battle for the opening tip as the NBA All-Star Game gets underway at Charlotte Coliseum. The East went on to win, 116-114.
Photo: nbae / getty images

It was Feb. 10, 1991, and the city of Charlotte was buzzing.

The hometown Hornets were the darling of the NBA, leading the league in attendance, and playing host to the All-Star Game that day only added to the feeling that Charlotte had finally arrived as a professional sports city.

A Charlotte Coliseum crowd of 23,530 saw the East squad beat the West team 116-114 with then-Sixers star Charles Barkley winning MVP honors.

Felix Sabates, a local entrepreneur and car dealer who owned a minority stake in the original team and who also owns a share in the current franchise, remembers the excitement around Charlotte during an All-Star week that came in only the third season of the Hornets’ existence.

“The city was in a frenzy,” Sabates said. “I remember [former NBA Commissioner] David Stern telling [former] owner George Shinn that it would be nice to get the game in Charlotte, and I thought George was going to have a heart attack. It was different in those days. We had to get local communities involved and we worked hard on securing sponsorships. But we didn’t have any skyboxes and we had a hard time getting the big money because we had no place to put them.”

With little premium seating in the arena, the Hornets improvised to create VIP areas and put hospitality tents in the arena parking lot.

“We took out seats from around the floor, we roped them off, sold them as premium seats and people were excited to get them,” Sabates said. “We had parties in the parking lot all week. I never knew I had so many friends.”

No one knew it at the time, but Chicago Bulls star and local hero Michael Jordan, who scored 26 points for the East that night, would bring the All-Star Game back to town as the Hornets’ owner nearly 30 years later.

Nor could anyone have predicted the amount of drama that would occur in the intervening decades. Charlotte lost its NBA franchise to New Orleans in 2002, won an expansion team that started play in 2004 as the Bobcats, and then reclaimed its former moniker in 2014. The next year, the franchise was awarded the 2017 All-Star Game, only to have it revoked in 2016 due to the uproar surrounding the state’s controversial “bathroom bill.” Less than two months after the law was overturned in March 2017, Charlotte got the 2019 All-Star Game.

So as the city and the team put the final touches on this year’s hosting duties, you can’t blame Sabates for looking back to 1991 and a game that meant more to him than only a week of revelry.

“It put us on the map,” Sabates said. “The city was on fire, just like it is going to be this time.”