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The Hornets’ Future is Now

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Without support, city’s major league basketball team could relocate

The inspiring story that has been the city of New
Orleans’ since 2005, the date of its near-death,
has been remarkable. Its citizens have seen a
rejuvenation of civic pride, economic growth and
the renaissance of the downtown area and many
neighborhoods that were thought unable to ever
regenerate. Faith and a will to survive–coupled
with inventiveness and ingenuity generated by
the inability to wait any longer for assistance or
guidance–have driven the city forward to a new age
of promise.

The city has shown something special—a superb
pride and self-awareness beyond that of any typical
municipality. Part of that has been because of
the New Orleans Saints, a franchise that carried
its fans and citizenry aloft in 2009 – 2010 like
Bacchus carrying his cup. Black and gold became
the city’s near–-official colors, flags flew and the
fleur–de–lis was emblazoned on everything from
truck windows to lamp posts. But New Orleans is
always mindful of where it has been, a top-tier city,
and in terms of sports, still views itself as a major
league city. And so it is, but it has a forgotten
stepchild in its sports family—the Hornets.
The Hornets have spent seven years in New
Orleans now, winning slightly more than half
their games, making the playoffs in one of those
years and winning the division once. That is
indeed a good record, and yet the team has faced
the threat of relocation for struggling to meet
attendance quotas at least two years in a row now,
with considerable corporate and community ticketbuying
drives needed to reach their goals.

The team did meet its goals, but that deck seems
particularly stacked against the Hornets because
of the gargantuan presence of the Saints. Clearly
something more is needed.

The front office has been excellent. After hiring
an impressive young coach, Monty Williams,
who continues to show tremendous in-game
strategizing, and completing a major overhaul of
almost every niche of the roster—including every
position and nearly every player—the team seems to
have settled into its customary slot in the bottom
half of the Western Conference playoff tier.
Despite starting with one of the best opening
records in franchise history (8–0), the Hornets
have played nearly .500 ball since. The playoffs
again appear likely, but having a series with homecourt
advantage and advancing past the first round
seems extremely unlikely.

But the Hornets’ on-court performance is not
their greatest problem—instead, their very future
is precarious, which is also a problem for the
city itself. The only owner the franchise has ever
known, George Shinn, sold the team to the NBA
in December. That represented a dramatic turn
of events, considering there had been a deal to
sell the team to local businessman Gary Chouest
just seven months prior—only for that deal to be
ruptured by Chouest’s loss of revenue because of
the federal moratorium on Gulf oil drilling, the
very lifeblood of Chouest’s fortunes.

While that was in abeyance, the NBA, especially
Commissioner David Stern, after awaiting these
developments and fearing the consequences,
stepped in and injected the money necessary to get
Shinn out and keep the Hornets in New Orleans.
The results of instances where this has happened
elsewhere in major league sports—baseball’s
Montreal Expos and hockey’s Phoenix Coyotes,
for example—have been a mixed bag. The Expos
moved, and the Coyotes have been in constant
turmoil while fending off suitors. Unfortunately,
the market New Orleans compares most closely
to is Montreal, as Montreal was a relatively smallmarket
team and Phoenix is one of the largest
cities in the United States.

Ratcheting up the pressure, Stern most recently
appeared on an ESPN podcast and blithely confirmed what had been a mere rumor, that
many an NBA owner would be very happy to
contract the Hornets out of existence, thereby
gaining leverage in ongoing labor talks with the
players. However, in a recent interview with ESPN,
Stern added, “right now we are steaming full–
speed ahead with every single possible way to make
that team successful in New Orleans, and I think
we’re going to succeed. We’re going to make it
unattractive to move it or contract it.”

Given the Saints’ presence in the first half of the
season, and given the team’s inability to reach the
top tier of the conference in all but one year of its
existence here, how does the team reach the level
of being “successful” or “unattractive” in terms
of offers from owners who would move them
elsewhere?

In the same interview with ESPN, Stern hinted
that supporters looking at Seattle and Vancouver
were eager to regain a team, and that he personally
felt inclined to see one of them rewarded with one.
Another well-placed potential buyer, Microsoft
mogul Steve Ballmer, has actively sought to buy
the team and his pockets are the very deepest, so a
relocation fee isn’t likely to hinder him.

In December 2010, Stern further darkly conveyed
in another ESPN interview that the Hornets’ lease
runs to 2014 and that further negotiation with
the state would then be required. Yet, at the same
time, the NBA would leave all channels open for
all comers.

As was witnessed when Sean Payton purchased
a home in Dallas, the city’s core confidence is
still very fragile and intertwined with its sports
franchises and heroes. It would be bad enough
to lose the Hornets, but the city’s continuing
battles with national perceptions, and its own selfperception,
would take a considerable hit were the
team to relocate.

The final reality is that the contract for the
organization’s key player, Chris Paul, will
potentially expire in 2012. That’s next year. If
Chris Paul departs, it is hard to imagine the team
meeting its attendance goals and staying.

The city and its citizens should act now and realize
that if it wants a second major league franchise
they need to marshal their forces and not only buy
tickets but also make a full-court press to convince
Paul he can have a permanent home here and be a
permanent member of its pantheon of heroes.

The city has assets no other city has, and it should
use them on Chris Paul, and thereby keep the
Hornets.