Hornets playoffs: Part 3 – Hard Ball runs into a motivated former Charlotte All-Star in 1997

This is the third in a series on Charlotte’s previous NBA playoff seasons. Here’s a look at other stories in the 10-part series:
Part 1 – The Hive Is Alive as the Hornets win their first postseason series in 1993. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/hornets-playoffs-part-1-the-hive-is-alive-as-the-hornets-win-their-first-postseason-series-in-1993/
Part 2 – Homecourt no advantage against Michael Jordan’s late-season return in 1995. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/hornets-playoffs-part-2-homecourt-no-advantage-against-michael-jordans-late-season-return-in-1995/
Part 4 – Hornets dispatch Hawks, hand “Last Dance” Bulls their first playoff loss in 1998
Part 5 – Tragedy mars season, then Iverson too much to overcome in 2000 playoffs
Part 6 – Headband fever sparks longest playoff run in season of off-court turmoil in 2001
Part 7 – Lame duck Hornets again advance to conference semifinals in 2002
Part 8 – Early season trade sparks expansion franchise into playoffs in 2010
Part 9 – First-year head coach, offseason free agent acquisition led to playoffs in 2014
Part 10 – Franchise snaps long postseason losing streak with 2016 postseason play

By Richard Walker

Many Charlotte Hornets fans of the mid-1990s expected their team to be a NBA championship contender. Owner George Shinn thought the same way.

Glen Rice won NBA honors in the 1997 NBA All-Star Game that came during the weekend the league honored its 50 greatest players from its first 50 seasons. [hornets.com photo]
So when the 1995-96 season began with the controversial trade of All-Star center Alonzo Mourning and ended without a postseason appearance, changes came fast and furious.

The end result was a rebuilt team that bounced back with a vengeance – and a franchise-record 54 wins that started the organization’s most successful stretch in history.

General manager Bob Bass, hired on June 13, 1995, reshaped the roster as only two key pieces from the 1995 playoff team played significant roles in 1997 – Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry.

He acquired Glen Rice and Matt Geiger from the Miami Heat in the Mourning trade. He hired first-year head coach Dave Cowens after Allen Bristow was fired following the 1995-96 season. He traded away Larry Johnson to the New York Knicks for Anthony Mason. He acquired Vlade Divac in a draft night trade that sent the draft rights to No. 13 overall Kobe Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers. He signed free agents Tony Smith and Rafael Addison. He drafted Tony Delk and Malik Rose. And he acquired sharpshooter Ricky Pierce at the February 1997 trade deadline.

In the end, the 1996-97 Hornets became the first and only team in franchise history with a winning record in each month of the season – and Bass was named 1997 NBA Executive of the Year.

Cowens, a MVP and All-Star player and NBA title-winner with the Boston Celtics, had little coaching experience but he got the best out of Rice and Mason particularly and brought on the best in virtually every other player on his roster.

Unfortunately, a 54-win team managed only a No. 6 seed in an Eastern Conference race where five other teams won 54 or more games.

And injuries – and a motivated former Hornets player – combined to end Charlotte’s season in a 3-0 first round playoff sweep loss against the Knicks.

The Hornets started 8-6 in November and 8-7 in December before going 38-15 the rest of the season, highlighted by 9-4 in March and 9-2 in April when Cowens was named Eastern Conference coach of the month.

On Feb. 9, Rice was the brightest star in an arena full of them as he took most valuable player honors in the 1997 NBA All-Star Game at Cleveland’s Gund Arena; The halftime show that night featured the league honoring its 50 greatest players from its first 50 seasons.

Rice, an All-Star reserve, scored 20 of high team-high 26 points in the third quarter to lead the East to a 132-120 win over the West. Rice’s 20 third quarter points were an All-Star Game record as were his 24 second half points.

How impressive was Rice’s performance?

He won MVP honors even as Michael Jordan recorded the first triple double in All-Star Game history with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.

Vlade Divac (12) and Anthony Mason (14) were key figures in the Hornets’ franchise-record 54-win team in the 1996-97 season. [hornets.com photo]
Rice and Mason were the leaders of the team throughout the season as the Hornets’ forwards as both made second team All-NBA and Mason made second team All-Defense.

The team finished strong with a season-long nine-game winning streak late in the season.

But back-to-back losses to end the regular season showed cracks in the team’s health – and Bogues (hamstring), Curry (calf) and Geiger (back) were diminished entering the playoffs against a Knicks team that was eager to help Johnson knock off his former team.

In the playoff opener, the Knicks hit 10 3-pointers in a 109-99 victory, then put Charlotte in a 2-0 hole with a 21-12 closing surge after the Hornets held an 85-79 advantage in the fourth quarter. Rice scored a game-high 39 points in the losing effort.

In the series-clincher, Johnson’s late 3-pointer led a late 9-0 Knicks surge after the teams were tied at 81-all in a 104-95 New York victory.

In the series, Johnson averaged 17.7 points in the three Knicks’ victories.



The 1997 Hornets
Record: 54-28 (0-3 in playoffs)
Head coach: Dave Cowens
Top scorers: Glen Rice 26.8, Anthony Mason 16.2, Dell Curry 14.8, Vlade Divac 12.6, Ricky Pierce 12.0, Matt Geiger 8.9
Top rebounders: Mason 11.4, Divac 9.0, Geiger 5.3
Notes: Led by Rice, Curry and Pierce and the passing of Muggsy Bogues (7.2 assists), Mason (5.7) and Divac (3.2), the 1996-97 Hornets set a NBA record for 3-point shooting percentage at 42.8 percent overall. Rice was No. 1 in the league at 47.0 percent with Curry seventh at 42.6 and Pierce shooting 53.6 percent in 27 games for Charlotte.