Hornets Feel the Sting

The cities of Seattle and San Jose want something that belongs to New Orleans. They don’t want Chris Owens or Drew Brees or Mardi Gras World. These cities want the New Orleans Hornets. 

Coincidentally, if one of the several billionaires interested in buying the team gets his way, one of these cities will inherit Chris Paul and his supporting cast.  It will also be the second time in less than 40 years that New Orleans loses a professional basketball team.

New Orleans’ first NBA team started in 1974 as the New Orleans Jazz. Fewer than five years later, the team scatted out of the city to Utah. In the 1990s, the Utah Jazz excelled to the NBA championship twice, each time falling short against Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls. Imagine if that stellar Jazz team had still been the New Orleans Jazz team. I wonder if the team would have a different reputation and better following today.

Broadly speaking, the Hornets haven’t felt the love this season for many reasons: A sluggish economy made it harder for fans to buy season and individual tickets to 40-plus games; the team’s ownership jumped ship; and, as always, Saints football got all the early attention. But it’s still almost dizzying to imagine what would happen if a couple thousand die-hard Who Datters brought their verve to the New Orleans Arena.

Nobody doubts that New Orleans has a greater affinity for football. At the beginning of the 2010-11 NBA season, the Hornets blazed to an eight-game winning streak and showed signs of greatness. National and local media tracked the progress, but their winning ways didn’t seem to fill arena seats any quicker. It was high Saints season.

For the few games I’ve attended this year, aside from the team’s promising improvement, the most glaring sight was the empty seats and suites. Along the same lines, traffic to and from games was nonexistent; restrooms were never crowded at halftime; and it was so incredibly obvious that attendance was low, announcers didn’t even bother invoking fans to the standard “noise meter” challenge.

Maybe the Hornets’ current dilemma isn’t as bad as it seems. But what’s certain is that if the Hornets don’t meet their attendance numbers by Jan. 31, the team owner, which happens now to be the NBA itself, can opt-out of its state lease. At that point, it becomes fair game for a West Coast billionaire to swoop in and buy the team from the NBA.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison already publicly declared his interest in moving the team to San Jose, to the tune of $350 million. The NBA stymied his bid. But if seats don’t fill up fast at New Orleans Arena, who knows if the league will cave in the next time a prospective buyer comes around waving millions.

Fans in Seattle have pined for a NBA team since the Sonics left the city to become the Oklahoma Thunder. Seattle has the fan base and plenty of wealthy hands that can band together to buy a team when the time comes. No disrespect to either of these cities  — but what do their fans have on New Orleanians? Seattle is a cosmopolitan city with well-heeled yuppies that, one assumes, couldn’t care less about basketball. And Utah — well, let’s just say Utah’s anything but jazzy.

The Hornets came back to New Orleans after Katrina, during a time when the city greatly needed solidarity and support. The irony today is that the Hornets now need the city — not a wannabe NBA owner on the West Coast or some juggernaut corporate sponsor. The Hornets need you, me and the entire city, and the Hornets need us now.

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