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New Orleans' pro teams reaffirm ties to battered city

NEW ORLEANS -- The city's two major league sports teams are
making moves to calm fears about their future in New Orleans, which
they were forced to abandon when Hurricane Katrina struck in late
August.

Saints owner Tom Benson published a full-page letter in area
newspapers and also sent it by e-mail to season-ticket holders on
Wednesday, the same day Saints officials announced they would be
donating more than $500,000 to New Orleans-area charities.

A day earlier, Hornets owner George Shinn launched a community
relations initiative that he said would start the process of
returning his team to New Orleans.

The bold-faced introduction to Benson's letter read: "Tom
Benson wants to return to New Orleans."

"After reviewing the reports about our team and the abundance
of wide-sweeping negative media commentary and columns, I offer
this: No decision has been made about the future of the team," the
letter said. "We have continued to operate and represent the city
and fans of New Orleans. When the time is right and the factors
that are yet unresolved are resolved, a decision of the future of
the team will be made."

Meanwhile, Shinn went to Baton Rouge before Tuesday night's
preseason game against the Miami Heat at LSU. Shinn announced the
Hornets would be raising money for Habitat for Humanity
homebuilding projects in the New Orleans area, an effort that began
with a telethon during Tuesday night's game.

"New Orleans is our home, and we are committed to rebuilding
New Orleans brick by brick and house by house," Shinn said. "The
Hoops for Homes initiative is important to us as an organization,
and to me personally, because it begins the process for our
eventual return to a rebuilt and revitalized New Orleans."

Hurricane Katrina damaged the Louisiana Superdome and New
Orleans Arena, the homes for the Saints and Hornets. Officials at
the Superdome say that facility won't be available for football
until 2006 at the earliest. The arena is expected to be ready for
basketball by this spring.

In the meantime, the Saints have been based in San Antonio and
the Hornets in Oklahoma City. Politicians and business leaders in
both places have seized the opportunity to prove their cities would
be suitable long-term homes for the franchises. San Antonio Mayor
Phil Hardberger has even discounted New Orleans' ability to recover
sufficiently from the disaster and stated he will work to keep the
Saints in Texas permanently.

Benson, who has a home and business relationships in San
Antonio, was silent for days after Hardberger's comments, then
added to speculation about his team's plans by requesting
cancellation of his lease of the Saints' training headquarters in
suburban New Orleans.

Shinn has bought a home in Oklahoma City and been highly
complimentary of the support for his team there, pointing to
aggressive efforts by the business community to take part in
sponsorship deals. The Hornets also took "New Orleans" off their
home jerseys, bought the Internet domain name "okchornets.com"
and changed the official name of the team to the New
Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets.

All of those developments have made fans nervous in New Orleans.
Both teams' owners addressed the matter this week, with the Hornets
being more definitive about returning.

"It's not a matter of if we return to New Orleans, but when,"
Hornets spokesman Michael Thompson said on Wednesday.

Benson has been more noncommittal, saying his business is like
many others that have had to re-evaluate their future in a
hurricane-ravaged city, much of which was devastated by widespread
flooding.

"No one within our organization has offered or made any
official comment about what our long-term plans are," Benson said
in his letter. "It is too early to determine, but my desire is to
return to New Orleans."

Benson also shot back at criticism from New Orleans Mayor Ray
Nagin. Last week, Nagin said he was appalled by talk of the Saints
relocating elsewhere, calling it was an insult to longtime fans who
are struggling to rebuild their lives. Nagin also said he would not
buy tickets to the four upcoming Saints games in Baton Rouge.

"Comments from our current mayor are made without a single
phone call being placed to our team to check on our plans or to get
the facts," Benson's letter said. "If the Saints and Tom Benson
were as important to the city as the mayor of our city has claimed
in the recent past, why such harsh comments, when a simple phone
call could have saved him from embarrassment?"

Nagin was more conciliatory Wednesday, showing up for a public
meeting on hurricane recovery sporting a Saints sweatshirt and cap.
He was not apologetic, however.

"I expressed what most New Orleanians expressed: frustration
with the fact that, while we're down on our knees -- why is this
happening?" he said.

He said he wanted to show his support for the team after seeing
Benson's full page ad expressing a desire to stay in New Orleans.

"So I went scrounging around and found this old T-shirt and I'm
putting it on saying, 'Hey, I'm a Saints fan and I'd like to see
them here."'