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Archive for Monday, February 18, 2008

Commentary: New Orleans has priorities other than Hornets

February 18, 2008

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— Oh, there is plenty to do in New Orleans this weekend.

There are roofs to be repaired. There are homes to be salvaged. And there are entire governments - federal, state and city - to be cussed and blamed for levees that broke and help that never came.

And in the middle of all that, all those pressing things to do, the NBA has come to town, like a visit from a rich uncle just when you're trying to clean up something the dog left.

When the NBA announced that it was holding its 2008 All-Star Game in New Orleans, giant howls went up, and I'm not so sure that some of those didn't come from the city's 1.2 million hurricane victims themselves.

The city knows it's been sick. It doesn't need David Stern to stick a thermometer in its posterior to tell it that.

The league, frankly, should be roundly applauded for honoring what it feels is a commitment to New Orleans.

With the lowest median ticket price in the league, the New Orleans Hornets were 29th of 30 NBA teams as of last week in average home attendance.

That's the same vagabond Hornets who wandered for two years in the Oklahoma desert in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. That's the same Hornets who have a 36-15 record, best in the Western Conference.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is right. When an engaging, 36-15 team with two All-Stars in its lineup can't draw more than 14,000 every night, somebody needs a new sales pitch.

The Hornets aren't hiding. A sprawling Hornets billboard hangs from the side of New Orleans Arena, within easy view of the busiest half-mile strip of roadway in town - the long ramp leading to the Mississippi River bridge.

Yet, the team's flagship radio outlet is an FM station that doesn't reach some suburbs. And local cable companies have stubbornly refused to allow the team's games to be televised in adjoining St. Tammany Parish, where residents boast the highest median income in the state.

Out of sight, sadly, out of mind.

To an outsider, Hornets owner George Shinn appears to be doing the right thing. He has stopped offering impromptu public critiques on the slow pace of the city's restoration. He sold 25 percent share of the club to South Louisiana businessman Gary Chouest. Most of all, despite two successful displaced seasons in Oklahoma City, Shinn took the Hornets home to New Orleans.

Only to have the city answer its door knock, wearing its work gloves, debris piled high on its curbs, and more or less answer, "Oh ... it's you."

The knee-jerk, post-Katrina hypothesis is that the city is too fractured, too poor, too gun-toting violent to support a second professional sports team. There are lifelong New Orleanians - I'm related to some of them - who, trust me, would buy NFL Saints tickets before food.

But the argument isn't factually correct. While the city's flooded neighborhoods rebuild, the wealthier populations in surrounding communities - such as Mandeville and Covington, where the cable companies won't televise the Hornets games - have grown beyond pre-Katrina levels.

In their final five home games before the All-Star break, however, the Hornets averaged more than 15,000, including a sold-out audience to watch the team host, of all teams, lowly Memphis.

Like most things in New Orleans, though, there's a lot more work to be done. A lot more tickets to sell. A lot more minds to convince that the city is on its way back.

It'll get to the NBA. But first, the roof.

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