Hello, New Orleans! The NBA returned to the Big Easy after a 23year absence, but how long is the buzz about the Hornets likely to last?

November 11, 2002

This city is famous for its gamblers, prostitutes, exhibitionists,
anti-Christs, alcoholics, sodomites, drug addicts, fetishists,
onanists, pornographers, frauds, jades...all of whom are only too
well protected by graft.
--John Kennedy Toole
A Confederacy of Dunces

In his screed about New Orleans, Ignatius J. Reilly, the oversized and
audacious protagonist of Toole's sprawling, comic novel,
neglected to mention mimes, tarot-card readers, strip-show hucksters
and frozen-daiquiri dispensers, all of whom annoyingly clamor for the
tourist dollar in and around the French Quarter. But look, the Big
Easy isn't that sleazy. When the NBA returned to the city on
Oct.30 after a 23 year absence, the most egregious assault on taste at
New Orleans Arena was a pregame "prayer" by Mayor Ray Nagin
that solicited not only a Hornets victory over the Utah Jazz but also
a championship for the newly arrived team. Then Mayor Ray sent the
sellout crowd of 17,688 into a frenzy with three raucous Amens!

Praise the Lord and pass the ACLU briefs. Given the circumstances and
the setting, though, Hizzoner's cheerleading invocation seemed
oddly apropos, as did the Hornets' donning of Sly Stone-like
silver capes for their introduction; the soulful rendering of the
national anthem by Aaron Neville, who wore a Hornets number1 jersey
over a camouflage Tshirt; the crackling firecrackers and the
multicolored streamers; and the vampire fangs on Hugo, the team's
mascot. The New Orleans Hornets (say it a few dozen times, and maybe
you'll get used to it) then cooperated with a 100-75 victory over
Utah, the franchise that fled New Orleans after the 1978-79 season and
took with it the nickname that rightfully belongs to the city that is
the birthplace of jazz. "New Orleans loves a show," said
Hornets forward P.J. Brown, "and we gave 'em one."

Indeed, there could be no more fitting new act in town than the
Hornets, whose majority owner played the role of Satan for the last
two seasons in Charlotte. George Shinn is a man whose indiscretions
landed him in a civil trial in 1997. While the jury found in favor of
Shinn on allegations of sexual assault, the embarrassing proceedings
resulted in boffo ratings for CourtTV, a divorce for Shinn and a cold
shoulder for the team from its once-crazed fans. New Orleans
understands, George, and doesn't hold bad behavior against
anyone. The Big Easy is a place of excess, not only the home of saints
(and Saints) but also the haven of sinners. "In many
neighborhoods you have a church and a bar on every block," says
former mayor Mark Morial, who's as responsible as anyone for the
NBA's return to the city. "Sometimes two churches and two
bars." New Orleanians like contradiction and complication, and
irony as rich as their beignets and chicory coffee.

Speaking of irony, the Hornets' moving trucks had just begun
heading south on I-85 when Charlotte's city fathers began angling
for a new arena and an expansion team, goals that the NBA has endorsed
with enthusiasm. Though players are generally oblivious to current
events that don't directly involve them, Hornets veterans are a
bit chafed by the prospect of a new team in their old town as soon as
2004-05. "I'm not buying that Charlotte is going to support
a team just because the old owners are gone," says guard David
Wesley, who is in his sixth year with the franchise. "Remember
that the new team probably won't be a good team. We were good, a
team that was on its way, a team of basically good guys who stayed
together. I wish them good luck back there, but it hurts a
little."

As a further irony, Shinn, whose very name had become an expletive
around Charlotte, is on the NBA's relocation committee, which is
looking into the viability of expansion. (Insiders say that the
ownership group with the best chance of landing an expansion franchise
in Charlotte includes Larry Bird.) "I still love that city,"
says Shinn, who owns 65% of the Hornets. "I still feel the
community can support an NBA team. I'm not going to be vindictive
or bitter."

Privately, though, Shinn must wonder whether in four or five years the
new owners in Charlotte--with a new arena that voters refused to build
for Shinn--might have a more successful franchise than his own in New
Orleans. Though the Hornets' early reviews in N'Awlins have
been good, the team got a dose of reality last Saturday night when it
hosted the Miami Heat. The pregame block party outside the arena had
little of the Mardi Gras feel of opening night, and a
less-than-capacity crowd of 15,419 witnessed the Hornets' 100-95
victory. Though Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman were seated courtside
(they're in town making a movie), neither of the team's most
celebrated season-ticket holders--vampire savant Anne Rice and
pork-fat proselytizer Emeril Lagasse--was in the house. Methodist
minister Connie Saizon delivered a toned-down pregame invocation (a
custom Shinn plans to continue) and urged the crowd to "assume an
attitude of prayer," which it did for the entire game, excepting
a few raucous minutes in the fourth quarter.

But what was to be expected? The Heat is a bad draw, New Orleans had
lost 84-79 in Chicago the previous night, and the Crescent City's
more established entertainment options beckoned: gorging on oysters
and gumbo at Commander's Palace or blackened beef at
KPaul's; following the Emeril acolytes to either of his French
Quarter eateries; standing at the corner of First and Chestnut in the
Garden District with the hope that Ms. Rice would emerge from her
spooky mansion and duck into the black limo (license plate ophanim)
that's usually parked out front; strolling down Bourbon Street
and observing projectile vomiting at its best; haunting the clubs and
hoping that Fats Domino or Dr. John or Irma Thomas or one of the
Marsalises, native sons all, would stop in to jam. What, you're
going to pass up a visit to a joint called the Funky Butt in order to
watch the Heat's Vladimir Stepania battle Jamaal Magloire?

"You find out quickly that this is very much a last-minute
town," says Alex Martins, the Hornets' vice president of
marketing. "There are so many things to do that people don't
want to commit. The challenge is to make them commit to you."
Even for their opener the Hornets had to sell 2,000 tickets in the
final two days to reach capacity.

Other factors might also help make the Hornets po' boys in their
new home. With 658,830 TV households in the metropolitan area, New
Orleans is the NBA's second-smallest market. (Only Memphis, with
653,840 households, is smaller.) The Big Easy has only one Fortune500
company (Entergy) and a relatively small middle class--pro
sports' classic target audiences. "Most people would look at
the demographics on paper," says Martins, "and conclude that
it's a borderline market for an NBA franchise." Though the
city has supported the NFL's Saints, who have had only six
winning seasons since their inception in 1967, it's not a rahrah
kind of place. A visitor strolling around New Orleans for two hours
last week failed to find one body wearing one stitch of Hornets teal,
and there were lots of bodies. "I think we're getting some
T-shirts of that Baron guy next week," said a clerk at Home Team,
a sportswear shop in the Jackson Brewery mini-mall. That Baron guy
would be Baron Davis, the Hornets' All-Star point guard.

So what prompted commissioner David Stern--who as recently as 1994 had
squelched a proposal by the Minnesota Timberwolves to move to New
Orleans--to say last week, "There will be ups and downs, as in
any NBA city, but the future in New Orleans is bright"? Perhaps
like that Baron guy, who overcame his initial reluctance and signed a
six-year, $84million contract extension after visiting New
Orleans's Essence Festival in July, the commish "started to
feel the vibe." But there are also more tangible reasons to
believe the Hornets will become a fixture in the Big Easy. Even when
the city's economy was devastated by the oil bust of the
mid-1980s, tourism stayed strong, and it was hotel and motel
taxes--New Orleans trails only New York City and Las Vegas as a
convention destination--that built New Orleans Arena on spec. "If
we wanted to get an NBA team, we knew we couldn't put the chicken
before the egg," says Morial, "so we threw deep on the
arena." The metaphor is mixed, but the message is clear: New
Orleans wanted a team and stuck out its figurative neck to get one.

The $110 million arena, which opened in October 1999 and is located in
the shadow of the Superdome, has undergone $15million in renovations
since January, when Shinn and co-owner Ray Wooldridge, after some
foreplay with Anaheim, Louisville, Norfolk and St. Louis, announced
that they wanted to walk down the aisle with New Orleans. Locker
rooms, lounges and lighting were upgraded. Fifty luxury suites were
added to the existing six, and 49 of those have been sold. Teams are
squeamish about releasing season-ticket figures (unless they're
above 10,000), but Hornets sources say that about 8,500 have been sold
in New Orleans. That's a solid number. Then there's the
history of pro basketball in N'Awlins, which isn't as bad as
many people assume. "We had a hard-core group of 8,000 to 10,000
fans," says Rich Kelley, who was a center for four of the
Jazz's five seasons in New Orleans, during which the team went
161-249. "And remember, we weren't very good, and it was
during a time when the NBA as a whole wasn't doing well."
Then Jazz owner Sam Battistone moved the team, mainly because he
couldn't negotiate a good lease agreement at the Superdome and
because he had business interests in Salt Lake City.

Some sportswear clerks not withstanding, New Orleanians know the game
and know the players. "People here recognize you in your
car," says Wesley. "They usually shout something like,
'Hey, glad you're here!'" That must feel nice,
especially after toiling in a virtual mausoleum for the last two
seasons. Hornets general manager Bob Bass appreciates the home
fans' lusty booing of opponents during the first two games.
"In Charlotte, I was getting damn tired of all that polite
applause for the other team," he says.

Still, it would be a reach to call New Orleans a basketball town;
it's an entertainment town, and in that light the best thing
about the Hornets is that they're a good show. It remains to be
seen, however, if they'll catch on in the so-called City That
Care Forgot before a new team succeeds in the City That Forgot the
Hornets.

Read Jack McCallum's NBA Insider each week at cnnsi.com/basketball.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [T of C] BUZZKETBALL Baron Davis and the Hornets plan to give other NBA teams a hard time in the Big Easy (page 76). COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO CAPED CRUSADER Suitably attired to provide the Hornets' opening-game heroics, Davis also led them to victory over Sean Marks and Miami. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICK SCHNEIDER/CHARLOTTE OBSERVER [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BILL HABER/AP (FAR LEFT) IN THE STARS Neville belted out the inaugural anthem, while Hackman (above, left) and Hoffman took in the Heat game. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO 4 OFF THE FLOOR Wesley kept the pressure on the Heat and kept the Hornets unbeaten in their new arena.

"There are so many things to do here that people don't commit,"
Martins says.

New Orleans is an entertainment town; the best thing about the Hornets
is that they're a good show.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)