No one may have wanted to admit it, but there was a cloud hanging over the city of Charlotte that has been there since early February.
Ever since the Carolina Panthers fell in Super Bowl 50, the city of Charlotte — one that seen little professional athletic success in recent history — had an overwhelming snakebitten feeling anytime sports had been brought up lately. After dealing with years of terrible teams, the tables looked like they were beginning to turn — Cam Newton had become the face of the NFL and the Hornets, after a disappointing 2014-2015 season, reminded the city how it fell in love with professional basketball in the first place.
Then came the championship appearances, all ending in heartbreak for the Carolinas. Clemson vs. Alabama in college football. Carolina vs. Denver in the NFL. UNC vs. Villanova in college basketball.
Suddenly, North Carolina became synonymous with a meme involving the owner of the Charlotte Hornets.
Things would only get worse from there with the passing of the controversial HB2 law that now paints North Carolina in the eyes of many as a bigot state as more and more businesses and events leave the state, and with the NBA saying they will pull the 2017 NBA All-Star Game from Charlotte if the law is not repealed.
In the worst way, Charlotte and the state of North Carolina needed some good news to distract them and remind them how much fun sports could be again.
That is where the Hornets came in. They could be the bright light in a landscape of darkness covering the Carolinas. They had an opportunity to take back the city and paint it purple and teal, like it was during the heydays of the 1990s.
The team had finished with their best record since 1999-2000 and was tied for third in the Eastern Conference. They had managed to avoid the Atlanta Hawks in round one, and instead drew another division rival in the Miami Heat - the same Miami Heat team that Charlotte had recently taken down in Miami thanks to a big fourth quarter comeback. The signs had seemed to be pointing up for Charlotte.
Until Game 1 and 2 happened.
The Heat played true to their name, and shot as if they could not miss, because, well, they couldn't. After shooting 57.8 percent from the field and averaging 119 points in the first two games in this series, some in Charlotte feared that the team was staring at another first round sweep and more athletic misery and Crying Jordan memes for the city of Charlotte.
There was still one last bastion of hope - Time Warner Cable Arena, where the Hornets went 30-11 in the regular season - the third-best home record in the Eastern Conference. The Heat had gone 20-21 on the road in the regular season. Surely, Miami's white hot shooting could not keep up and Charlotte would begin to make the shots they had made all year, correct? If there was a time and a place, it would be on Saturday night, when the Charlotte Hornets would be hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2002. It had been 5,098 days since the city had seen a playoff basketball victory of any kind, and the city was desperate for it. Everyone, from the team to the fans to even staff members working at Time Warner Cable Arena would need to bring their 'A' game to prevent going in a near-insurmountable 3-0 deficit.
No one failed to deliver.
There were quiet moments of nervousness when Luol Deng hit four 3s in the first quarter, when the Heat continued to control the offensive boards, when the neither team could pull away.
But then, Kemba Walker hit a 3. Al Jefferson, known for every low post move imaginable except for dunks, had a putback dunk after a Walker miss. Marvin Williams, one of the keys to the team's success in the regular season but unable to find his touch in the postseason, took to the sky and delivered this message to the Heat.
It would continue later when Williams would hit his first three of the series in the closing minutes of the first half, followed by a 24-second shot clock violation that had Steve Clifford smiling from ear to ear and the crowd at the Hive delivering one of the loudest cheers heard all year.
At least, until Jeremy Lin did this.
It was at this moment, in between Frank Kaminsky shushing anyone who questioned his selection by the Hornets and in the midst of an 18-0 run to put Charlotte ahead for good, that the city had a flashback. The 1990s had returned. Muggsy Bogues, in the form of Walker, was back directing the offense. Dell Curry, in the form of Lin, has hit shots left and right. Larry Johnson, in the form of Kaminsky, had taken the game over and put his team on his back. Alonzo Mourning, in the form of Jefferson, reestablished his dominant force on the block. And the crowd was as loud as it had ever been, as deafening chants reverberated throughout the new iteration of the Hive.
At the end of the Hornets' 96-80 Game 3 victory, light had finally broken through the clouds to brighten the day for the Carolinas. A bright spot, a positive source of pride had been found, and it was dyed in purple and teal. What was old was new, and fans had a reason to believe again.
The buzz is back, stronger than ever as people continue to enter the Swarm, as the team likes to say, by the minute.
Even if the Hornets loss the next two games and are eliminated from the playoffs, Charlotte will have Saturday night to remember, to point to and say, "I was there. This is what good sports can bring."