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Hello, New Orleans!
Jack McCallum
November 11, 2002
The NBA returned to the Big Easy after a 23-year absence, but how long is the buzz about the Hornets likely to last?
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November 11, 2002

Hello, New Orleans!

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

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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 number 1 jersey over a camouflage T-shirt; 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 Court TV, 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 K-Paul'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 Fortune 500 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 rah-rah 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.

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