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A few weeks ago, I was back in the city I once called home, New Orleans. I took a stroll around the business district, the Garden District and the French Quarter, and really, those places -- the places that have been the city's tourist lifeblood for decades -- are not much different than they were in August 2005, before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Mother's Restaurant still serves enormous po'boys; I still can't resist beignets at Cafe du Monde; and the Columns Hotel on St. Charles remains the best spot on earth for a Sunday afternoon cocktail.
One other thing hadn't changed much since pre-Katrina days -- in front of New Orleans Arena, giant murals of Hornets players were still standing. Guys like Desmond Mason (now in Milwaukee) and Speedy Claxton (who left the team last summer). So, some updates were needed. But tip your hat to the Hornets, because after two years in Oklahoma City, the team is doing what New Orleans needs most from its scattered citizenry: It's coming back.
"We're real pleased with the way everything has gone," says Hornets general manager Jeff Bower. "It's obviously not a usual situation, but we will have everything ready for the start of the season."
Here's hoping he's right. This is a crucial season for the Hornets. They took a big step forward after drafting Chris Paul in 2005, jumping from 16 wins to 38. A summer spending spree last year brought Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson, but injuries ruined the season. Stojakovic played just 13 games, power forward David West missed 30 games, Jackson missed 26 and Paul missed 18. Still, the Hornets managed 39 wins.
Stojakovic had back surgery last year and is being slowly worked up to speed. Jackson and West are back, and Chandler was among the most improved players in the league.
But the biggest hope is Paul, entering his third season. He should improve on last year's output of 17.3 points and 8.9 assists. More than that, though, he has firmly grasped leadership of the team and could be the sports figure best positioned to rally the city (it's just not happening with Reggie Bush, is it?). "The thing about Chris is that he is a first-class person before anything else," Bower says. "He's a great player, but I don't think people in this city have been able to get to know him. They're going to love him."
The Hornets are trying to sell this team to the community, but it hasn't been easy. The city's population is just 273,000, about 60 percent of the pre-Katrina population. Many moved to the suburbs across Lake Pontchartrain, which is a problem for the Hornets -- their television deal is with Cox, and Cox is not available across the lake. Still, a team spokesman says that season-ticket sales are back over 5,500, the level they reached before Katrina (though well short of the 12,000-plus they sold in Oklahoma City).
The best thing the Hornets can do to spark interest is win. A good season might not lead to the kind of inspirational, national story the Saints were last year, but everything is set up for this team to be a major help in bringing New Orleans back. They have talent, and they have a charismatic star. And they have this: The All-Star game.
The All-Star game will be in New Orleans this year, a fact that has led to much consternation among NBA observers, especially after the rap the league took in the wake of last year's weekend in Las Vegas. The league is already on the case, with an events group of 60 employees beginning the All-Star plans. "Everything is right on schedule," says Ski Austin, the league's executive vice president for events. "It's been amazing, really, because we have had an overwhelming sense of people who appreciate it, who want to show that they're not just rebuilding the city, but that there is a very big hospitality community that is still intact."
Austin said the league is planning a, "massive day of service," for the Friday of All-Star weekend, which will include players and league personnel working on major projects to refurbish schools and playgrounds. This is what David Stern's group does best -- have an impact on communities.
But can New Orleans, which has struggled with crime, put on a safe, enjoyable weekend? "There's no question," Austin says. "This is a lot different than Las Vegas in that there is a limited area of geography we're dealing with -- the warehouse district, the stadium, the French Quarter. You can walk to all these places. And this is a city that has 800,000 people for Mardi Gras. They know how to handle big events."
It was unfair that every problem in Las Vegas last year was pinned on the league. That city is sprawling, and it's impossible to maintain order in every corner. Somehow, incidents like the wee-hours fight at a strip club involving NFL player Pacman Jones became the NBA's fault.
"Geography had a lot to do with what happened last year," Austin says. "Everything that happened in the city became linked to us. We had about 20 people from New Orleans with us last year, and they got a good sense of what was going on and how it applies to their city."
Their city could experience a dream-type scenario. Imagine Paul emerges, makes the leap from very good to great player -- 20 points, 9 assists, 5 rebounds. Stojakovic and West are healthy. The Hornets are an early season surprise, they begin selling out a few times and Paul makes the All-Star team. The league leads huge refurbishing efforts, Paul serves as an All-Star spokesman and All-Star weekend goes off without a hitch, boosting the New Orleans economy. The Hornets stay hot, and easily earn a playoff berth.
OK, I'm getting ahead of myself. It could happen. But getting Speedy Claxton off the front of the arena comes first.
Read more of this article at the www.sportingnews.com
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