The largest comeback any Charlotte NBA team has ever made started with a storm of boos.
There were 6 minutes, 43 seconds left in the third quarter. The Hornets had just gone down by 24 points in what was supposed to be a magical home season opener and the rebirth of the old teal and purple.
But the players had not shown up for their own party. It would take them more than two hours to get there, although the entrance they ultimately made qualifies this as one of the most remarkable NBA games ever played in Charlotte.
“I would have booed,” said point guard Kemba Walker, who eventually made the tying 3-pointer in regulation and the winning two-pointer in overtime in Charlotte’s spectacular 108-106 victory.
“I know it was tough to watch. We weren’t playing any defense. We weren’t getting to any loose balls.”
“I would have booed, too,” said Hornets center Al Jefferson. “I’m surprised it took them so long to boo. We were making mistakes we had worked on forever. I was mad! You would be, too, if you were down 24.
“I had already had to call a timeout earlier when no one came over to get the ball when I got double-teamed. We’ve been working on that since September.”
This opening night was the grand re-invention of the Hornets, who really are the Bobcats in different clothing. It was the first time the beloved Hornets nickname had returned to Charlotte since 2004, and so the franchise pulled out all the marketing stops in front of a sellout crowd of 19,439.
The Hornets did it up right. They harkened back to the original opening night in 1988, when many showed up in tuxedos. They had a tuxedo T-shirt giveaway this time. The Honeybees danced.
The fans in the stands wore not only the current-day purple and teal uniforms, but also vintage jerseys that sported last names such as Bogues, Johnson, Curry and Mashburn.
Then Walker walked to the microphone and proclaimed: “Without further ado, let’s get this party started.”
That’s when it started to go sour. For the first 90 minutes, this was the sort of 1980s party where you were promised Michael Jackson was going to show up and instead got a Michael Jackson impersonator (which was the actual halftime act).
Milwaukee would seem to be the ideal homecoming opponent. The Bucks went 15-67 last season, the worst record in the NBA. But the Bucks shot 52.5 percent against some shaky Hornets defense in the first half and led by 11.
The Hornets made one forgettable play after another, making obscure Bucks such as Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounm look like stars.
Then came the 24-point deficit, and the boos.
And then the rally – slowly at first, and then furiously. Marvin Williams, who shot 8-for-12 and scored 19 points in his Hornets debut, made every big shot.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (17 points, eight rebounds) played well all night. The defense that was so sporadic for most of the game finally got it going, with Lance Stephenson contributing 13 rebounds.
By the end of the third quarter, the Bucks lead was 15. It was still 13 with 6:55 left.
Admittedly overexcited and unable to relax, Walker had shot poorly all evening. He didn’t even play for the first half of the fourth quarter. Coach Steve Clifford inserted his star with 6:01, and Walker immediately started earning the four-year, $48 million contract extension he just agreed to this week.
Walker would end up only 9-for-26 shooting for the night, and just 5-for-11 from the free-throw line. He still ended up with the ball in his hands with the Bucks ahead by three and five seconds left on the clock in regulation.
“I live for those situations,” said Walker, who scored a game-high 26 points. “I’ve been doing that sort of thing all my life.”
With 1.6 seconds left, off a Jefferson screen, Walker buried a 3-pointer to tie the score at 100. The crowd went nuts. The booing was a distant memory. Milwaukee didn’t get a shot off, and the game went into overtime.
Still, it wasn’t easy. The Hornets had three shot-clock violations in five minutes. Walker started cramping in his foot. After Charlotte’s Gary Neal had tied the score on a contested layup at 106, Milwaukee rookie Jabari Paker missed a 7-footer and Neal got the rebound.
On the bench, Clifford asked Walker if he was OK. “He said, ‘I’ll make one more play,’ ” Clifford recounted.
“That second shot was harder than the first one,” Walker said. “I was cramping, and I didn’t have my legs anymore. I barely got it up there.”
The 21-footer swished. Of course it did. By this time, the comeback from 24 points down almost seemed predestined. It was no surprise when Milwaukee’s Middleton missed an open 3-point attempt. The crowd exulted. All was forgiven.
For most of the night, it looked like the Bobcats had turned into the Hornets, but somehow had lost their identity along the way.
Then came Walker to the rescue. And the magical night that was promised turned out to be just that.
I ran into Hornets owner Michael Jordan in the tunnel after the game. “Just the way you drew it up, right?” I asked.
“No, no!” Jordan chortled, a big grin on his face.
Fans left the arena shouting at each other in enthusiasm, ears ringing, just like it was 1989 all over again. Jefferson and Walker said the crowd was louder and better than the home ones for the playoff games against Miami last season.
If only it could be like this every night, the Hornets to a man said afterward.
It can’t be.
But good gracious, what a start.