The NBA's All-Star Weekend in New Orleans should have been the climax of a feel-good story. After Katrina drove away the New Orleans Hornets for most of the last two years, the team has returned home, and they've taken a surprise leap into the league's elite.
It's a good script, but hardly anyone has seen the show. The 2006 New Orleans Saints, who made an inspiring out-of-nowhere run to the conference championship game a year after the storm, were greeted by sellout crowds and hyped as the city's great sports symbol. Meanwhile, local fans and the national media have barely noticedthe Hornets, much less rallied around them. Normally, attendance sags when a team is bad or unlikable or boring. But the Hornets have one of the best records in the NBA, and thanks to transcendent point guard Chris Paul, they're one of the league's most entertaining teams.
Like Steve Nash, Paul turns ludicrous overdribbling into artistry. He zips into, around, and between the defense, finding thin slices of open space. Paul executes Nash's dance at an even faster pace; his outside shot is not nearly as accurate as the Phoenix star's, but he adds explosive athleticism to the clever maneuvering. No one else in the NBA leaves defenders a step (or two) behind so consistently. There are players I find more thrilling in moments—Allen Iverson with his anarchic drives, "Big Baby" Davis and his lumbering grace—but Paul is the guy I'd most want to watch for 41 games. It's a joy to get in tune with his flurries and rhythms.
Paul was reason enough for me to buy season tickets last November, but my impulse to support the Hornets ran deeper. I am a first-year teacher in a high-needs school in the city's Recovery School District. Like a lot of newcomers in post-Katrina New Orleans, I am heavily smitten with my adopted home, eager for avenues to express my new loyalty. It's not really home until you root for the home team. (My students were unimpressed with this logic, because I'd picked the wrong home team. Perceptions about the Hornets, like many things, are frozen to pre-storm realities: "They sorry, Mr. Ramsey.")
At the beginning of the season, there was a jarring disconnect between the sparse, low-energy crowds at the New Orleans Arena and the inspired play of Paul and the Hornets. At several games, my season-ticket buddy and I could situate ourselves in a circle of eight empty seats. Despite the self-evidently insufficient crowds, the Hornets marketing team would proceed with the NBA's normal in-game rituals: flashy, highly choreographed demands for NOISE and EXCITEMENT. This can really suck the life out of a sporting event. Simple silence, after all, has a certain dignity. But near-silence after a P.R. guy shouts about "the loudest arena in the league"—that's humiliating.
In January, the state of Louisiana and the Hornets agreed to a new lease that gave fans an ultimatum: The team can opt out of its contract after next season if the Hornets don't draw an average crowd of at least 14,735 for the remainder of this year and 2008-09—a benchmark based on attendance in the three seasons prior to Katrina. While the team's pre-Katrina crowds were respectable, they were in the lower third of the league; even before the storm, the Hornets played the role of ugly stepsister to the Saints. Still, the abysmal and painful-to-watch 2004-05 team drew more than 14,000 a game, and the lowest single-game attendance was 10,638. The Hornets have been below that mark six times this year already.
Part of the trouble is that New Orleans is a smaller city. No one knows for sure, but most guesses have the current population at around 60 percent of pre-Katrina levels. New Orleans East, where I teach, is only now slowly repopulating. Barren stretches of abandoned buildings abound. Signs tower over the landscape offering strip-mall goodies: Wendy's, Walgreens, nail shops. But the strip malls themselves are mostly just skeletal remains, with egrets from the nearby Bayou Sauvage dawdling through the parking lots. Uptown, where I live, things are much less dire. Even so, I can walk a block and find a street with every other house still damaged and uninhabited. My neighborhood bank is still in a trailer.
Everywhere you go in this city, there are reminders of what used to be. Maybe Hornets games are just one more. While basketball fans are hardly a representative demographic, a game does serve as a snapshot of the smaller town that New Orleans has become. A half-empty arena is no surprise in a half-empty city. Would an NBA team have moved to New Orleans if the population was this low? In a word, no. Football Sundays work fine for a smallish place—folks who live hours away are happy to make the long drive for the occasional NFL game. That doesn't work for 41 basketball games a year, which means the Hornets may not be long for this place. I know, it's just sports. We've got bigger problems down here. But the Hornets are one more thing the city might lose after the storm.
While there is no question that the Saints are the "city's team," it's the Hornets who are more emblematic of New Orleans. There was no sudden miracle. The team was slow to return and hasn't been given enough attention by the nation at large. Rooting for them is marked by a spirit of unvanquished optimism (these guys could win a championship) and realist doubts (these guys could be in Oklahoma in two years). They are thriving despite it all, but the future seems grave.
Since the lease agreement was revised six weeks ago, I find myself following the attendance figures as closely as the standings and the stats. This is a morbid habit. Tyson Chandler grabs 21 rebounds … but the crowd is in four digits. It's the same impulse, I suppose, as cataloging depopulation numbers for New Orleans instead of reveling in the accomplishments of the people who are actually here.
There has been good news. The arena sold out when LeBron came to town in late December, and as the Hornets have kept winning, the crowds have gotten bigger. Through the All-Star break, average attendance for the season had crept up to 12,645, good for second-to-last in the league—thank you, Indiana! Between the hype from All-Star Weekend, an endorsement from David Stern, and the dazzling play of Paul and company, there is hope that the city can meet the benchmarks to keep the team.
Nevertheless, when I went to the last home game before All-Star Weekend, I was fearful of a shabby turnout. The city still seemed wearied by a collective post-Mardi Gras hangover, and the opponent was the lifeless Memphis Grizzlies. But when I arrived at my seat, the normally barren section was filled. I looked around to see other sections filling up too. For just the second time this season, the Hornets had sold out. A minute into the game, Paul flicked a perfect bounce pass to David West for a swish from 16 feet. The fans let out an appreciative roar that a play like that deserves. Whether we make it or not, we're not done shouting.