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.