<
>

Lakers top Hornets as pro sports return to Big Easy

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- They came in talking about Katrina. They left
talking about Kobe.

Kobe Bryant scored 18 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter as
the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New Orleans Hornets 113-107
Wednesday night, disappointing the standing room crowd that put
aside its Hurricane Katrina problems for a night of cheering on its
team.

"It was great, just the wrong ending," said Tom David, who
took the night off from working on his parents' flooded house to
attend the game. "A little touch of normalcy."

It was the first professional sporting event in New Orleans
since the Aug. 29 storm destroyed much of the city, scattered
residents across the United States and sent the Hornets to Oklahoma
City for the season.

"It was a big game for us. It was a big game for both teams,"
Bryant said. "We were fortunate to come away with a win tonight."

Hornets owner George Shinn had worried about the city's ability
to supply a crowd for the game -- the first of three to be played in
New Orleans this season. Only an estimated 189,000 of the city's
roughly 465,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned. But the game
was a sellout, with 17,744 people jammed in and the Arena's $10
million restoration ready for the crowd and the game.

"It's a sellout, which sends a signal around the country that
New Orleans is coming back," Shinn said.

Fans arrived early and happy, congregating outside well before
tip-off and forming a line that ran down the block to get in.

"It feels wonderful to be here," said Betty Parker. "We had
to drive in from Baton Rouge for it, but it's still our hometown
team."

The Hornets will play 35 games in Oklahoma City next season and
six in New Orleans, but both Shinn and NBA commissioner David Stern
repeated assurances that they planned for the team to return to New
Orleans in 2007.

"This is incredibly important," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said as
she watched the game. "It's not just a game. It's a real symbol of
our ability to restore and renew ourselves and come back strong."

The Lakers couldn't quiet the crowd even when they took a
10-point lead in the first half and led 58-52 at halftime.

"They gave us everything they had from start to finish,"
Hornets center P.J. Brown said of the fans. "You could feel the
energy from jump ball."

The Hornets opened the third quarter with a 15-8 run to take the
lead 67-66 on David West's 20-foot jumper with 5:19 left.

Los Angeles trailed 87-83 with 9:33 left in the game, but
rallied behind Bryant, who also hit 14 of 16 free throws.

"He's a great player and he made some difficult shots for
them," Hornets guard Speedy Claxton said.

Hornets forward Desmond Mason's layup with 3:16 left tied it at
97. But Bryant's 3-pointer at 2:19 put the Lakers ahead 100-97 and
the Hornets could never catch up.

Lamar Odom scored 18 points and grabbed 17 rebounds for Los
Angeles, Smush Parker had 16 points and Sasha Vujacic had 10.

West led the Hornets with 25 points, Chris Paul and Claxton each
scored 22 and Aaron Williams added 10. Paul also had 10 rebounds.

The Hornets committed 13 turnovers that led to 27 points.

"Every game is important to us right now," Parker said. "We
plan on winning the next 26 games and moving up in the standings.

With the win, the Lakers (32-30) pulled within one percentage
point of the Hornets (31-29) for seventh place in the Western
Conference.

Game notes
The Hornets have played home games in four different sites
this year -- the Ford Center in Oklahoma City, Lloyd Noble in
Norman, the LSU arena in Baton Rouge and in the New Orleans Arena.
The last team to play home games in four different cities in one
season was the Boston Celtics in 1974-75. ... Swingman Jim Jackson
scored two points in his first game for Los Angeles. The 13-year
NBA veteran was waived by Phoenix on March 1. He has played for 12
NBA teams.