NEW ORLEANS -- Before I arrived in New Orleans this week, I firmly believed the NBA had no business even trying to return here, just as the city had no business asking. How do the Hornets leave Oklahoma City, which has gone bonkers in a way Nawluns never did? How does a city with so many bigger problems even pretend keeping a three-year-old franchise is a legitimate priority? This isn't wallpapering over swiss-cheesed sheetrock. This is having the wallpaper peel off, discovering disease-ridden dead bodies and blithely trying to paste the wallpaper up again.
Why leaving home is OK
Now, having felt the Big Easy's improved pulse, heard local radio talk-show hosts boast about the Hornets' faithful fans and seen a displaced beat writer practically make a personal plea for the team's return on ESPNEWS, a gentler me has emerged. I appreciate why commissioner David Stern is saying the Hornets must come back. I understand those who genuinely believe an NBA franchise lifted the city to a new plateau, one it can't possibly reach without one.
I get it. I do. That's why I'm suggesting this be looked at not as a dilemma but an opportunity to correct a mistake. Which was bringing the Hornets to New Orleans in the first place.
Let's be honest. Did it, at any time, really feel right? Plying an owner who turned off one of the most devoted fan bases in Charlotte? Putting civic money in his pocket when the citizenry was already being shortchanged on basic amenities? So the fans who never got over the Jazz moving to Utah finally had their basketball jones sated again. So the Hornets had more support than originally thought -- but that, in part, is because original expectations were so low.
If New Orleans were really in such great shape, it wouldn't have already had to concede its ability to take the team back next season. The city needs help and the NBA should provide it via an All-Star Game and donations and appearances and whatever can be done to boost the economy. They don't need the Hornets back in the city to do any of that.
If commissioner David Stern should have pause at keeping the Hornets where they are, it's only because it means owner George Shinn sidesteps another self-made disaster. If I remember correctly, the franchise plummeted a year ago thanks to a combination of bad personnel decisions and drastic cost-cutting measures. Chris Paul falls in any other team's lap and this is not nearly the feel-good season it has proved to be.
New Orleans has the legal power to force the Hornets to return. They have a lease with no buyout that runs until 2010 and Stern is too smart to get caught up in a PR-deadly legal battle. "NBA GOES TO COURT TO DESERT HURRICANE-RAVAGED CITY" would not be good business for the league no matter how many cowboys hang Buzz dolls from their gun racks.
But having driven past block after block of uninhabitable houses and abandoned cars and piles of refuse, having read about the city's dilapidated education system and its corruption-riddled law enforcement, I would hope New Orleans' leaders would be smart enough not to insist on keeping a team that isn't all that wild about coming back. Only P.J. Brown still has a house in the area and only four players were on the team last season and that's about to be three once J.R. Smith is traded. If it were up to the Hornets, they'd stay right where they are.
While everyone hopes New Orleans recaptures its old panache, as an outsider the laundry list of issues that Hurricane Katrina uncovered makes it hard to see energy devoted to keeping a pro basketball team as wisely spent. It's an elegant city in a wink-and-a-nod way and I love its multi-cultural bouillabaise. It certainly doesn't need Kobe or LeBron stopping by to be that again.
The old notion is, of course, that when a player gets hurt, he gets his starting job back once he's healthy again. That only happens when the substitute doesn't come close to performing the way his predecessor did or the starter gets back in a reasonable amount of time. Jay Williams may play again, but he isn't replacing Kirk Hinrich or Ben Gordon for the Bulls if he does. Promising him that wouldn't change his current battle. Same goes for New Orleans and the promise of being an NBA city again.
Hey, from all accounts, Wally Pipp went on to have a pretty good life. Or at least I never heard of him having a bad one. New Orleans, being a lot more hip from the get, surely can do that. Or maybe even better.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Hornets guard Speedy Claxton feels the pinch from Kobe Bryant and Smush Parker. Kobe had 40 as the Lakers won 103-97.
Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko is filling up the stat sheet again.
He had eight blocks and eight assists to go with 15 points and 11 rebounds Wednesday, and Utah beat Minnesota 96-93.
He had only two steals. Slacker. However, he has had eight steals in a game before, making a 5x8 within the bounds of possibility. But why stop there? How about double figures in five categories . . . a 5 x 10!
He's come within shouting distance of that feat. He fell short of that mark in a Jan. 3 game against the Lakers, needing "only" four more steals, three more blocks, two boards and one assist to get a 5 x 10.
What would you call it? A penta-double sounds about right.
-- Andrew Ayres
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Kobe Bryant scored 40 as the Lakers played the first NBA game in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.
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AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Hornets fans watched their club lose to the Lakers in the return of the NBA to New Orleans.
Quote of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Rick (Yakima, Wa.): Who do you guys match up best with for a seven-game series that you'll face in round 2? Any preferences?
Donyell Marshall: It's hard to say. If you look right now, we are 3-1 against Indy and Milwaukee. We struggled against Philly, NJ and Washington. But things can change in the playoffs. Once we get Larry back we can matchup well with any of those teams.
Tony ( Cleveland): It looks a lot like you like the corners on both sides do you have a favorite side and corner to shoot the 3?
Donyell Marshall: Probably from the side closest to the bench. The fans aren't sreaming at me while I'm shooting. That's my favorite spot.
Nigel (Akron,Ohio): Hey Donyell, I'm curious, I't seems to me you guys are getting a little bit more physical on defense. Does this have anything to do with the Pistons game?
Donyell Marshall: We wanted to be a more physical presence. Once the playoffs come, they let things go more and you can be more physical. So we wanted to gear up for that.
The Pistons improved their record to 49-11 with a 106-101 victory over the Bulls, becoming the fourth team in the last 11 years to win at least 49 of their first 60 games of a season. Chicago did it in both 1995-96 (54-6) and 1996-97 (53-7); the Lakers did it in 1999-2000 (49-11).
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If part-owner Steve Belkin wins this round of what is shaping up to be a long, drawn-out battle, he would become the sole owner of both the Hawks and Thrashers.
If so, that would have major on-court implications, because Belkin would basically go in and fire everybody.
Let's start with the front office. Remember that snub Hawks general manager Billy Knight gave Belkin at a court hearing last summer, refusing to shake his hand or even look up at him? Revenge is a dish best served cold, my friends, and Knight would certainly end up chewing on a plate full of ice cubes.
But it won't just be Knight -- virtually the entire management regime is, by association, affiliated with Knight and the other owners, so most of them can expect to clean out their offices if Belkin wins his bid.
Moreover, if rumors of Belkin's frugality are true (supposedly his real objection to the Johnson trade was that it would involve raising payroll above the bare minimum), it would have serious ramifications for both the Hawks and Thrashers. They'd essentially become the Kansas City Royals of their respective sports, trying to "Moneyball" their way to a quasi-respectable record without the resources of their competitors.