CHARLOTTE — On Wednesday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Charlotte Hornets, giving the Hornets their 42nd loss in what has been a lost season. If a fan were to focus just on the outcome, they’d gloss over the most poignant moment of the game, which came when Kemba Walker shook off a bad night for the first 45 minutes of action and went on a scoring barrage to claim the Hornets’ franchise record for points scored.
With 20 seconds left in an already decided game, Walker drove to the basket and laid the ball in to an eruption of cheers from the home crowd, who knew they’d witnessed something special. The interesting thing is, anyone who followed the team since Walker was drafted never saw any of this coming.
Walker’s first two seasons were filled with internal turmoil, none of it his doing. The team stripped the roster down to nothing in his rookie year as the then-Bobcats set an NBA record for team futility by having the worst winning percentage in league history after a 7-59 season. Walker’s second season showed improvement on the court, but while that was happening, Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap couldn’t stop clashing with people in the organization.
It wasn’t until Walker’s third season in which some semblance of a functional team was built around him. Al Jefferson was signed as a message to the fan base that the front office was tired of losing and it was time to make a playoff run. Walker and Jefferson held together a cast of NBA vagabonds, and along with first-time head coach Steve Clifford, Charlotte went 43-39 and made the postseason. They found themselves going up against the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the first round, which dispatched the Bobcats in four quick games and sent Charlotte scrambling back to the drawing board.
Basketball fans around Charlotte didn’t get how special Walker could be until 2014, when the Hornets name came back. In their first game with familiar colors, Charlotte erased a 20-point lead to the Milwaukee Bucks in their season opener. Walker not only hit the three-pointer to send the game to overtime, but hit the game-winning shot in the final moments.
Walker’s heroics weren’t done that season, as he sent Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire’s Knicks home with a loss on a buzzer-beating layup a month later. Those two moments were high points in what was another lost season for Walker, who has played a whole lot of brilliant basketball for teams that haven’t made it to the postseason during his career.