Never underestimate a marketing staff's ability to commemorate milestones, even ones that didn't exist before they created them. That explains how four NBA expansion franchises that entered the league in tandems a year apart all could be celebrating big, round anniversaries this season.
The Miami Heat and the Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets came into existence for the 1988-89 season, which means that every date on the calendar is ripe for a "Twenty years ago today in (take your pick, Heat or Hornets) history ...'' reminiscence. That could mean Nov. 8, when Kelly Tripucka scored 24 points in the Hornets' first victory, 117-105 over the Clippers, three games into their inaugural season. Or it could be Dec. 12, when Utah beat Miami at the old Salt Palace and forced coach Ron Rothstein to twist another 48 hours before the Heat could end -- against the Clippers in L.A. -- its rude 0-17 welcome to the NBA.
Twelve months later, the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Orlando Magic began play. That means each of those organizations can tout this as its "20th season,'' using nostalgia and video clips of old uniforms, bad haircuts and "where are they now?'' updates to tug at fans' heartstrings and presumably pump ticket sales. Terry Catledge, Tony Campbell, we hardly knew ye.
Whichever way you count it, the NBA is 20 years removed from its last great growth spurt, four teams added in a span of 12 months. It wasn't quite the league's mushrooming of the 1960s and '70s, when membership boomed from nine franchises at the end of 1965-66 to 22 by the start of 1976-77, but then, there was no ABA in play to force the NBA's add-it-or-lose-it hand. This was 1987, with commissioner David Stern and his happy owners riding a wave of stability- and Michael Jordan-driven success. Wanting in and welcoming in was good business all around, so the above four markets -- after vying with Anaheim, Calif., Toronto, St. Petersburg, Fla., and seemingly each other for an expansion slot -- all were told "yes."
"It still seems like yesterday,'' said Pat Williams, Orlando's senior vice president and the flag bearer back then for central Florida. "Twenty-two years ago, we were out in Phoenix, making a pitch to the owners, trying to get a sense of the cost and hearing '$25 million.' Then they call us to New York to break the news in person, and the number is $32.5 million. And we feel betrayed.''
By 1995, Toronto and Vancouver paid $125 million each to join the NBA. When Charlotte got back in, with the Bobcats in 2004, the NBA's backfill move to make up for the Hornets' relocation in 2002 to New Orleans, the league got paid again, pocketing $300 million from franchise owner Bob Johnson. A December 2007 report by Forbes estimated the values of the four expansion teams: Miami $418 million, Orlando $322 million, Minnesota $308 million and New Orleans $272 million. Not a bad return on that original $32.5 mil, even factoring in slippage from the latest stock market mess.
"The addition of those four teams, [Boston Globe sportswriter] Bob Ryan said it was the most important off-court event to that day in NBA history,'' Williams said. "The owners realized for the first time that they had something of value. You had these cities clamoring to be in their league. Then they were required to sell 10,000 season tickets to get in -- nobody had ever done that in the NBA. It forced everybody to take their schtick to another level.''
Each of the four new franchises charted a different course. Miami was the first of the four to reach the playoffs (1992), Charlotte the first to win a playoff series (1993). Orlando was in the Finals by 1995, thanks to its remarkable lottery luck, landing the No. 1 pick in both 1992 (Shaquille O'Neal) and 1993 (Chris Webber, traded for a package featuring Penny Hardaway). Minnesota trudged more slowly but gambled, and cashed in, in 1995 when it drafted the first player straight out of high school in two decades. Guy by the name of Kevin Garnett.
Along the way, there have been unexpected twists and self-inflicted troubles. Minnesota nearly lost its franchise in 1994; if not for a shaky prospective ownership group headed by boxing's Bob Arum and Stern's intervention, the Timberwolves would have beaten the Hornets to New Orleans. The Heat's initial home, the underbuilt Miami Arena, was a problem from the start. Orlando got abandoned by Shaq in 1996 and had growing pains in its building, too, leading to stress and political drama before breaking ground on a new downtown home. Charlotte fans, after averaging no less than 23,172 in attendance through the team's first 10 seasons, still had it yanked away by unpopular owner George Shinn. The Hornets and the Wolves each suffered tragedies off the court, with the highway deaths of Bobby Phills and Malik Sealy, respectively, and, for New Orleans, the displacement by (and heartbreak of) Hurricane Katrina to Oklahoma City.
As 2008-09 begins, though, all four teams bring optimism. The Hornets were the No. 2 seed in the West last spring and, in preseason picks, are neck-and-neck with the Lakers to reach the Finals come June. Orlando won 52 games with Dwight Howard turning 22; what might he do at a post-Olympian 23? The Wolves and Heat have intriguing rookies, Kevin Love and Michael Beasley, respectively, and young veterans (Al Jefferson in Minnesota; Dwyane Wade in Miami) dedicated to fixing what's broken.
As each team celebrates its 20th season, or 20 years as the case may be, here is a ranking of the four and some pertinent numbers so far:
• Rank: 1 • All-time record (winning percentage): 771-837 (.479) • .500-or-better seasons: 11 • Seasons with 50 victories/losses: 6/6 • Number of head coaches: 6 • NBA MVPs: 0 • Other major award winners: 6 (Coach 1, Most Improved 2, Defensive Player 2, Finals MVP 1) • Playoff appearances: 12 • Playoff record, by series: 10-11 • NBA Finals: 1 • NBA titles: 1 • Highlight: Wade digs the Heat out of an 0-2 hole against the Dallas Mavericks to win the 2006 NBA championship in six games. • Lowlight: Wade gets hurt (again), Shaq wants out (again) and coach Pat Riley steps down (again), as the 15-67 Heat match the worst record in franchise history.
• Rank: 2 • All-time record (winning percentage): 752-774 (.493) • 500-or-better seasons: 11 • Seasons with 50 victories/losses: 4/4 • Number of head coaches: 8 • NBA MVPs: 0 • Other major award winners: 9 (Coach 1, Rookie 2, Most Improved 4, Executive 1, Sixth Man 1) • Playoff appearances: 10 • Playoff record, by series: 6-10 • NBA Finals: 1 • NBA titles: 0 • Highlight: Improbably, the Magic win the NBA draft lottery two years in a row, landing Shaq, Penny and an instant reputation as the team to beat for the next decade. • Lowlight: O'Neal's contract demands and taste for bigger playgrounds triggers his trade to the Lakers. He goes on to win four championship rings -- one for each of those free throws Nick Anderson missed in Game 1 of the 1995 Finals.
• Rank: 3 • All-time record (winning percentage): 781-827 (.486) • .500-or-better seasons: 12 • Seasons with 50 victories/losses: 4/4 • Number of head coaches: 7 • NBA MVPs: 0 • Other major award winners: 5 (Coach 1, Rookie 2, Executive 1, Sixth Man 1) • Playoff appearances: 10 • Playoff record, by series: 5-10 • NBA Finals: 0 • NBA titles: 0 • Highlight: Alonzo Mourning's jumper from the top of the key effectively eliminates Boston in the 1993 first round, the Hornets' first taste of the playoffs. • Lowlight: Charlotte had a 3-2 lead vs. Milwaukee in the 2001 second round but lost the next two. Getting to the East finals, and possibly to the Finals, could have given the Hornets the clout and leverage they needed to get a new arena, thereby staying put in Charlotte.
• Rank: 4 • All-time record (winning percentage): 649-877 (.425) • .500-or-better seasons: 8 • Seasons with 50 victories/losses: 4/9 • Number of head coaches: 8 • NBA MVPs: 1 • Other major award winners: 0 • Playoff appearances: 8 • Playoff record, by series: 2-8 • NBA Finals: 0 • NBA titles: 0 • Highlight: Garnett scores 32 points with 21 rebounds in a Game 7 victory over Sacramento in 2004, putting the Wolves into the West finals. • Lowlight: Stephon Marbury forces a trade out of Minnesota in March 1999, vaporizing the tandem with Garnett and the franchise's on-court future.