Everything's A-OK for Hornets on Opening Night
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It's a town where the fans cling to the rather scholastic notion of standing until the home team scores a basket.
It's a place where the coach finds himself calling plays with hand signals sometimes because it's a lot louder inside than his team is used to.
It's a college community trying to shed its small-town stigma, but maybe that's why, for at least one night, the youngest starting backcourt tandem of all time looked so comfortable in the pros.
|ESPN cameras were on hand when the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets opened their season at the Ford Center with a big win over the Kings on Tuesday night.
• Stein: Hornets feel at home
It's the address where the Hornets, after an evening that bordered on storybook, can say they've never lost.
Which was a pretty satisfying claim to make, however long it lasts, after everything this franchise has lost.
"In a million years I never thought it was going to be like this," said Louisiana's own P.J. Brown, reveling in the Hornets' 93-67 rout of the Sacramento Kings in the game that officially made them the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets.
"Can't paint a prettier picture."
It was hard to argue after Brown, known to his teammates as "Jurassic," rumbled for his first 20-point, 10-rebound game in more than two years. It sparked the NBA's victims of Hurricane Katrina to the largest Opening Night margin of victory in franchise history, and an understandable round of post-game exaggeration.
If ever a team was entitled to get carried away about a 1-0 start, it's this one.
Brown is the only Hornet with the veteran savvy to quickly tack on the "it's only one game" disclaimer, but even the 36-year-old couldn't conceal a broad smile when a familiar face from New Orleans jokingly asked if this was the start of his MVP drive.
Hornets owner George Shinn announced Tuesday night that he still hopes three of the club's six scheduled regular-season games in Baton Rouge, La., can be moved back to New Orleans after March.
Shinn, though, said he remains unsure when the determination will be made if New Orleans Arena -- and, more importantly, the city and its residents -- will be ready for even one NBA game this season.
Shinn also said a deadline has not yet been set by his organization or the league for deciding whether to exercise the team's option to stay in Oklahoma City for a second season or return to New Orleans in 2006-07.
For its 35 scheduled regular-season games at Oklahoma City's Ford Center this season, the club has sold more than 10,000 season-ticket packages. According to Shinn, that places the Hornets in the league's top 10.
Asked what the Hornets' season-ticket base was last season, Shinn simply said that New Orleans ranked "last" in that category.
Amid a growing suspicion that a return to New Orleans might never be possible given how the Hornets struggled to attract fans before Hurricane Katrina struck and the challenges the city faces in the wake of that disaster, NBA commissioner David Stern insisted to reporters in San Antonio on Tuesday night that eventually "the team is going back."
"I've said it from Day 1 that Oklahoma City is a temporary, interim stop," Stern said.
Said Shinn: "Because of what they went through here [with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995], they made it clear to the NBA when they called that they're not trying to steal the team. They just wanted us to have a safe place to land, maybe play here for a year or two and maybe that might help [them] get a [professional] team in the future."
-- Marc Stein
Yup. It was that kind of everything-went-right night in this home-away-from-home opener. The Hornets received an unexpected boost when the Kings' flight in Monday had to return to Sacramento because of mechanical trouble, necessitating the use of another plane and delaying the visitors' arrival until just six hours before Tuesday's tipoff. The Kings indeed looked like a tired team and the Hornets, relying on Brown's steadiness and a relentless push from two two 20-year-olds -- with J.R. Smith and rookie Chris Paul forming the youngest starting backcourt in NBA history -- never stopped running.
The crowd, meanwhile, never stopped roaring once it soaked in a jazzy instrumental rendition of the national anthem by former Oklahoma star and NBA veteran Wayman Tisdale. One Oklahoma City newspaper columnist opined in Tuesday's paper that the NBA's arrival finally made this an actual city and, judging by the noise from a sellout of 19,163 at the Ford Center, it means a lot to the locals to be in the big leagues.
"These crowds are going to be like college basketball crowds," said Desmond Mason, the Hornets' newly acquired swingman from Oklahoma State. "It's unlike anything else you'll see at an NBA game."
Yet even the player who knows this terrain best found it a bit strange to be playing a real NBA game in the land of collegiate football. The proximity to the rest of the Southwest Division and the presence of a relatively new NBA-level arena were lures that, for the league and the Hornets, made Oklahoma City an obvious choice to take the Hornets in, but Mason was openly stunned to be back.
"My wife and I have had that conversation a few times already," said Mason, who married a former Oklahoma State soccer player. "I definitely never figured I'd play basketball here again -- period -- much less an NBA game."
Mason wasn't alone. Hornets owner George Shinn recalled, as he was sorting through the options just weeks ago, how shocked he was when NBA commissioner David Stern suggested Oklahoma City as the Hornets' relocation destination.
"My exact words were, 'Oklahoma where?' " Shinn said. "I said, 'You've got to be kidding me, David. Do they have an arena?' I knew nothing about Oklahoma City."
The locals must have thought the same when Shinn addressed them before the opening tip. In his attempts to give thanks for the warm reception his franchise has received, from Oklahoma City and Oklahoma at large, Shinn temporarily forgot where he was and said, "From the state of ... this great state."
The team's start was a bit shaky, too, with a flurry of empty possessions and nearly three scoreless minutes before Brown finally allowed the fans to sit with a putback. Yet you could forgive the stumbles on this night, all the way up to the much-maligned owner. It's a team with an average age under 25, and no team has a manual to turn to for how to handle all this. How many professional sports teams have ever been forced to move by a natural disaster?
As Scott noted, it's impossible for the Hornets -- with an OKC patch on their jerseys and shooting shirts -- to forget that they're not where they're supposed to be. Impossible even when they're throttling a perennial 50-win team to earn a Opening Night share of the Southwest lead with San Antonio.
Said Mason, refusing to let his popularity in the area encroach on his newcomer status: "I've tried not to ask anybody about [New Orleans]. The guys seem to be happy right now. They're moving on. I'm not going to reopen that wound by asking about it."
Those wounds, of course, aren't going away soon no matter what the Hornets try, with so much of their future unclear. Don't forget that there were plenty of questions about this franchise's viability in New Orleans, as well as its management and roster choices, even before Katrina struck.
You can understand, then, why they couldn't resist this unexpected opportunity to trumpet their new home as First Place, USA.
They won't start 2-29 again, like last season, but the Hornets are realistic enough to know that baby-faced rebuilding teams can't count on a lot of nights like these.
"Everybody is just happy to have us here," Scott said of the OKC welcome. Then, only half-joking, Scott added: "After about three or four months, they might be saying something different."
Said Brown: "I never thought I'd have to leave [Louisiana], especially in these type of circumstances. I'm rooted down there, that's home. But this is starting to feel like home. I definitely want this team to go back to New Orleans, but the region has a long way to go before they even talk about us or the Saints coming back.
"It's a very unique situation, but I'm going to represent two cities."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
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