LANDOVER -- Back in his days at the University of Kentucky, Rex Chapman used to make magic like this all the time. During his two years in Lexington, some fans at Rupp Arena even tried to name the town after him.
Welcome to "Rexington North."
A dramatic 21-footer by Chapman with three-tenths of a second left gave the Washington Bullets a one-point lead over the Orlando Magic last night at a sold-out USAir Arena, and a subsequent, if inadvertent, free throw pushed the lead to two. Chapman then preserved his team's 110-108 opening-night victory by knocking away a lob pass at the buzzer.
The three-point play by Chapman, which followed a pair of free throws by Magic guard Nick Anderson with 2.4 seconds to play, capped a tremendous comeback by the Bullets. Washington had trailed by as many as 17 points in the first half and by 14 at halftime.
"I've made a few shots like that, but I've also missed my share," said Chapman, who finished with 21 points, one of four Bullets to go over the 20-point mark.
Chapman was fouled on the play by Horace Grant, who narrowly missed blocking the shot. He then accidentally banked in the free throw, giving the Magic time to throw in a lob from midcourt. The play didn't work and the Bullets ran off the court as a crowd of 18,756 celebrated.
It made for a successful debut for new coach Jim Lynam and a much-needed boost of confidence for the Bullets going into tonight's road game against the Chicago Bulls at the brand-new United Center. It also gave one of the NBA's most frustrated franchises its first win in a season opener since 1989.
"Obviously you feel good about winning a game like this, but it's only one game," said Lynam, who made his return to the sideline after a two-year hiatus as general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers. "More importantly, in the second half, we played aggressively. In the first half, we deferred."
The Bullets deferred mostly to 7-foot-1 All-Star Shaquille O'Neal, who along with Anderson helped the Magic to a 61-47 lead at halftime. O'Neal would finish with game-high totals of 28 points and 12 rebounds, but Washington proved there was strength in numbers.
Sparked by veteran point guard Scott Skiles, who was acquired from Orlando during the off-season, the Bullets came back to take the lead, 84-83, by the end of the third quarter. But after pushing the lead to five on two baskets by Calbert Cheaney early in the fourth quarter, Washington fell behind by as many as five.
"It was like a lot of games we played last year," said center Kevin Duckworth, who continued to win back some supporters with a solid 16-point effort. "But it's also a lot different than last year. We've worked hard on our shooting. It's a whole new look for all of us."
The new look was certainly provided by Skiles, as well as by Duckworth, who combined briefly with 7-7 Gheorghe Muresan in the fourth quarter to help the Bullets climb back. Both eventually fouled out, leaving Tom Gugliotta to play O'Neal.
But Chapman, Cheaney and Gugliotta picked up where they left off last year. Gugliotta led the Bullets with 24 points and 11 rebounds, and Cheaney added 20. Skiles, who seemed to be on the floor whenever the Bullets were making their runs, finished with 13 points and nine assists to outplay Anfernee Hardaway (14 points, two assists, six turnovers), the Wunderkind who took his job with the Magic.
"I'm in a situation here where players respond to me," said Skiles. "Last year, I did not get the same response. But we can't get caught up in the euphoria."
No matter how tough the Bullets played last night, the game seemed heading for the same old result when Anderson made those free throws to erase what had been a 107-106 Washington lead. Anderson was fouled after both Brian Shaw and O'Neal had missed shots for the Magic.
Then came Chapman's magic.
D8 And, for one night, it was Rexington all over again.