You need only passthrough the Gates of Time to get a chilling sense of Oklahoma City's currentidentity. Etched in stone above the East Gate of the Oklahoma City Memorial is9:01, the minute before the bomb detonated in front of the Alfred P. MurrahFederal Building on April 19, 1995. Inscribed on the West Gate, some 30 yardsaway, past the grassy knoll and the 168 permanently empty chairs resting onbases of albescent glass (one for each life lost that morning), is 9:03, tomark the minute after the explosion. "We are a city," says OklahomaCity mayor Mick Cornett, "that has been branded by its tragedies."¬∂Ironic, then, that yet another tragedy recently spurred a considerable measureof civic pride. The arrival last fall of the NBA's New Orleans Hornets, whowere forced to relocate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was the realizationof a decadelong dream to bring professional sports to Oklahoma City. Rejectedin its 1997 bid for an NHL team (in favor of bigger markets Nashville andColumbus) and told, according to Cornett, by NBA commissioner David Stern onlya few months before Katrina "that there wasn't any foreseeable way for theNBA to come here," this erstwhile oil center has emerged as one of theNBA's most-uplifting success stories in recent years. At the same time, theleague is faced with a dilemma: Return the franchise to a city where it rankedlast in attendance in 2004--05 or abandon that hurricane-ravaged city to make abuck?
Hornets ownerGeorge Shinn didn't anticipate such a complicated decision last fall. Not longafter Katrina left its trail of destruction, Stern called Shinn to discuss therelocation of the franchise for the 2005--06 season. "He said, 'What wouldyou think about playing in Oklahoma City?'" says Shinn. "And my firstreaction was, 'Oklahoma where?'" Shinn had, in fact, considered OklahomaCity as a potential relocation site when the Hornets were in Charlotte in 2001.Those talks, coincidentally, were derailed by another tragedy. Former Hornetsco-owner Ray Wooldridge had scheduled a meeting with Oklahoma City officialsfor Sept. 13, or two days after 9/11. "After that," says Shinn, "Ididn't hear about Oklahoma City again."
Shinn, however, wasintrigued by the commissioner's offer. A day after their phone conversation,Shinn--who did not travel to Oklahoma because Stern didn't want pictures in thepapers of an owner scouting new locations so soon after a cataclysmic naturaldisaster--dispatched members of his staff to create a video snapshot of thearea, from the 19,599-seat Ford Center to the downtown taverns. "Suffice itto say," says Shinn, "I liked what I saw."
Despite its smallmedia market (43rd largest in the U.S.), there was reason for Shinn to behopeful about the Hornets' prospects in Oklahoma City. Single-team cities havetypically enjoyed success in the NBA, as evidenced by such thriving markets asSacramento, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and, once upon a time, Portland.Oklahoma City had 18 sellouts and an unprecedented five seven-figure presentingsponsors. From opening night the city embraced the Hornets as its own, withcrowds at the Ford Center bearing a close resemblance to the crowds at aUniversity of Oklahoma football game. The crowd is on its feet from the openingtip, sitting down only at halftime. Season-ticket sales are at 12,000 (up from11,500 last year), and there are only scattered tickets left for the 35remaining games at the Ford Center. "Oklahoma City has a higher rate ofinterest in basketball than other [NBA] cities," says Stern. "Thesefans feel an obligation to support the local team."
Consider thesupport they have shown the Oklahoma City Blazers, the city's minor leaguehockey team, which has led the Central Hockey League in attendance for 14straight seasons. The backing by the business community has been strong too."Seven-figure [presenting] sponsorships are rare in the NBA," saysHornets director of corporate communications Michael Thompson. "To landfive in one year in a market the size of Oklahoma City is remarkable."("That's amazing," says a front office employee of a big market team."If we get one, it's an accomplishment." The Boston Celtics, New YorkKnicks and Los Angeles Lakers, for example, do not have any.)
While staying inOklahoma makes financial sense--the Hornets improved to 11th in the NBA'sattendance rankings last season--Shinn has made it clear that if the Big Easycan support the Hornets, well, that's where they will play. "I'm not drivenby money," says Shinn. "And I want to do the right thing, which isbringing this team back to New Orleans.
"But I don'tfeel I owe them the franchise."
Even if the Hornetswere to return to New Orleans permanently, there is still hope for Oklahomans.That is where Clay Bennett enters the picture. From his drawl to his luxury boxon the 50-yard line at Memorial Stadium, home of the Sooners, Bennett is asOklahoma as a cherry limeade. An NBA enthusiast dating to the mid-'90s, when asa minority owner of the San Antonio Spurs, he represented the franchise on theNBA's Board of Governors, Bennett is one of the primary reasons Oklahoma Cityhas an NBA franchise. The investment-firm executive put together a group thatpledged one third of the $10 million that the city would've been obligated topay Shinn if the Hornets had not increased their revenue by 5% from 2004--05.(The Hornets' revenue easily exceeded that threshold, and they paid the cityback the $2.6 million relocation fee and split another $1.2 million inprofits.)
Bennett is also thenew controlling owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, the other franchise in thisthree-city game of musical chairs. In a $350 million deal completed last week,he and a group of seven other investors bought the team from Starbucks magnateHoward Schultz, who had been in a prolonged battle with the city over financingfor a new arena. The SuperSonics play in Key Arena, an outdated 17,072-seatfacility with roughly half the square footage of most NBA buildings. Then thereis the matter of the team's lease, which Stern calls "the worst in theleague." Bennett, who has retained a real estate company to assess thedeficiencies of Key Arena, has made his position clear: Commit to building anew arena in the greater Seattle area within 12 months, or he will considertaking his new team back home. "This is not a sham," says Bennett, whois one of two NBA owners not to live in his team's market. (The Trail Blazers'Paul Allen, who lives in Seattle, is the other.) "We are going to make agood-faith, aboveboard effort to get this done in Seattle. If we can't, then wewill evaluate our options."
But going back homewon't be that easy. Leases are an issue, as the SuperSonics are locked intotheir agreement through 2010 and the Hornets are bound to New Orleans through2012. And the league, which will not consider expansion, is also reluctant topermanently relocate any franchise, meaning that the only things Oklahomans canlook forward to in the Ford Center beyond this season might be the occasionalBlazers hockey game or Carrie Underwood concert. "The plan for this timenext year is to have the Sonics playing in Seattle and the Hornets in NewOrleans," says Stern. "We are deeply indebted to Oklahoma City. They'vedemonstrated they are a major league market."
A major leaguemarket that could soon return to the days of having only a few minor leaguefranchises. "We're a major league city.... sort of," says Cornett."I think if we keep supporting the team the NBA will find us afranchise."
The Oklahoma Citymayor laughs, then adds, "And I remind the commissioner of that everychance I get."
Chris Mannix's analysis of what to make of the LosAngeles Lakers' fast start at SI.com/NBA.