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Trouble in New Orleans spills over into NBA

League takes ownership of the Hornets and wants to keep them where they are, but there's no certainty the Big Easy won't lose a team again.

January 06, 2011|By Jim Peltz
  • Hornets forward David West (30) and point guard Chris Paul (3) react after losing possession of the ball to the Golden State Warriors in the second half of a 110-103 loss on Wednesday.
Hornets forward David West (30) and point guard Chris Paul (3) react after… (Patrick Semansky / Associated…)

Reporting from New Orleans — It's an hour before tipoff and Chris Dubois, a diehard New Orleans Hornets fan clad in the NBA team's blue and gold jersey, sips a beer in a party zone outside the New Orleans Arena. A brass band plays nearby and, across the street, the imposing Louisiana Superdome rises 27 stories into the twilight.

Five years ago, it was a torn and battered Superdome that held the nation's attention — the iconic image of the devastation Hurricane Katrina heaped on the Gulf Coast — as evacuees streamed down this street, desperate for shelter.

Dubois, a 43-year-old New Orleans native, knows Girod Street well. He also knows that this city, nearly broken by Katrina and bowed by the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, does not want to take any more body blows. Especially from the NBA.

"If we lose the Hornets, it's a black eye," he says. "We need them."

The question is whether the NBA needs New Orleans.

Two weeks ago, the league did the unthinkable. It became an owner, completing its acquisition of the Hornets for an estimated $300 million-plus.

The debt-ridden team's wilting financial health accelerated the process after Commissioner David Stern made it clear he would not let an NBA franchise go bankrupt, nor would he allow a fire sale.

Stern's stated goal is to stabilize the Hornets and then find new owners who would stay here. He named veteran sports executive Jac Sperling, a New Orleans native, to oversee the team's turnaround and resale.

"Right now we are pedal down to make it work" in New Orleans, Hornets President Hugh Weber said.

Since the NBA stepped in, no outside offers to buy the Hornets have surfaced publicly. However, billionaire Larry Ellison was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News this week as saying he offered $350 million to buy the team but was outbid by the NBA.

There is another threat to local ownership. After Jan. 31 the Hornets can opt out of the lease with the state-owned arena if average attendance fails to meet a benchmark of 14,735 a game. So far, the Hornets are averaging 14,086 this season in an arena that holds 17,988 for NBA games.

Winning has not helped. Led by Chris Paul, the NBA's rookie of the year in 2005-06 and a two-time All-Star, the Hornets had a franchise-record 8-0 start this season but attendance lagged. This season the team has had only two sellouts, the first Nov. 5 when they beat LeBron James and the Miami Heat. The other came last week in a loss to the Lakers, who play the Hornets again Friday night at Staples Center.

And there is more worry on the horizon: Come July 1, the NBA labor contract expires and with it, the threat of a work stoppage.

Even so, New Orleans is trying to fight back — almost an automatic response now for this city.

Government and business leaders led by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu recently urged fans to buy tickets so that the team's owners can't opt out of the lease.

"The future is in our hands," Jindal said. Considered a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2012, Jindal also said he would consider adding incentives in the state's lease to bolster the team but cautioned, "We're certainly not going to take money away from higher education or health care to give to the Hornets."

Landrieu tried to stay upbeat.

"I feel very comfortable that the NBA is committed to keeping a team in New Orleans," he said. "There's always a chance that you can lose the team, so I think people can't take it for granted."

Pro sports teams jumping to one city from another always stir deep emotions, and blast an economic hole, in the communities left behind. Just ask fans in Brooklyn who were devastated when baseball's Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, or the Southern California fans still angry about their Rams moving to St. Louis in 1995.

But weary New Orleans, in particular, can do without another setback.

After making notable strides in recovering from Katrina — perhaps best embodied by the Saints winning last year's Super Bowl — the Big Easy was knocked down again by an economic maelstrom: the recession, the oil spill and a subsequent moratorium on deep-water drilling in the gulf.

"This city has seen a series of events that you would not wish on any other American community," said Arnold Fielkow, the city council's president and a former Saints executive. "It would be a terrible loss for this community to not have the Hornets."

Not everyone is happy about the NBA becoming a team owner, though.

Last week, when the Lakers came to town, Coach Phil Jackson took aim at the league's action. His biggest concern: What if Paul wants out?

"When Chris says he has to be traded, how's that going to go?" Jackson said. "Someone's going to have to make a very nonjudgmental decision on that part that's not going to irritate anyone else in the league."

He also questioned keeping a team in this city, saying, "It hasn't been successful in supporting a team until now."

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