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The Perfect Storm: Revisiting the ‘Snow Game’ Two Decades Later

How a Winter Blizzard Led to (At the Time) the Quietest Night in Hornets History
by Sam Perley

Long before the Charlotte Hornets were forced to play the first half of the 2020-21 NBA season in front of empty seats at Spectrum Center, only one other game in franchise history resembled anything close to the strange eeriness brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Exactly 20 years ago today, a rare historic snowstorm dumped six inches of wintery mix on the Queen City, stretching as far down as Florida all the way up the East Coast of the United States. Flights were grounded and stranded countless travelers throughout the region. Schools closed, traffic was brought to a standstill and thousands of homes lost power for days on end. 

Probably one of the only scheduled events that proceeded as normal was a regular season NBA game between the Charlotte Hornets and visiting Golden State Warriors on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2002 at the Charlotte Coliseum. The Warriors were coming off a 113-98 loss in Cleveland one night earlier and had already landed in Charlotte well before the snow started falling.

With this being Golden State’s only annual visit to town, options were theoretically limited with regards to potentially postponing or rescheduling the game. There were a lot fewer days off in the schedule back then, with squads regularly playing three games in four nights. Moving the game to Friday wasn’t really an option – the Warriors had a back-to-back over the weekend in Orlando and Miami. In the end though, the decision was really pretty simple.   

“If the two teams could get there, we were going to play,” says the organization’s legendary long-time television and radio broadcaster Steve Martin. “That was the understanding. I don’t recall there being any issue as to whether the game was going to be canceled or not. We were going to play ball and that was that. It was basically let’s get to the game, we’ll figure it out and as far as getting home, we’ll figure that out at the time. It started as snow, changed to freezing rain and then all rain as the night wore on. There was a lot of snow and ice in the streets.” 

Third-year point guard and soon-to-be first-time NBA All-Star Baron Davis had become the face of the Hornets during this time. Charlotte also had 20-point-per-game scorer Jamal Mashburn on the roster – who sat out this particular game with injury – as well as more seasoned veterans in sharpshooter David Wesley, and big men PJ Brown and Elden Campbell. With Head Coach Paul Silas at the helm, the franchise was a few weeks away from applying for relocation to New Orleans, a decision that stemmed from growing tension between team ownership, fans and taxpayers over the funding of a new arena.      

Coming into the game, the then 12-19 Warriors were led by interim Head Coach and former two-time NBA All-Star Brian Winters, who had previously served as the inaugural Head Coach of the Vancouver Grizzlies. (Fun fact: An All-Rookie First-Teamer with the Lakers, Winters was part of the trade that sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee to Los Angeles in June of 1975). Golden State had recently fired Dave Cowens – previously the Hornets Head Coach from 1996-99 – back on Dec. 15 after he went 25-80 in just 105 games with the team. 

An alum of Charlotte’s Providence High School and also a University of North Carolina product, fourth-year forward Antawn Jamison was the leading scorer for Golden State this season (19.7 points). The Warriors also had three promising rookies in Jason Richardson, Troy Murphy and Gilbert Arenas, but it hardly mattered much. Things kept spiraling after Cowens was fired, leading to a league-worst 21-61 record and eighth consecutive season out of the playoffs.  

The hosts – 13-17 at the time – rolled with Davis, Wesley, second-year forward Lee Nailon, Brown and Campbell for their starting lineup, while Golden State’s featured Larry Hughes, Richardson, Jamison, Danny Fortson and Adonal Foyle. Sometime around tip-off, Charlotte Coliseum public address announcer James. K Flynn told all the fans in attendance who had braved the inclement weather – most of whom were scattered throughout the 24,000-seat arena – to come down to the lower level and sit wherever they pleased.   

Charlotte led 31-26 after the opening frame, then closed the second quarter on an 11-0 run to take a 64-48 halftime lead. Richardson’s 14 second-half points helped keep the Warriors in it, but the Hornets never relinquished control in a 114-102 victory. Davis posted team highs in points (28), rebounds (10) and assists (11) for his third career triple-double, Wesley added 18 points and Charlotte’s bench outscored the Warriors by 20. Jamison had 24 points and 12 rebounds in front of a significantly-reduced hometown crowd, as Golden State lost its third straight in what would become a seven-game skid. 

“You could hear players talking to each other and coaches directing them where to go, stuff like that,” recalls Martin. “Many nights, you go into our building now and you can’t hear a thing. The crowd is great. That night, you could hear everything that the coaches dictate to the players, conversations going back and forth on the court. It was like attending a practice. You could hear the sneakers squeaking, people shouting out where to go on offense or directing a screen. It was a unique soundtrack that we don’t hear very often.”

As for the official attendance? A wildly-inflated 7,770 spectators went into the record books as having been present for this game, but the real number was probably closer to the 900-1,200 range. The reason behind the wide discrepancy was that the first number was how many tickets were sold for the game, not the number of people that actually walked through the door.   

In a weird way, this game was a microcosm of what laid ahead for the Hornets. Their relocation was soon approved by the NBA and despite ending the season with a 44-38 record and a fourth-place finish in the Eastern Conference, many fans gradually began tuning out. “There were a lot of mixed feeling about the team,” says Martin. “I would have had to say 60/40 was negative because of the anticipated move. WFNZ was just coming on the air at the time and it was the topic of the day. The whole second half of the season was played in a dark zone, an inevitability that the team would be leaving. A lot of people had strong feelings either for or against [the move]. You just had to put out of your mind what was going on around the club and just pay attention to how good the team was.” 

Maybe some of the distinctiveness of the ‘Snow Game’ has dissipated a little over the years, but the timing of the unexpected, sudden circumstances that night is still pretty extraordinary, to say the least. No matter how much time has passed, the night of Thursday, January 3, 2002 at the Charlotte Coliseum is just one of those stand-alone, cult-classic-like chapters in franchise history that will never be erased or replicated ever again. 

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