Hornets to play first game at Arena since hurricane

NEW ORLEANS -- Tom Warren knows that, compared to the lives and property Hurricane Katrina destroyed, a professional sports team is a small loss. Still, having the big leagues back in town seems important.

"It's one more thing that's ours that we're getting back," said Warren, a 56-year-old construction worker. "We need all that stuff back, because that's normal."

The Hornets' first game in New Orleans since the Aug. 29 storm is not really a return to normal. The team will play only two more games in town this year and only six next season, but it is a significant step in a city that is still mostly empty and wrecked.

The Arena, which was used as a shelter for refugees with medical needs during the hurricane, suffered some flood damage, including to the basketball floor and locker rooms.

Going into Wednesday night's game, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson had plenty of questions about the Arena and the city's future in the NBA.

"Can we go in there and play a game that feels like it's an NBA game when we actually get on the floor?" Jackson asked Monday night. "I heard that the arena they're in was quite devastated by the flood itself. Did they clean that up? Where does that stand in the whole process?

"The NBA's commitment to New Orleans is the other thing. How committed are they, and are we going to go back and forth to this town once again when it becomes whole in another year or so?"

Repairs to the Arena ran less than $10 million, including drying it out, biohazard remediation and removal of damaged furnishings and equipment.

A new $1.5 million scoreboard and two end zone matrix boards have been installed that will include four 9-by-16 foot video displays and four 8-by-12 foot video boards.

The game will be a sellout, Hornets owner George Shinn said, even though only about 189,000 of the city's approximate 465,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned. About 17,000 tickets have been sold for the Denver game and 12,000 for the Clippers later in the month.

The NBA has said the Hornets will return for the 2007-08 season, and Shinn has said that's his plan, although his resolve has been less firm than many fans hoped. Although he had said good ticket sales were vital for these three games, that may not be enough.

"Some people have asked, particularly from New Orleans, do I think that the fact that it's going to be a sellout is reason enough to go back there?" Shinn said. "My feeling is that these three games couldn't be like a referendum. Supporting one, two or three games is not akin to the whole season."

Hornets players appeared to have mixed feelings about the return, especially those who had homes in the area.

"I'm hoping to see that things have progressed and there's a lot of improvement in the city and the surrounding area," forward P.J. Brown said. "But it's a tough memory, things that hurt, you know, there are still feelings."

Maybe the best thing to come out of the night is just the break it will provide for people still struggling to put their lives back together.

"It's going to be a special game," Lakers guard Smush Parker said. "It's significant for that city. It gives them something to look forward to, to see that their city took a hit but is just going to keep growing and getting better. It's just like New York City when the World Trade Center was hit. Nothing stopped. They're just rebuilding right now."