That was the feeling when the Charlotte Hornets returned to town last Thursday in their second-round playoff series against the New Jersey Nets. Tipoff was only 19 hours before the NBA owners would officially cut off the city's life support system as an NBA city, giving the Hornets the teal light to put "New Orleans" on their jerseys next year.
Fans trickled slowly into the Charlotte Coliseum, and eventually there would be less than half of the number that used to routinely attend -- 11,363 versus nearly 24,000. Few wore Hornets paraphernalia, and even fewer were buying 2002 playoff hats and T-shirts, even though it was the first time such merchandise had been available at the coliseum.
"They're low key," a merchandise clerk said of the fans. "It's like they are in mourning. They know it's (the Hornets leaving) a done deal."
But once fans took their seats, clutching "Just Win" towels they'd been given at the gate, they were determined to burst out of their funk and celebrate all that's been good and wonderful about the Hornets since they came here in 1988. At every opportunity, the fans jumped to their feet, swirled their towels and screamed.
"Let's face it," Hornets Coach Paul Silas said after the game, "the people who come now are true basketball fans -- die-hard fans and we appreciate it. This was the most excitement I've seen all year."
The fans on hand for the Hornets' 115-97 thrashing of the Nets celebrated what is arguably the best team the Hornets have had in their 14 seasons here, a team with strong inside-outside scoring that hasn't let the absence of star forward Jamal Mashburn derail them. The symptoms of Mashburn's strange, late-season virus are similar to the way Hornets fans here have been feeling all winter -- woozy, off-balance, unsure where to lodge the blame for the Hornets leaving town.
Most fans are still in the "I hate the owners, I hate the city council, I hate the mayor" phase, seething over the breakdown in arena negotiations that sent the Hornets packing. Others, like Harold Davenport, best known as "The Brick Man," are past anger to resignation.
"It's a sad situation," says Davenport, who since the first season has held up a big red foam brick behind the basket while opponents shoot free throws. "The city council, the NBA and George and Ray couldn't work it out. It's a shame."
But most of the crowd Thursday clearly faulted team owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge. Late in the game, fans in Section 130 began chanting, "George Shinn Sucks." Others briefly picked up the chant before returning their attention to the game. A smattering of fans wore white T-shirts with purple, blocky lettering that said, "George and Ray Suck." One was Aaron Carricato, 24. "I like your shirt," a vendor told Carricato as he bought two cookies before the game.
"I disagree with what they're doing," Carricato says of the owners. "This city has been great for basketball, even in the last few years. And the players have nothing to do with it. They're still playing hard, and the fans deserve a championship before they go."
Also ridiculing the owners were two guys dressed up as a chicken and a gorilla, respectively. The bright-yellow bird hoisted a sign over his head saying "SHINN," and the black ape raised a sign saying "WOOLDRIDGE." According to usher Roger Jones, who works near Shinn's and Wooldridge's seats, the owners have not attended a Hornets game since sometime in February, after the announcement of their intention to go to New Orleans.
"They had only missed three games last season and two this season until the New Orleans announcement," Jones said. "I don't think they want to face the fans."
Kelly Tripucka, a Hornets star early in franchise history and now a radio commentator for the Nets, also blames the owners. "The people here feel they have been shortchanged and they are voicing their displeasure," Tripucka said. "The owners didn't take care of the people who support the team."
While the crowd for Thursday's game was loud and on its feet much of the time, it was a far cry from the early years of the franchise. "Night and day," Tripucka said as he walked out of the coliseum, giving autographs along the way.
"It's a shame," he continued. "Back then, the coliseum was the place to hang out, like a community meeting, the place to be seen. When we were on the air tonight, we talked about how this crowd was loud, but can you imagine twice this many people at this level? What the crowd did for us back then was amazing -- they were part of the team. They came in here and looked at it like work, that they needed to do their part to lift us up. It made us work harder. I'll never forget getting a standing ovation after the first game we played and lost by 40 points. A standing ovation!"
Tripucka believes the NBA is going to look favorably on bringing an NBA team back to Charlotte. "I think they know the reasons (the Hornets failed here)," he says, referring to owner mistakes. "I don't know how they couldn't look favorably on this town. Look at all the years the team led the league in attendance (eight of the first nine seasons, including as recently as 1996-97). There's great potential here. Any team that's in trouble should look at Charlotte as the first place to go."
The fervor of Charlotte's soon-to-be abandoned fans wasn't lost on the Nets. As center Todd MacCulloch dressed after the game, he said he knew Charlotte had a hardcore fan group.
"Some people have said that because the team was moving, Charlotte wouldn't have a home-court advantage," he said. "I would dispute that. The people here tonight love this team. They get behind the team and it makes a difference."
But Nets forward Keith Van Horn was surprised at the support. "It was more people than I expected, and they really got behind them."
Hornets forward George Lynch felt buoyed by the support but hates that crowd size isn't what it used to be.
"We have one of the loudest, smallest crowds in the league," he says. "As players, we've tried to give fans something to be proud of. I feel we have a great team and fans, but unfortunately, not the support from the city."
When asked about crowd support, forward Lee Nailon acknowledged its critical role in the Thursday win, which pulled the Hornets to within one game of the Nets, at 2-1. Nailon then added in a falsetto, singing voice, "It feels good."
No matter whether the Hornets win another game this season, the team and the fans can revel in the lovefest they enjoyed less than a day before the league pulled the plug on Charlotte as an NBA city. The team may be gone, but not the memories. *