Clock Winds Down On NBA Stay In Oklahoma

Thursday, April 12th 2007, 11:16 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma City finally got its moment on the big stage of pro sports. In not too long, however, all that will be left will be some NBA memories.

The relocated New Orleans Hornets will play their final regular-season game in Oklahoma City on Friday night against the Denver Nuggets. The city is holding out hope that a late push by the team could put some playoff buzz in Ford Center.

But the offseason will carry the Hornets home after a two-year relocation brought on by Hurricane Katrina, leaving Oklahoma City without a franchise again.

``We're still in uncharted territory,'' Mayor Mick Cornett said.

The Hornets have a farewell planned for the finale, which will be the team's 30th sellout in 71 Oklahoma City games over the past two seasons. NBA commissioner David Stern said he will be there to thank the city.

``I'm sure it's going to be emotional for a lot of our fans,'' Cornett said. ``This has always been a temporary arrangement, but that doesn't necessarily make it any easier. This town has fallen in love with this team, and fallen in love with the NBA product in general.''

Oklahoma City began its efforts to land major-league sports in 1993. New Seattle SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett led a group that approached the NHL about a team. That bid ended in 1997, when Oklahoma City was one of the finalists not chosen in two rounds of NHL expansion.

Cornett stopped by Stern's office on a visit to New York, and it paid off when the commissioner recommended Oklahoma City to Hornets owner George Shinn after Katrina damaged the New Orleans Arena in August 2005. Shinn now believes ``the pieces are in place and everything that needs to be done has been done'' for Oklahoma City to return to major-league status.

``I think us coming through this storm to end up here and for this community to embrace us the way it did, I think it's one of the best sports stories in the country this past two years,'' Shinn said. ``It's been good. I think this market has proved they're a major-league market, and it's just going to happen.''

Stern has said Oklahoma City, where average attendance has been 18,329 the past two seasons, is at the top of the NBA's list to get the next available franchise. The issue is that the NBA has no plans for expansion. The SuperSonics have a lease to remain in Seattle through 2010, although Bennett has threatened to move the team if he can't secure a new $500 million arena.

``I don't have a team to send and I can't tell you a date, but it's my expectation that the NBA has not played its last game in Oklahoma City,'' Stern said.

Until a team becomes available, the city is left in a precarious waiting game.

``To a certain extent, the issues that remain are out of our control. There's very little proactively that we can do at this point,'' Cornett said.

``I'm uncomfortable recruiting teams that have leases in other cities, but nonetheless we know that teams relocate from time to time and we know that leagues expand from time to time, and we figure that we're going to be right there when those things happen.''

Bennett, who at one time tried to buy a minority stake in the Hornets and formerly represented the San Antonio Spurs on the NBA Board of Governors, has been pleased to see the NBA exposure make his hometown become a ``less well-kept'' secret.

``I think it brought a lot of credibility to this marketplace and recognition to this marketplace that we all knew it deserved but have had a hard time achieving,'' said Bennett, who runs an Oklahoma City investment firm.

Bennett said the size of Oklahoma City's television market, which was the primary reason the NHL passed on the city a decade ago, remains an issue, and that city will have to improve the Ford Center to an ``NBA level'' from a basic arena and build a practice facility to have a long-term shot at a franchise.

``I see a great future here for a team at some point in time,'' Bennett said.

Beyond any economic benefits from having the Hornets in town, Cornett believes this NBA stint has given the world a chance to take another look at a city that had perhaps been known most for the 1995 federal building bombing that killed 168 people.

``You always want your city to be branded with things that are positive, and we'd been branded with our tragedies previously,'' Cornett said. ``So this is pretty special.''