Across all sports, at any level of competition, every team hopes the first game of the season goes well for them. But the fact of the matter is that the first game of the season rarely bodes any omen, ill or well, for any team’s fortunes.
That said, though, the Greensboro Swarm probably wanted their first game — their very, very first game, mind you — to go much better than it did.
The visiting Fort Wayne Mad Ants trampled Greensboro at the Nov. 12 opener of the Swarm’s inaugural season, 120-99.
But it could have been much, much worse.
At the half, the Mad Ants had already established a 79-37 lead over the Swarm. Any third grader could draw a potential conclusion from that grisly math.
So, if anything, while the Swarm took a hard loss in their debut, they won a moral victory in what head coach Noel Gillespie called “a tale of two halves.”
Through both halves, the sell-out home crowd acted as Greek chorus for the action on the court.
During the pregame niceties, including the gifts of jerseys to such Greensboro luminaries as Mayor Nancy Vaughan, the Greensboro Coliseum Fieldhouse — nicknamed the Hive, of course — buzzed with activity and anticipation.
The emcee implored the audience, “We don’t sit until the Swarm makes its first basket! We do not sit until the Swarm makes its first basket!”
And the crowd, hyped to the gills, obliged. Thankfully, it only took one minute.
But the Mad Ants had already set the tempo with a wild flourish to the basket within moments of the opening tip.
The Swarm looked shook, and the spectators shivered.
“There were some pre-game jitters,” Gillespie admitted after the game. “You could tell from the warmup line.
“And [Fort Wayne] came out more physical than us, hit us in the mouth,” Gillespie continued. “They were physical from the jump.”
The Mad Ants thumped the Swarm’s abdomen in the first half. Tough defense forced turnovers and bad shots.
But even when relatively open, the Swarm couldn’t seem to land buckets; at the half, Greensboro shot only 28.6 percent from the field to Fort Wayne’s phenomenal 67.4 percent, including hitting over half of their shots from downtown.
Four Mad Ants posted double-digits in the first half, forwards Stephan Hicks and Ben Bentil leading with 18 points each.
The Swarm’s inability to score, even from the free-throw line, made the difference between the first half simply slipping from the Swarm’s grasp and becoming an unfortunate tailspin. Shots just off the rim, rebounds just off the tips of fingers — the little mistakes added up in short time.
Even NBA veteran swingman Damien Wilkins, the only Greensboro player to hit 10 points in the first half, suffered from the line, hitting six of 10.
After one free throw finally fell, he strolled up the paint, popped out his mouth guard and yelled, “Thank you!” to the rim.
The crowd, at first lit with excitement, filled the Hive with a muttering growl, their disappointment palpable. Most surely hoped the second half would end quickly and painlessly as possible.
Though the team entered the locker room sullen and somber, Coach Gillespie claimed there was “no negativity, no finger-pointing” during the halftime break.
“They knew the mistakes they made; they knew it unraveled,” Gillespie said. “We just kept saying, ‘Hey, take it one possession at a time; let’s cut this lead.’
“You never want to be down 40,” he added. “It was just a punch in the gut. But it was good everyone responded.”
One player responded in a big way: Prince Williams, a 6-foot-4 guard the Swarm picked from the community tryout.
“He’s got a high basketball IQ,” Gillespie said. “He looks to make plays. He doesn’t turn it over, and he’s got good length, so we feel comfortable having him out there.”
He also produced much-needed offense for Greensboro, including a big three halfway through the third quarter that reignited the crowd.
Williams and forward Frank Rogers — another recruit from the open tryout — provided boosts of energy the team needed to finish strong.
The audience got back into the game late. After a long ball from guard Rasheed Sulaimon cut the deficit to 19 with seven minutes remaining, the crowd exploded with rapture most reserve for single-digit margins. Center Mike Tobey landed a big block soon after, and judging from the reaction, one might’ve thought it was LeBron James’ monstrous block from the NBA Finals.
The big man fouled out with 1:27 left, leading Greensboro with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
The hometown crowd ignored the scoreboard as the final seconds dripped off the clock. Their team had held the Mad Ants to only 41 points in the second half.
Gillespie viewed the game as a learning experience. And, of course, he looks forward to developing his team.
“You saw in the second half the team we wanna be,” Gillespie said. “I keep tellin’ the media, tellin’ our guys, ‘We wanna be blue-collar, desperate, scrap and claw and dive for loose balls.’
“There’s only one inaugural game,” he continued. “There’s only one home opener. It’s past us; it’s under our belt. So, we can build from there.”
The Greensboro Swarm next take on the Westchester Knicks at 7 p.m. on Wednesday in the Greensboro Coliseum Fieldhouse. For more info, visit greensboro.dleague.nba.com.