Back in the late 80’s and 90’s, the Charlotte Hornets became well known for their innovative purple and teal uniforms, an iconic look that transcended sports to become a full-fledged pop culture mainstay. But lost in the shuffle of those Starter Jackets and pinstripes were all the other sports franchises that took a stab at mirroring the Queen City’s daring new colorway.
Alexander Julian was tasked with designing the Hornets’ original uniforms heading into their first NBA season in 1988. Known for his creative outside-the-box thinking, Julian chose to go with an unconventional-for-the-time trio of teal, purple and white as the team’s primary colors. He also incorporated pinstripes into the uniforms, which was something that hadn’t been done before on a basketball jersey. Needless to say, the reception far exceeded anything Julian or the Hornets could have ever envisioned.
“I had absolutely no clue that it would be the hit that it was,” recalled Julian in a 2019 interview with Hornets.com. “There were rumors that we equaled or even topped the Bulls back in the day because of the popularity of the uniforms and the colors. I remember [former Hornets owner] George [Shinn] telling me a couple of years into this, ‘Alex, I just got back from China and there was a young man on an airplane in China wearing a Hornets hat. I got an interpreter to ask him, ‘So, you like the Hornets?’ and he responded, ‘No, I like the colors of the hat.’”
“Alexander Julian deserves so much credit for coming up with a look that looked appropriate, athletic and masculine, but also stylish and different,” said late Hornets beat writer Rick Bonnell from The Charlotte Observer in 2019. “For whatever reason, teal and purple at the time were very different from most people’s color schemes and it caught on.”
“I think that our mascot and logo being incorporated to most of our merchandise really was unique for that time period,” said Sam Russo, the Hornets VP and Executive of Business from 1988-2002.” It really just became a fad to have it.” Added former Hornet and three-time NBA All-Star Glen Rice, “People just related to them. They’re soft colors. It’s got sort of a calmness to it. People always welcome calm and I think that’s why it was able to be as attractive as it was.”
It helped that the Hornets experienced early success and played an exciting, captivating brand of basketball. The roster had a handful of league-wide popular players – most notably Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning and Muggsy Bogues – who seeped into mainstream pop culture through movies, television shows, commercials and obviously above all else, fashion. Hats, t-shirts, Starter Jackets, shorts – you name it, people wanted it. And likewise, other professional sports franchises wanted in on the hysteria, as well. Expansion teams were probably where audiences saw most of the teal-and-purple imitations, which makes sense given it’s probably easier to start a brand from scratch than change something that’s already been established. The Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies both broke into Major League Baseball (MLB) in 1993 rocking teal and purple as one of their primary colors, respectively. Five years later, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks played their first-ever games, with the former using bits of teal in its primary logo and the latter going all in on both colors.
In the National Hockey League (NHL), the San Jose Sharks stormed onto the scene sporting teal, black and silver in 1991 and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim double dipped on the purple and teal upon their entry in 1993. Founded by The Walt Disney Company, the Mighty Ducks moniker was inspired by the popular Disney movie, which combined with the trendy colors, made the Southern California-based franchise a marketing goldmine. Just down the road, the Los Angeles Kings brought back their original purple in 1998, then abandoned it again in 2013 in favor of the black and silver they previously adorned from 1988-98.
Perhaps the clunkiest teal usage came courtesy of the New York Islanders. This storied franchise – which won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83 – added the color to their blue-and-orange palette in 1995 in conjunction with a new fisherman-themed logo that looked eerily similar to the Gorton’s Seafood emblem. The switch was so poorly received by fans that the Islanders immediately reverted back to their original logo as soon as the NHL permitted.
As for the NFL, the Miami Dolphins were probably the teal originators across all sports, first wearing the color back in 1966 while playing in the American Football League (AFL). Since then, the Jacksonville Jaguars have been the only other football team to really incorporate teal, which they’ve done ever since joining the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1995.
It was in the NBA though where the Hornets saw the most mimicking occur. The league’s two expansion teams in 1995 – the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies – both utilized purple and teal as primary colors, respectively. The Milwaukee Bucks added purple trim to their jerseys in 1993 and a year later, the Sacramento Kings transitioned from red, white and royal blue to black, purple and silver. Most memorably, the Detroit Pistons pivoted to the infamous all-teal, flaming horse jersey in 1996 before reverting back to their traditional red, white and blue in 2001.
Many teams across the four major professional sports hoped to catch lighting in a bottle the same way that the Hornets did by utilizing their own variations of the teal and purple colorways. Now, exactly to what extent each one was directly inspired by the originators is somewhat unclear, but there likely was some level of influence. Outside of maybe one or two exceptions, though – mainly the Mighty Ducks – nothing really approached Charlotte’s popularity. Maybe the newness just wore off over time or fans had already had enough of these colors to choose from in their wardrobes.
A few of these organizations eventually reverted back to their original palettes (Pistons, Islanders and Los Angeles Kings), many switched to something different (Raptors, Grizzlies, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Rays, Ducks and Bucks) and a few like the Hornets, still continue to rock the teal or purple to this day (Jaguars, Sharks, Rockies and Sacramento Kings). This color scheme was quite the timely trend that epitomized the funkiness that the 1990’s become so associated with. Whether standing alone or coupled together, the teal and purple weren’t necessarily for everybody at the time, but they were certainly meant for the Charlotte Hornets.