Many college basketball fans may think that Tony Bennett has overachieved as head coach at Virginia. Longtime Charlotte NBA observers will know better.
After a stellar collegiate career playing for his father at Wisconsin-Green Bay, Bennett was selected 35th overall in the second round of the 1992 NBA Draft by Charlotte.
The Hornets struggled in its first four seasons but the talent of its last two first round picks was evident. Kendall Gill was chosen with the fifth overall selection in 1990, and the Hornets tabbed Larry Johnson with the top pick a season later.
The duo combined to average almost 40 points per game during the 1991-92 campaign, with Johnson being named Rookie of the Year, but the Hornets could not muster enough of an improvement to earn a first playoff berth in franchise history.
The building process was then expedited by a fortuitous bounce of the ball.
Six teams completed the season with fewer wins than the Hornets but only one, the Orlando Magic, finished ahead of Charlotte in the lottery. With the No. 2 overall pick, Alonzo Mourning was brought to the Queen City.
The next round the Hornets selected Bennett.
“It was terrific,” Bennett said. “It was still a new thing. It really was a new franchise that led the league in attendance with 24 thousand-plus. Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Muggsy Bogues. I was a backup point guard that played about 15 minutes a game or so.”
Not much was expected of Charlotte prior to the season but as things progressed the Hornets—buoyed by the league’s best attendance—began to see its collection of young talent mesh into a contender.
Charlotte only had two players over the 30 years old in the 1992-93 season; Gill, Johnson and Mourning were all under the age of 25.
“We started getting good,” Bennett said. “The excitement was high. It was like going from nothing to starting to win. It was like, ‘Hey, maybe this team can win and get to the playoffs being that young.’” Reaching the postseason was still up in the air after the team lost its final five games in March.
Things turned around in April with a win at Orlando with its young star Shaquille O’Neal. The Hornets earned a postseason berth with victories in nine of its last 12 games of the regular season, including a win over eventual NBA champion Chicago.
A big part of Charlotte’s success was due to the style of offense incorporated under second year head coach Allen Bristow.
“He was a wonderful guy,” Bennett said. “He had played and came from Doug Moe’s philosophy at Denver. We played a real fast passing game—just go. Everything was kind of, ‘Wow, this is new and exciting.’”
As the No. 5 seed in the playoffs, Charlotte faced the Boston Celtics in the first round. The Celtics had won 16 NBA titles but were in the last vestiges of the run that saw the team claim three championships in the previous decade. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale were gone with only Robert Parrish, who would leave the team after the 1993-94 season to sign with the Hornets, remaining.
After nipping the Celtics in double-overtime at the Boston Garden to level the series at a game apiece, Charlotte cruised in Game 3. In the series clincher, the Hornets outlasted Boston, 104-103, in front of a raucous crowd at the Charlotte Coliseum to advance to the conference semifinals.
“Football wasn’t [in Charlotte] yet, my last year it was,” Bennett said. “It was racing and basketball. It was just a unique time in the NBA with the teams too. There were good teams. [Michael] Jordan with the Bulls, the Knicks and the Celtics.”
Top seeded New York awaited the Hornets in the next round. The Knicks, led by current Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing, won 60 games in the regular season and had also won its first round series in four games.
After a 16-point loss in Game 1, Bennett and the Hornets fought back but ultimately lost the series in five games. The final four contests were each decided by four points or fewer.
“Doc Rivers was playing and Greg Anthony,” Bennett said. “Riley was the coach. Mason, Oakley, Ewing, John Starks—a really good team. They were just hard fought games. I remember they were really close.”
Charlotte slumped to a 41-41 record the following season as both Johnson and Mourning missed an extended amount of time with injuries, along with Gill being shipped to Seattle in the offseason.
The Hornets returned to the playoffs in 1995 but were dispatched in four games in the first round by the Chicago Bulls. Jordan, who now owns the team, returned during the regular season from his first retirement.
Bennett said he feels Charlotte was on the cusp of greatness if the team could have remained intact.
“It was a team you could see growing,” Bennett said. “We were young. I wish that team would have stayed together. It was on the verge of being really good. Free agency came and there it went.”
Despite playing only three seasons in the NBA—all with Charlotte—Bennett looks back fondly on his time in the professional ranks. While playing for the Hornets, the Virginia head coach met his future wife.
“She is not from [Charlotte] but we met there,” Bennett said with a smile. “That’s the best thing about it right there.”
Being immersed in his current job gives Bennett little time to focus on the NBA. However, when asked if the Hornets can return to the level of success achieved in the ‘90s, he offers his best wishes.
“I don’t follow it but I hope so,” Bennett said. “Charlotte is a wonderful city. People love the Hornets. Nowadays, when you win they will start coming.”