Hornets Return To New Orleans With Raised Expectations

Monday, October 29th 2007, 6:57 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ The massive mural of Chris Paul on the broad side of the New Orleans Arena is tough to miss.

Commuters go right by it as they hop on and off of an elevated expressway in the heart of downtown.

Now if only the Hornets can get more of those people inside the arena to see the real star point guard and his talented supporting cast.

``We have all the pieces of the puzzle to be successful,'' said Paul, pointing to emerging center Tyson Chandler, outside shooting threat Peja Stojakovic, power forward David West and veteran swingman Morris Peterson. ``We have a shooter, we have a shot blocker, a rebounder, all those tools.''

The problem for the Hornets in New Orleans is that simply having those tools won't be enough to pack the arena. They'll have to win, and win a lot.

That's not only because the Hornets spent two seasons in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina. Basketball fans in this town were a bit jaded even before the Hornets first arrived in 2002.

They supported the Jazz in the 1970s, at times with record-setting crowds in the Louisiana Superdome _ they once surpassed 35,000 for a game _ only to have the team pull out because owner Sam Battistone, a California native, never seemed to like New Orleans, its notoriously parochial politics, or having to take a back seat to Mardi Gras events when trying to schedule home games in February.

The Jazz moved to Utah, and like the old Minneapolis Lakers, refused to relinquish their name, giving embittered fans in New Orleans a sense that not even a moniker meant to honor their local heritage was sacred.

So when the Hornets arrived in New Orleans, they received a lukewarm welcome from fans who'd been burnt before.

The team was not conceived locally, or locally owned. Its name was meant to conjure descriptions of civil war battles in the Carolinas.

And the owner, George Shinn, had been branded as an outcast in Charlotte, where taxpayers rejected his attempts to get a publicly funded new arena, then approved one for the expansion Bobcats right after Shinn and his Hornets left.

Because the Hornets were competitive and had novelty appeal that first season, attendance was solid, but dipped to a league-worst average of 14,221 during the 2004-05 campaign, when the team won only 18 games.

This season's team should be a lot better, and Shinn has made moves to become more embedded locally. He sold a quarter of the team to Louisiana businessman Gary Chouest, who in turn worked his contacts in the state to help the team sell 54 of 57 luxury suites at the arena.

Many of the high-end courtside and club seats also have sold. The Hornets got new, multimillion dollar sponsorships and a cable TV contract in place.

Combined with their sweetheart lease at the state-owned arena, where they pay virtually no rent and get nearly all the ticket, advertising, concession and parking revenues, the Hornets should be able to stay afloat.

But to thrive, they'll have to attract more casual fans, many of whom are still rebuilding homes and lives, and who'd be quicker to spend disposable cash on tickets for the NFL's Saints, who've been well-supported for four decades.

So far, the Hornets have sold a variety of partial and full season plans that equate to 6,500 full season tickets, about 4,000 short of their stated goal.

Shinn remains upbeat, however, hoping that a winning team will spark a surge in attendance as the season progresses.

``We feel very bullish about the situation, quite frankly,'' he said. ``I've seen people on the street who say: 'Why did you come back? You're not going to make it here.' And here I am, giving them a lecture, saying 'Yes we are,' and trying to be positive.

``I really preach the importance of everybody singing the same sheet of music and having pride in this city. I mean, it's been through hell. We accept that, but don't keep pulling it down. Lift it up. There are opportunities here.''

Opportunities on the court, certainly.

Paul played for the United States two seasons ago, and Chandler did last summer following a breakout NBA season in which he averaged nearly 10 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. Stojakovic is a three-time All-Star. West has averaged better than 17 points the past two seasons. And Peterson is a proven outside shooting threat who can spread the floor.

New Orleans also has some depth in reserves Bobby Jackson, Jannero Pargo, Melvin Ely, Hilton Armstrong and Rasual Butler. Rookie first-round pick Julian Wright, a versatile forward out of Kansas, has shown promise as well, as has second-round choice Adam Haluska, a good outside shooter out of Iowa.

A key question is whether the regulars can stay healthy. They didn't last season. Stojakovic missed all but 13 games because of back surgery to remove a disk fragment. West missed 30 games, Jackson 26, Paul 18 and Chandler nine.

Despite all that, the Hornets narrowly missed the playoffs.

Stojakovic says he's feeling better, having played close to 30 minutes in recent preseason games.

``I'm getting my comfort back,'' Stojakovic said. ``And with that, my shooting is going to come and my playing shape is going to come.''

Peterson, meanwhile, needs to recapture his form of two seasons ago, when he averaged nearly 17 points. Last season in Toronto, his scoring average fell to 8.9 and his minutes dropped as well.

Peterson said his motivation goes beyond personal goals to the story of his new city's recovery.

``This year, we have a chance to do something special,'' Peterson said. ``Hopefully, we can bring some pride back to this city. From everything that's happened, all the guys understand how important it is. There's going to be a lot of people watching us, a lot of people trying to see how we respond to everything that's happened.

``The people that stayed here ... stayed because they wanted to be back. We appreciate that and we're going to try to come out and play the best basketball we can and get back into the playoffs.''