- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
You need only pass through the Gates of Time to get a chilling sense of Oklahoma City's current identity. Etched in stone above the East Gate of the Oklahoma City Memorial is 9:01, the minute before the bomb detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995. Inscribed on the West Gate, some 30 yards away, past the grassy knoll and the 168 permanently empty chairs resting on bases of albescent glass (one for each life lost that morning), is 9:03, to mark the minute after the explosion. "We are a city," says Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett, "that has been branded by its tragedies."� Ironic, then, that yet another tragedy recently spurred a considerable measure of civic pride. The arrival last fall of the NBA's New Orleans Hornets, who were forced to relocate in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was the realization of a decadelong dream to bring professional sports to Oklahoma City. Rejected in its 1997 bid for an NHL team (in favor of bigger markets Nashville and Columbus) and told, according to Cornett, by NBA commissioner David Stern only a few months before Katrina "that there wasn't any foreseeable way for the NBA to come here," this erstwhile oil center has emerged as one of the NBA's most-uplifting success stories in recent years. At the same time, the league is faced with a dilemma: Return the franchise to a city where it ranked last in attendance in 2004--05 or abandon that hurricane-ravaged city to make a buck?
Hornets owner George Shinn didn't anticipate such a complicated decision last fall. Not long after Katrina left its trail of destruction, Stern called Shinn to discuss the relocation of the franchise for the 2005--06 season. "He said, 'What would you think about playing in Oklahoma City?'" says Shinn. "And my first reaction was, ' Oklahoma where?'" Shinn had, in fact, considered Oklahoma City as a potential relocation site when the Hornets were in Charlotte in 2001. Those talks, coincidentally, were derailed by another tragedy. Former Hornets co-owner Ray Wooldridge had scheduled a meeting with Oklahoma City officials for Sept. 13, or two days after 9/11. "After that," says Shinn, "I didn't hear about Oklahoma City again."
Shinn, however, was intrigued 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 the papers of an owner scouting new locations so soon after a cataclysmic natural disaster--dispatched members of his staff to create a video snapshot of the area, from the 19,599-seat Ford Center to the downtown taverns. "Suffice it to say," says Shinn, "I liked what I saw."
Despite its small media market (43rd largest in the U.S.), there was reason for Shinn to be hopeful about the Hornets' prospects in Oklahoma City. Single-team cities have typically enjoyed success in the NBA, as evidenced by such thriving markets as Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Antonio and, once upon a time, Portland. Oklahoma City had 18 sellouts and an unprecedented five seven-figure presenting sponsors. From opening night the city embraced the Hornets as its own, with crowds at the Ford Center bearing a close resemblance to the crowds at a University of Oklahoma football game. The crowd is on its feet from the opening tip, sitting down only at halftime. Season-ticket sales are at 12,000 (up from 11,500 last year), and there are only scattered tickets left for the 35 remaining games at the Ford Center. " Oklahoma City has a higher rate of interest in basketball than other [ NBA] cities," says Stern. "These fans feel an obligation to support the local team."
Consider the support they have shown the Oklahoma City Blazers, the city's minor league hockey team, which has led the Central Hockey League in attendance for 14 straight seasons. The backing by the business community has been strong too. "Seven-figure [presenting] sponsorships are rare in the NBA," says Hornets director of corporate communications Michael Thompson. "To land five 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 York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, for example, do not have any.)
While staying in Oklahoma makes financial sense--the Hornets improved to 11th in the NBA's attendance rankings last season--Shinn has made it clear that if the Big Easy can support the Hornets, well, that's where they will play. "I'm not driven by money," says Shinn. "And I want to do the right thing, which is bringing this team back to New Orleans.
"But I don't feel I owe them the franchise."
Even if the Hornets were 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 box on the 50-yard line at Memorial Stadium, home of the Sooners, Bennett is as Oklahoma as a cherry limeade. An NBA enthusiast dating to the mid-'90s, when as a minority owner of the San Antonio Spurs, he represented the franchise on the NBA's Board of Governors, Bennett is one of the primary reasons Oklahoma City has an NBA franchise. The investment-firm executive put together a group that pledged one third of the $10 million that the city would've been obligated to pay 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 city back the $2.6 million relocation fee and split another $1.2 million in profits.)
Bennett is also the new controlling owner of the Seattle SuperSonics, the other franchise in this three-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 magnate Howard Schultz, who had been in a prolonged battle with the city over financing for a new arena. The SuperSonics play in Key Arena, an outdated 17,072-seat facility with roughly half the square footage of most NBA buildings. Then there is the matter of the team's lease, which Stern calls "the worst in the league." Bennett, who has retained a real estate company to assess the deficiencies of Key Arena, has made his position clear: Commit to building a new arena in the greater Seattle area within 12 months, or he will consider taking his new team back home. "This is not a sham," says Bennett, who is 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 a good-faith, aboveboard effort to get this done in Seattle. If we can't, then we will evaluate our options."
But going back home won't be that easy. Leases are an issue, as the SuperSonics are locked into their agreement through 2010 and the Hornets are bound to New Orleans through 2012. And the league, which will not consider expansion, is also reluctant to permanently relocate any franchise, meaning that the only things Oklahomans can look forward to in the Ford Center beyond this season might be the occasional Blazers hockey game or Carrie Underwood concert. "The plan for this time next year is to have the Sonics playing in Seattle and the Hornets in New Orleans," says Stern. "We are deeply indebted to Oklahoma City. They've demonstrated they are a major league market."