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All-Star weekend in New Orleans could also serve as a rallying cry for the African-Americans displaced by Katrina. They represent a large portion of the more than 200,000 who haven't returned because, according to local officials, the federal government has yet to release billions of dollars in funds targeted for reconstruction. Many neighborhoods have dilapidated houses in no better condition than when they were ravaged 19 months ago. NBA teams and players have donated more than $15 million to the relief efforts; last week Shinn announced that the Hornets, the NBA and Toyota are funding a program to build 20 homes. "We'd like to see something that takes care of the displaced people, because it really is not going to be that much fun to be there if progress hasn't been made," NBA commissioner David Stern said recently. "You take your guests on tours of areas that have been devastated and where it seems like very, very little has been done. We don't understand it."
Still, Shinn has made it clear that he would have preferred to play all of the team's home games this season in Oklahoma City, which has greeted him with 27 sellouts over the past two years. "If we were looking at relocating, with the population base the way it is, we may not give New Orleans a second chance," says Shinn, who controversially moved the Hornets from Charlotte to New Orleans in 2002. "But the situation is, we have a lease [through 2012] here. We're obligated, and the league approved us to play here, so this is technically our home."
And what of his charitable efforts? "From a selfish standpoint, the things we're doing in the community come back to me, it helps me," he says. "Because people say, 'This guy's helping out, let's help him out. Let's buy tickets to come to his game.' I'm no dummy: I'm selling. And the more I do to help this community, the more it helps me."
The franchise's prospects in New Orleans are not as dire as they might appear. After averaging just 14,735 during their three pre-Katrina years, the Hornets sold out two of their six games in their old building this season. Not only will they return with a promising young team, but Shinn and other club officials quote financial data suggesting that poor people left the city after Katrina while those with disposable income have remained. Stern doesn't want to leave the impression that he is abandoning New Orleans, so he has dispatched his top marketers to help what had been one of the league's most poorly managed franchises find national sponsors, making up for an absence of local corporate support. "Where we've had success is with national companies that are looking to show that the rebuilding of New Orleans is something they're engaged in," says Hornets COO Hugh Weber, who has already signed Capital One and Cadbury Schweppes to multiyear sponsorships.
Ultimately, however, the Hornets will succeed in New Orleans only if the city recovers. Though it hasn't seemed to be a problem for the Saints, Hornets coach Byron Scott worries about how his players will adapt. "The crime rate went up and we're talking about bringing a bunch of millionaires back here, a bunch of guys who have never been here," he says. "We've got to know that we're going to take care of each other, that we're going to watch each other's back. They have to make sure they keep eyes in the back of their head, and that you always know your environment wherever you're going."
As symbolic and uplifting as it may be for New Orleans to celebrate the homecoming of one of its most visible businesses, a basketball team can do only so much. "You have to hope the powers that be understand that they're playing with people's lives," says forward David West, the only Hornet who was with the team before Katrina. "Just because you bring a basketball team back, a football team back to the area, that doesn't mean people are all of a sudden going to forget what the real focus has to be, and that's getting people back to the city and improving the city, and making it a safer and a better place. What we are is just cosmetic."
Then again it's hard to underestimate the healing power of the sweetest music, like Kobe Bryant's on a night when the Big Easy felt vibrant again.