It was a singular moment in Charlotte Bobcats history. Fans made so much noise Thursday at Time Warner Cable Arena that a man at courtside offered me earplugs.
I turned him down. I don’t want to duck the noise. I want to hear it. As Charlotte handled Philadelphia, young fans yelled and danced and applauded. True, they were as excited about the mascots and the music as they were the basketball. But Ben Gordon and the Bobcats consistently offered a reason to cheer.
The game was part of the team’s annual Cool School Field Trip. Fifteen thousand middle school students, who were selected for qualities such as performance, character and service, filled the gym for the exhibition.
None of them booed.
“It was cool,” said Charlotte guard Gerald Henderson. “Those kids, man, I can’t imagine going on a field trip during the school year to a basketball game.”
So how do you get them to return and bring adults with them?
“Nobody’s going to come to a basketball game where we’re not competitive,” Henderson said. “Toward the end of the year last year we did pretty well at home and I think we’re at a point this preseason where we’ve got a pretty good flow going.
“We just need to continue to get better and it will work itself out. You can do promo stuff and try to give away tickets and have ticket sales. But people want to see us win.”
Charlotte did Thursday, 110-84. The 76ers played substitutes and the substitutes played as if an 11 a.m. start, and a potential spot on the Philadelphia roster, did not move them.
The Bobcats, who lost their first two exhibitions and have won their past three, played as if they care. The defense, especially the rotations, have been crisp throughout the preseason, the offense consistent.
They need to embrace defense and they need to score and they need to play selflessly and they need to hustle. This is more than a new season for the Bobcats. It is an opportunity.
In Steve Clifford, they have a new head coach. In center Al Jefferson, they have their first big-time free agent. They retained Henderson, a restricted free agent, and by refusing to let a good player go they attained credibility. They drafted 7-foot Cody Zeller out of Indiana.
Young players look as if they’re developing and veterans look as if they’re recovering. Discarded last season, guard Ben Gordon led the Bobcats on Thursday with 22 points on only nine field goal attempts.
In lockout-shortened 2011-12, Charlotte won seven games. Last season it won 21. If the Bobcats again improve by 14 victories, that is a solid and successful season.
They didn’t have to win to impress fans Thursday. Kids wanted to be in the gym and spent four quarters proving it.
It was like 1988 again, when the Charlotte Hornets made their debut. Show up, play hard and be adored.
“When I first got in the league with the (New York) Knicks, this was one of the toughest places to come and play,” Clifford said. “The arena was live back then. This is basketball country, to me, so I think if we could play well consistently and win and play a style that people can enjoy” – he catches himself.
He said: “Well you know what, the style doesn’t even matter as much as if you win. That’s what this league is about. I think with these guys we have we’ll play a style that people will enjoy because what we have is quickness, energy, toughness, and if that comes out we have a chance to be a good team. I think it’s like most places. If you win they will come.”
Even though the Bobcats will ditch the name original owner Bob Johnson tagged them with and, after the season, become the Hornets, the cheers no longer will be free.
They have to earn them.
Between the coaching and the defense, the young players, the new players and the veterans, they have the opportunity.
If a fan offers you earplugs this season, you’ll know they’ve succeeded.