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The Bobcats Have Finally Escaped From Their Dark Cellar

Since the franchise moved to Charlotte in 2004, the Bobcats have spent a lot of time in the deepest, darkest depths of the NBA, where rats feast on scraps, leftover food, dry blood and any small pools of beer in the hope of it bringing some sense of excitement into their lives. But there was something that changed the course of their pity-filled narrative. The signing of Al Jefferson marked the start of a new chapter for the lowly franchise because for the first time in their storied-for-all-the-wrong-reasons history, they reeled in a big fish–the type you take a picture of, frame, and show off to all your work pals, only to brag about how your patience paid off in wooing the pond’s biggest creature into chomping down your bait.

Jefferson was a game-changer, even after all the mileage he has racked up since he came into the NBA as a soft-spoken teenager. While he wasn’t expected to make a ginormous impact right off the bat, he brought experience, a winning attitude and most importantly, a low post presence that could consistently make a shot two-feet from the basket. He’s given the Bobcats a reliable scorer, something that has transformed them into a respectable NBA team. But more so than all of that, signing Big Al to a three-year contract was a statement: With one of the most publicized drafts in recent history coming this summer, the Bobcats had the option of losing a lot of games again in return for a high pick or acquire a big-time free agent to get them on the right track sooner.

After 77 games, nobody can complain about their decision.

Before his arrival, Bobcats basketball was a sorry-thing. There was one season–one winning season–in the midst of their great depression where they won a shade over half of their games and clinched a playoff berth. While Dwight Howard manhandled the Bobcats’ front-line en route to a four-game sweep in that lonely post-season series, it was a step in the right direction for a franchise that had been cursed with bad luck ever since it entered The Hornet’s Nest. However, after that glimmer of hope, their worst nightmare got darker than they could’ve ever imaged.

The Bobcats battled through injuries in 2010-2011 and parted ways with the closest thing they ever had to a franchise player in Gerald Wallace. Then, they set an NBA record by winning just 10.6 percent of their games in the lockout-shortened season. It started looking a little rosier in 2013 when they tripled their previous season’s win total, but they were still far, far away from being anything other than the Eastern Conferences’ piñata. Fact of that matter was, 21 wins still made them one of the sorriest teams in the Association, especially when combined with a point differential of -9.3. In the midst of that bloodbath was a lot of lost lottery picks and a lot of false hope. But just as the team appeared to lack any sense of long-term direction, things started to look up again when they got their prized, $40.5 million possession last summer.

The future sure is looking brighter for a franchise that has lost 63.8 percent of their games in their last nine years. They’ve got a franchise player, young assets that continue to evolve in front of our very eyes, plenty of cap space to throw at free agents, and draft picks coming out of their ears. Even as they flirt with a .500 record in these closing weeks, it’s safe to assume some that they’ll improve over the next 12 months, whether it is through a few roster changes, some good drafting or a little tweaking. For that reason, why shouldn’t believe that this roster has the potential to hold their position as one of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference over the next few years? (That’s a thought that crossed nobody’s mind this time last year).

Next year, there will no longer be any bobcats roaming the streets of Charlotte; instead, there will be an infestation of raging hornets. Nevertheless, the Bobcats’ recent surge couldn’t have come at a better time. With five games remaining on their schedule, they can breath a sigh of relief, knowing that no matter what happens in these last few games, they’re heading back to the post-season for the second time in franchise history. Given their likely seed, odds are their playoff run will be short-lived. Even with the Indiana Pacers plummeting at the speed of light, the Bobcats may be out of their depth if they were to meet them in the first round. They both play in a similar way, the Pacers just do a better job at it. But if anything, just one win would go down as a treat, as it would be the only playoff victory since their expansion. Anything more would be their Super Bowl. For a team that has endured so much suffering over the years, a sniff at success should do wonders for their development. At the very least, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Josh McRoberts need a taste of post-season basketball. The people in Charlotte need a reminder of what a meaningful game looks like. The franchise deserves a pat on the back.

Go to Charlotte when the Miami Heat are in town and there isn’t a Bobcats fan in sight. Hundreds of people sporting LeBron James jerseys, black and red baseball caps and Dwyane Wade shirseys flee from the EpiCenter an hour before the game for a chance to watch the defending champions take the court. Head into the stadium and nothing changes–hundreds of raging fans line up on the stairs for a chance to high-five LeBron or get an autograph. Glance over on the other side of the arena and you’ll see a smaller crowd, one that looks shameful in comparison. During warm-ups, hundreds of phones can be seen pointing in the direction of the Heat, snapping pictures and taking videos. It’s clear where the majority of the crowd’s allegiances lie, but things are slowly starting to change. Being a Bobcats fan isn’t a disgrace anymore, and people aren’t just going to games to take it how great the opposing team is. Attendance is up, albeit it slightly. Al Jefferson has put more butts in seats. Kemba Walker has motivated kids into buying his jersey. There is certainly a buzz surrounding the team, and it has started to extend beyond the confines of old Hornets fans; the ones who still to this day can’t bring themselves to let go of the past.

In wake of the announcement that the Hornets were coming back to town, Charlotte was swept with a wildfire of elation. Finally, the franchise everyone fell in love with is making its grand return. Memories of Muggsy Bogues weaving his way through defenders and Alonzo Mourning hitting a 20-foot jumper to propel the Hornets into the second-round of the playoffs came flooding back. Those days are over, sure, but what’s exciting is that their current team has decided to open the hatch and escape from the dark cellar that has kept them down for so many years. And while they may not be able to replicate those great memories, they’ll in a good position to make some new ones.

Scott Rafferty