CHARLOTTE, N.C. (ESPN.com news services) -- Pondering whether a close loss in their
NBA debut was a moral victory for the expansion Charlotte Bobcats,
Emeka Okafor did his best cheerleader impersonation.
"I guess you see those movies where everyone is like, 'Yeah! At
least you guys were in there!" he said, arms in the air and mock
glee in his voice. "I guess I'd rather lose the way we did then
get blown out. But I want to win."
That might take awhile.
The Bobcats marked the NBA's return to Charlotte after a
two-year absence with an entertaining and hard-fought 103-96 loss
to the Washington Wizards on Thursday night.
The Wizards improved to 2-0, their best start since 1994-95, when they also won their first two games. The last time the franchise started 3-0 was 1978-79, the last season the then-Bullets reached the NBA Finals.
Okafor (19 points, 10 rebounds) became just the second player drafted first overall by an expansion team to record a double-double in his first game. Walt Bellamy recorded a 29-point, 17-rebound effort in his first game after being selected first by the expansion Chicago Packers in 1961
"We showed our stuff. We showed we're going to fight and play
hard and try to win every night," said Okafor, the No. 2 pick in
the NBA draft.
Replacing the Hornets after they moved to New Orleans in 2002,
the Bobcats are expected to struggle mightily this season. Still,
they were in this one late as they tried to become the third
consecutive expansion team to win its NBA debut, following
Vancouver and Toronto (1995).
The effort impressed Washington.
"They played really hard and have a lot of key components -- it
was kind of hard to call them an expansion team," said Antawn
Jamison, who led the Wizards with 24 points. "They've got some
talented guys ... they will get a lot of upsets."
Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff seemed disappointed.
"We weren't good enough tonight," he said. "It wasn't because
we lacked or didn't want it. Some of them may have wanted it too
bad. I don't know whether any of them had stage fright."
Actually, it was just poor execution in the final quarter, when
youth and inexperience were obvious.
The game was tied at 85 when turnovers and poor shot selection
allowed the Wizards to go on a game-deciding 9-0 run.
Melvin Ely lost the ball while dribbling, and Eddie House
foolishly fouled Juan Dixon as he made a Washington layup. It was a
three-point swing after Dixon's free throw, and the Bobcats
appeared to unravel after that.
House missed a 3-pointer and Steve Smith missed consecutive
shots as the Wizards built a 94-85 lead with 4:14 to play.
Charlotte still had chances, sending Tamar Slay to the line
trailing 96-90, but Slay missed both free throws and the Bobcats
couldn't make a basket after Okafor battled for the rebound.
"They made shots and we didn't," House said. "That will come.
I think we did all right for a group that hasn't been together very long."
Unlike the Hornets' first game in 1988, when they received a
standing ovation after a 40-point loss, most of the sellout crowd
of 23,319 was long gone by the end. Even NBA commissioner David
Stern filed out before the final buzzer. It left one seemingly
drunk fan standing alone, clapping loudly as he shouted, "OK,
Bobcats, you rule!"
Charlotte's Primoz Brezec and Smith scored 15 each, Gerald Wallace had 11 and Jason Kapono and Ely had 10 apiece.
Brezec scored the first points in Bobcats history, fighting through a double
team, spinning to his left and sinking a layup for a 2-0 lead in the game's opening minute.
But not everything went smoothly during the opener.
The sound system in the aging Charlotte Coliseum -- where the
Bobcats will play this year as their new $265 million arena is
being finished -- wasn't sharp, making team owner Bob Johnson's
pregame speech to the crowd difficult to hear.
Traffic outside the Coliseum was backed up three hours before
the game, preventing thousands of fans from arriving in time for
the 7 p.m. tipoff. When four fans holding courtside tickets finally
made it in midway through the first quarter, they claimed Johnson
and rapper Nelly were sitting in their seats.
And some things were the same as always, like the rousing cheers
reserved for pro wrestler Ric Flair, a beloved Charlottean.
Nelly, an investor in the Bobcats, seemed the logical
choice to either sing the national anthem or perform at halftime.
He did neither. Instead, his songs played over the loudspeaker
during breaks as he sat courtside next to Johnson. ... Jamison, a
Charlotte native, typically has a large contingent of family and
friends in the stands, but requested only 20 tickets for the
opener. ... Smith and Brevin Knight, the only veterans on
Charlotte's team, were unanimously elected team captains following
the morning shootaround.
Information from The Associated Press and ESPN Research was used in this report.