Tuesday March 27th, 2007

Basketball was never meant to be played to the thumping, mechanical cadence of hip-hop; the NBA is best suited to the impulsive rhythms of jazz, and that is what Kobe Bryant played to last Friday night in the cradle of jazz, New Orleans. From the troubled drama of Bryant's past has emerged a blissful eloquence that, like Dixieland, is both disciplined and liberating. His jump shot is an elaborate riff that holds an audience rapt: Shoes squeak in panic around Kobe as he gathers his breath, his shoulders swaying to the ball-beat at his fingertips, a distracting glance this way as he bursts there into space, corkscrewing as he rises up and up, his right leg splayed like a clarinetist leaning back in full-blown solo.

"The key," Bryant said afterward, as if reciting a lesson of everyone from Louis Armstrong to Wynton Marsalis, "is to take your time."

In the last of six NBA games to be played in New Orleans this season before the Hornets return full time next fall, Bryant achieved something that hadn't been done in 45 years. Not since the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in Hershey, Pa., had an NBA player scored 50 points or more in four consecutive games, but that's what Bryant did over an eight-day span. What made Bryant's spree all the more exhilarating was how it elevated his team: His Los Angeles Lakers had lost seven straight when he was inspired to take an extended solo. Bryant scored 65 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on March 16, followed by 50 against the Minnesota Timberwolves, followed by 60 against the Memphis Grizzlies, followed 24 hours later by 50 against the Hornets -- and his Lakers won every time. The streak ended on Sunday night when Bryant had only 43 points in a victory over the Golden State Warriors, but if the league's scoring leader (31.0 points per game at week's end) is still performing at this ethereal level come the playoffs -- he claimed he wasn't tired despite averaging just 157 seconds of rest in the four games -- Western Conference contenders won't want anything to do with the Lakers. "It's phenomenal," says L.A. coach Phil Jackson, who used to complain that Bryant's prolific shooting was antithetical to the Lakers' larger goals.

Yet maybe the most promising indication of Bryant's maturity was his recognition of the larger meaning of last Friday's game to the Big Easy. He was proud that he helped draw a crowd of 18,535 (a New Orleans Arena record for a regular-season game) at a time when the city and its nomadic team are starved for good news. "They have a sense of appreciation for the game of basketball because this team was almost taken away from them," Bryant said.

"I've been doing this almost 20 years, and tonight's going to be the highest gross we've had since I've owned the franchise," said Hornets owner George Shinn, whose team has played the balance of its home games in Oklahoma City. "This one game."

The record crowd raises more questions about the Hornets' return next season as well as the NBA's prospects in Louisiana. Since the Civil War no U.S. city has suffered more than New Orleans, whose population of 223,000 is half of what it was before Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Can the Hornets survive in a city dominated by the Saints, who have a season-ticket waiting list for next year of more than 25,000? And will the NBA's decision to award the 2008 All-Star weekend to New Orleans, as a sign of commitment to the franchise and the city, backfire because of the rising crime rate ?

In February, Players Association executive director Billy Hunter threatened legal action to have the All-Star Game moved if New Orleans couldn't provide a safe environment, though after a recent visit he expressed confidence that the event will be a success. But that more optimistic message must make its way to All-Stars such as the Houston Rockets' Tracy McGrady, who said he's thinking about skipping the weekend because of fears about violent crime, which is up 68% in New Orleans since Katrina.

Bryant offers a more sympathetic view. "To show the resilience that the city has, you have to reward it," he says. "I know a lot of players are concerned with safety and security and things like that, but this city will be fine by the time that comes around, I'm sure." The energy in the arena -- fans loudly supporting their Hornets, booing controversial fouls that went Bryant's way and cheering his spectacular plays -- helped convince him that better days are ahead. "To have the All-Star Game here, I'm telling you, it's going to be absolutely special," he said.

Concerns about All-Star weekend may be overblown. The French Quarter and other tourist destinations near the arena suffered either minimal damage or have been renovated; at Mardi Gras in February the city hosted 800,000 revelers without major incident. "Our police department has over 1,400 officers, and we will certainly have a sufficient number in the area," says Sgt. Joe Narcisse, a spokesman for the New Orleans police.

Other worries about crime smack of racism. All-Star weekend is a powerful draw for many African-Americans, who made up a majority of the estimated 85,000 visitors to Las Vegas for this year's event. Police there reported 403 arrests, which a department spokesman compared with the number of violations on a typical New Year's Eve or Super Bowl weekend. Yet repeated references by residents and tourists to the "element" that had come to Vegas struck many, including Hunter, as racist. "You would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to have reached that interpretation," he says. "The 'element,' or 'those people,' or 'your people' -- everybody knows the buzzwords. Black folk are sensitive to all of that."

All-Star weekend in New Orleans could also serve as a rallying cry for the African-Americans displaced by Katrina. They represent a large portion of the more than 200,000 who haven't returned because, according to local officials, the federal government has yet to release billions of dollars in funds targeted for reconstruction. Many neighborhoods have dilapidated houses in no better condition than when they were ravaged 19 months ago. NBA teams and players have donated more than $15 million to the relief efforts; last week Shinn announced that the Hornets, the NBA and Toyota are funding a program to build 20 homes. "We'd like to see something that takes care of the displaced people, because it really is not going to be that much fun to be there if progress hasn't been made," NBA commissioner David Stern said recently. "You take your guests on tours of areas that have been devastated and where it seems like very, very little has been done. We don't understand it."

Still, Shinn has made it clear that he would have preferred to play all of the team's home games this season in Oklahoma City, which has greeted him with 27 sellouts over the past two years. "If we were looking at relocating, with the population base the way it is, we may not give New Orleans a second chance," says Shinn, who controversially moved the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2002. "But the situation is, we have a lease [through 2012] here. We're obligated, and the league approved us to play here, so this is technically our home."

And what of his charitable efforts? "From a selfish standpoint, the things we're doing in the community come back to me, it helps me," he says. "Because people say, 'This guy's helping out, let's help him out. Let's buy tickets to come to his game.' I'm no dummy: I'm selling. And the more I do to help this community, the more it helps me."

The franchise's prospects in New Orleans are not as dire as they might appear. After averaging just 14,735 during their three pre-Katrina years, the Hornets sold out two of their six games in their old building this season. Not only will they return with a promising young team, but Shinn and other club officials quote financial data suggesting that poor people left the city after Katrina while those with disposable income have remained. Stern doesn't want to leave the impression that he is abandoning New Orleans, so he has dispatched his top marketers to help what had been one of the league's most poorly managed franchises find national sponsors, making up for an absence of local corporate support. "Where we've had success is with national companies that are looking to show that the rebuilding of New Orleans is something they're engaged in," says Hornets COO Hugh Weber, who has already signed Capital One and Cadbury Schweppes to multiyear sponsorships.

Ultimately, however, the Hornets will succeed in New Orleans only if the city recovers. Though it hasn't seemed to be a problem for the Saints, Hornets coach Byron Scott worries about how his players will adapt. "The crime rate went up and we're talking about bringing a bunch of millionaires back here, a bunch of guys who have never been here," he says. "We've got to know that we're going to take care of each other, that we're going to watch each other's back. They have to make sure they keep eyes in the back of their head, and that you always know your environment wherever you're going."

As symbolic and uplifting as it may be for New Orleans to celebrate the homecoming of one of its most visible businesses, a basketball team can do only so much. "You have to hope the powers that be understand that they're playing with people's lives," says forward David West, the only Hornet who was with the team before Katrina. "Just because you bring a basketball team back, a football team back to the area, that doesn't mean people are all of a sudden going to forget what the real focus has to be, and that's getting people back to the city and improving the city, and making it a safer and a better place. What we are is just cosmetic."

Then again it's hard to underestimate the healing power of the sweetest music, like Kobe Bryant's on a night when the Big Easy felt vibrant again.

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