Tuesday February 5th, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- When David Stern announced, in the wake of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, that All-Star weekend would remain in New Orleans, I thought it was the wrong decision. And I have no doubt that, after this year's bacchanalia (Feb. 15-17) has concluded, there will be myriad complaints about cabs (not nearly enough), drunks in the street (far too many), indifferent retail service, long hotel check-in lines, confounding one-way streets in the French Quarter, traffic jams on the interstates, and, for all I know, the chicken and andouille gumbo at Emeril's, which is, incidentally, quite beyond reproach.

But I am glad that Stern stuck with the Big Easy. It was the right call, no matter what inconveniences are encountered during the three-day orgy of dunks and daiquiris.

Predictably, this feeling has something to do with the surprising play of the New Orleans Hornets, 32-15 as of Tuesday morning, and something to do with the rebuilding effort that continues two and a half years after that catastrophic storm touched down in the early-morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005. No, the city will not rise and reconnect its tattered infrastructure because the Hornets have been playing some of the best and most entertaining ball in the NBA (notwithstanding their three-game losing streak). And, no, the team, which began the season with the modest goal of just making the playoffs, is not suddenly cohesive and formidable because so many Crescent City citizens have rolled up their sleeves, spit in the wind and said, "We can come back." It's not that simple.

But spend a few days in New Orleans, watching the Hornets one night and touring the Katrina devastation and the rebuilding effort the next, and it's impossible not to sense that something special is going on here. Stern sticks with New Orleans and what happens? Chris Paul becomes an MVP candidate. (Right now, I'd vote him second behind LeBron James.) The Hornets win enough before mid-February -- note that they still have a long way to go to even earn postseason home-court advantage in the tough Western Conference -- to make Byron Scott the All-Star coach. Paul is, not surprisingly, added to the West reserves, but, surprisingly, so is teammate David West, who has raised his game this season.

Taking a Katrina tour (a terrible description but that's what it's called) should be the obligation of every New Orleans visitor during All-Star weekend. I guarantee that you will never think about that tragedy the same way, or so blithely dismiss the city's chances of rebuilding, or have anything but contempt for those ignoramuses whose racist rants about the Katrina victims were one of the lowlights on YouTube a while back.

To begin with, Katrina was not, and is not now, an African-American problem. It was, and is, a New Orleans problem. No doubt more blacks than whites were affected because the city has a 70 percent African-American population base, but the best estimate is that 80 percent of the city's inhabitants were affected in some way.

The first stop on our Katrina tour last week, in fact, was Lakeview, a predominantly white suburb. The storm did not discriminate according to color. Brownish stains, reminders of the level at which the surge of floodwater mercifully stopped, appear above windows in houses owned by both whites and blacks. Empty lots, indicating a place where a house once stood and was either washed away or knocked down because its fate was irrevocable, are multitudinous in both black and white areas. Most starkly, the eerie symbols of search teams, resembling hex signs, are painted on houses in all kinds of neighborhoods -- white, black, racially mixed. 9/8 AZ H2D reads one. Translation: On Sept. 8 (10 days after Katrina hit), a search team from Arizona found two dead humans.

The death toll from Katrina stands at about 1,600, though it's anyone's guess how many are still dying from the slow poisons of pollution and/or the dreaded web of depression. The victims died in rich homes and poor homes, in white suburbs and in the much-publicized Ninth Ward, where our tour came upon the caravan of John Edwards, the erstwhile presidential candidate having chosen the same site where he announced his White House bid to withdraw from the race. They died because the once-protective wetlands around New Orleans have been disappearing at an alarming rate; they died because the flood walls built years ago by the Army Corp of Engineers were defective (just last week a federal judge, while ruling that any federal agency was immune from lawsuits related to the construction, strongly criticized the corps); they died because Washington was slow to act (President Bush's comment that "Brownie, you're doing a helluva job" still resonates here); and they died because nature sometimes plays cruel tricks on a city with water all around.

The rebuilding cuts across socioeconomic and racial lines, too. True, many homeowners in both the affluent suburbs and the downtrodden areas simply left New Orleans, disheartened by dealing with byzantine insurance requirements or the prospect of starting over in a 250-square-foot FEMA trailer. But thousands of others have picked up hammers and saws and wheelbarrows and paintbrushes and gotten busy, rebuilding and remodeling and hoping against hope that their city can come back.

A similar thing is going on with the Hornets. With an internal ownership squabble (George Shinn eventually bought out former minority owner Ray Wooldridge in 2005), declining attendance and a so-so team, the franchise was not in great shape when Katrina hit. Then it had to relocate to Oklahoma City. Then it returned to face the challenge of selling sponsorships, corporate suites and ordinary-Joe tickets to a fan base in personal and financial crisis. Then came news that the Hornets have an out to terminate their lease at New Orleans Arena if they fail to draw an average of 14,735 fans from December 2007 through next season; as well as they've played, their attendance doesn't match that figure on most evenings.

This much is clear: As good as Paul and his mates have been to this point, the stability of the enterprise and the future of an NBA franchise in New Orleans remain giant question marks. From one man who had a change of heart, here's hoping that All-Star weekend provides a boost.

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