CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Only the naive tell this city named for King George III's wife that it cannot be a player in major league sports. The attitude that the Carolinas would amount to no more than pit stops for souped-up cars is getting in-your-face treatment once more at the NBA's all-star weekend here.

So enthusiastic has the area been that pro basketball protocol probably ought to be reversed for the big game Sunday. At tip-off in Charlotte Coliseum, Magic, Michael and all others with one-name fame should stop, pivot on their expensive sneakers and applaud the customers.

In truth, what folks here want most is for the heads of pro football moguls to turn their way and nod in quiet, we're-with-you approval. Next on the local wish list is an NFL team headed by the man who turned catching a Johnny Unitas touchdown pass in the 1959 NFL championship game into a fortune.

Jerry Richardson is the formerly obscure Baltimore Colt who would like to duplicate in pro football the grand success George Shinn has enjoyed in basketball. Few gave Shinn a chance to crack the NBA; no team has been supported more lavishly than his Hornets.

An appreciation of civic satisfaction this weekend starts by dusting off a quote. Slightly more than four years ago, when the NBA was considering expansion, an alleged expert wrote that the only franchise Charlotte could expect was "one with golden arches."

On the court, the Hornets still resemble McTeam. They won just 20 games their first year, 19 games their second and have 14 victories about halfway through their third season. Still, the turnstiles keep buzzing.

In their first season, the Hornets averaged a league-high 23,172 fans per game. Their second season, the average was a sellout: 23,901. So far this season, the average has been eight customers more than a sellout: 23,909. The second-best average, nearly 2,500 behind, belongs to the defending champion Detroit Pistons.

In the 15th home game of their first year, the Hornets beat the all-time expansion attendance record Dallas had taken 41 games to set. After that season, the value of a franchise that had cost $32.5 million was estimated at $90 million.

"There have been only three important events in North Carolina," said Max Muhleman, a public relations whiz and one of the major reasons the Hornets got off the ground. "The founding of the state, the Civil War and the making of the Charlotte Hornets."

Muhleman is now devoting much of his considerable energy to a fourth important event -- the making of an NFL team. To help speed that along, the area of ticket-buying interest has been expanded -- from one city to two states.

The Richardson-led team would be regional: Carolina, with a nickname to be named later. All indications point to it being on the NFL's very short list.


Richardson's son, Mark, who oversees the expansion effort, is more than happy to list the reasons. They begin with Charlotte being the hub of a region that bounds most of North and South Carolina. He uses a 150-mile radius because that is considered a reasonable drive eight times a year for football fans here. Included are Florence, S.C., to the southeast, Raleigh and Durham, N.C., to the northeast and Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C., to the west.

"South Carolina has 3 1/2 million people," said Richardson, a linebacker on Clemson's 1981 national championship team. "It also has two of the top 15 attended football teams" in South Carolina and Clemson.

Significant, perhaps even startling to outsiders, is that the 150-mile area with Charlotte as the center has more than 857,000 households with an estimated buying income of at least $35,000. Of possible NFL competitors, only Baltimore and Oakland have more.

The population of the Carolinas region is 9,647,500. That is considerably behind Baltimore, but 100,000 more than Oakland -- and more than twice the combined populations of Jacksonville, Fla., and Memphis.

If the Charlotte-core region is consolidated into a North-South Carolina market, it would be fourth largest for television in the country. By itself, Charlotte ranks 31st.

Want to know where Charlotte/Greensboro/Greenville ranks among major trading areas? The Richardson group thought the NFL would. It happens to be seventh, behind Dallas/Fort Worth but ahead of Boston/Providence, Philadelphia, Washington/Baltimore and the southern sister that always gathers more attention, Atlanta.

The Hornets' reality helps make all these numbers seem more than so-what.

"Drawing all those people, night in and night out," said Richardson. "Something like 92 or 93 straight sellouts . . . hard to find a ticket -- and it's a huge arena."

With the Hornets an ally and an incentive, the Richardson group promoted two hugely successful NFL exhibitions and plan a third for the next preseason. The first was in Raleigh, the second in Chapel Hill; both were sellouts. The third is planned for Columbia, S.C., possibly the Redskins vs. the Jets.

"The idea was to show the NFL that people would travel 125 and 145 miles," said Mark Richardson. "And we charged NFL prices." The cheapest ticket for the Redskins-Falcons game in Chapel Hill was $19.

What Richardson's father accomplished is more than huge. Even though he caught a touchdown pass during the Colts' second straight NFL title victory over the New York Giants, Jerry Richardson still was the third receiver on a three-receiver team.

With two sons, and a daughter on the way, Richardson retired after the 1960 season. Joining the quarterback from his Wofford College team, he invested that championship game check, $4,674, in one of the first Hardee's franchises.

"Mr. {Charles} Bradshaw and my father were both 25," said Mark. "They opened one hamburger stand. Our families shared a car." And Jerry cooked and waited on tables.

And now the company Richardson, 54, heads is the third-largest food-service business in the United States. Some statistics, according to Mark Richardson: 450 Hardee's restaurants, 225 Quincy's Family Steakhouse restaurants, 1,400 Denny's restaurants. And about 110,000 employees.

If the group with Richardson as the primary investor succeeds, he would be only the second former NFL player to own an NFL team. The first was George Halas.

Richardson also wants Hall-of-Famer Mike McCormack as his general manager. Included on McCormack's NFL resume: assistant coach with the Rams and Redskins, head coach of the Eagles and Colts, and president and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks. Still living in Seattle, McCormack is serving as a consultant to Richardson.

When the NFL will award its expansion franchises is uncertain. The Richardsons hope to have a two-year leeway so a stadium planned for an area seven blocks from downtown Charlotte can be built. Any time frame less than 21 months and the team might have to play somewhere nearby for a while.

"It looks like two new teams playing by '93," Mark Richardson said. "We believe the NFL is going to have a hard time going away from the Carolinas."