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, $84 million 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 $15 million 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 notwithstanding, 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.