The sheer sweaty bodyweight of beat writers attached to American sports teams makes books which chronicle one team's journey over an entire season relatively commonplace. It's not an original concept, and basketball teams lend themselves to these diaries more than most. The Jordan Rules, A Season on the Brink (by John Feinstein) and The Breaks of the Game are required reading for hoops fans.
In 1988-89, two season chronicles emerged simultaneously about compelling storylines at opposite ends of the NBA. The Franchise examined Jack McCloskey, the General Manager of the Championship-winning Detroit Pistons; the other, by Atlanta Journal-Constitution journalist Joe Drape, detailed the Charlotte Hornets' first NBA season. The result is In the Hornets' Nest.
Expansion is a gripping hook. There aren't many stories written about lousy teams, especially smaller-market ones. How often do you get a dynamic and in-depth record of building a franchise from the ground up? In the Hornets' Nest should be a work of historical significance simply by existing; unfortunately it becomes a collection of beat-writer standards which don't do full justice to a fascinating period in the NBA's history.
New teams inherently offer plenty of angles, partly because the cast of characters is hungry and disparate, but also because – by design – they stink. Each member of an expansion team, administrator or player, has one goal: to do well enough to make money. When twenty characters all attempting to secure their individual futures are combined, an intriguing and rare set of pressures evolve; cataloguing individual and collective responses makes for fascinating reading.
This human element sells sports books. Unfortunately, apart from boardroom machinations early and late, the personal element rarely comes through in Drape's book; this makes it feel insubstantial and perfunctory. Watching an expansion team for the results is nonsensical; what matters are the foundations put in place for future success. Perhaps because Charlotte's player base was so obviously transient it became difficult to see any individual improvement coming from any of their established players.
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When a nascent organisation develops, a maturity story can be attached both to individual elements and the structure as a whole – there's always interest (and a market) for coming of age tales. This aspect is also disappointingly downplayed; the only figure to be treated to three full dimensions is George Shinn, the man least acquainted with pro basketball and also the man with the most to learn.
When executed poorly, attempts at documenting eight months of human interaction can become a series of individual portraits rather than a slow crystallisation of overall character. Unfortunately, rather than opting to "grow" the Hornets' staff over the course of the season, Drape inserted WYSIWYG potted character studies which are rarely referred to later. Despite their fascinating roles, GM Carl Scheer and coach Dick Harter are treated to the same three page allottment as backup point guard Muggsy Bogues.
While lightweight, the book rams home a few crucial differences between The Leagues of then and now. The typical late-80s pursuit of size – any size – is highlighted, resulting in career third-stringer Stuart Gray being written about more than even his Mum thinks he deserves. Also, there is an obvious lack of process and method about both coaching and personnel decisions. Harter's coaching philosophy often suggested that improvement couldn't come from within but from outside; oddly, but understandably, Drape's writing reflects the same tenor when it comes to individual and collective maturity.
There are frequent gaps. Three quarters of the book has passed before Drape mentions who the team's starting point guard was (it was the immortal Michael Holton) and what should have been the most interesting sections of all – the 1988 expansion draft and the 1988 NBA draft – barely rate a mention.
There's a beat-writer's style to Drape's writing. He is even-handed so much so that it could be mistaken for a lack of joy; the same could be said of the players and administrators: the only people to see the season as an experience rather than something to be endured before they could draft again. It's easy fodder for basketball fans. Tennis Balls.