NEW ORLEANS — In a rare intersection of sports and real life, the Lakers, for whom tonight represents one game in the NBA standings, will meet the New Orleans Hornets, for whom it's also a glimpse of what their future might hold.
Everyone else here, from the people attending to those who don't know New Orleans has an NBA team or don't care, has more at stake in what is a landmark in rebuilding their devastated home.
"There are things that have emotional or symbolic importance, that have the effect of lifting your spirit," said Stephen Perry, head of the city's Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"This is one of those. ... It's certain key restaurants opening, things like the arena opening this week, some of the museums."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Pro basketball -- An article in Sports on Wednesday said the NBA's Jazz franchise moved from New Orleans to Utah in 1975. The correct year is 1979.
It will be the city's first professional sports event since Hurricane Katrina made landfall Aug. 29, and one of three games the Hornets will play here this month.
Now based in Oklahoma City, the team is scheduled to play six games here next season. NBA officials have announced their intention of returning the team full-time for the 2007-08 season.
The NFL's Saints, who were based most of last season in San Antonio, will return full-time next fall. Nevertheless, there is skepticism that the Saints will stay and that the Hornets, a surprise hit, will be back to stay.
Saint owner Tom Benson talked about moving before Katrina and was about to begin negotiations to make his move to Texas permanent, before NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue intervened.
Hornet owner George Shinn was circumspect enough -- at first -- to be called "the un-Benson" by a local columnist. Nevertheless, neither Shinn nor Commissioner David Stern has made an unqualified commitment to return permanently.
At the recent NBA All-Star game, Stern was asked about it, in what became a lively exchange.
Q: You're making an unqualified commitment to go back?
Stern: We are planning to go back. Let me ask you a question: Do you think we'll go to the Olympics if bird flu is pandemic? ... There may be a thousand different reasons why the world tomorrow will not be the same as it is today. All you can do is set things in motion and plan to follow through on them. And we're planning to go back to New Orleans. I don't know if that's not good enough for you, but I'm trying.
Q: An unqualified commitment would be, we are going back.
Stern: We plan on going through with the commitment to return to New Orleans and, in fact, there's a lease that requires it. You want a certificate? Is there a notary in the house? Whatever you'd like.
Of course, not everyone is as practiced a diplomat. Laker Coach Phil Jackson recently expressed his doubts, noting, "I have an unbiased and non-prejudicial view of New Orleans. I've always had a wonderful time in the city. However, it is tough for them to support NBA basketball.
"There are not a lot of corporate businesses and it has become a corporate business situation that has made the NBA successful. I never thought after the Jazz left [in 1975] they'll be able to support an NBA franchise again."
His remarks were just re-published in the Times-Picayune. One way or another, it'll be a hot time in the old town tonight.
To Be (Here)
or Not to Be
Teams have long demanded that local governing bodies build stadiums and arenas, and enough of them, such as the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders, have deserted legions of faithful fans to show they weren't bluffing.
The "major league" aura teams cast was deemed so valuable, they weren't expected to do anything in return except play their games, but Katrina has changed the equation here.
New Orleans' devastation was met by a resolve to rebuild by its most famous residents. Ten days after Katrina, Paul Prudhomme returned, had the equipment from K-Paul's, his restaurant in the French Quarter, taken to his seasoning factory and began cooking for first responders, police and National Guardsmen.
Prudhomme, now on a committee to promote the recovery with other celebrities, says it never occurred to him to do anything but reopen his restaurant.
"If New Orleans was destroyed and I had to leave, I'd do it," Prudhomme said, "but I wouldn't open another business. I wouldn't want to do this anywhere else."
However, if New Orleans is a world capital for chefs and musicians, it's an outpost in the NFL and NBA, representing one of the most popular destinations but one of the smallest.
That was before Katrina and terms such as "repopulation," when workers were in such demand that Wal-Marts closed at 9 p.m. and Burger King offered $6,000 bonuses.
The Hornets were, as Shinn put it, "the new kids on the block," having been here three seasons, but the Saints were as much a part of life as Mardi Gras. In 38 seasons, while winning two division titles, with some teams so bad that fans wore bags over their heads, the team was No. 10 in the NFL in attendance, playing out of its fifth-smallest market.