Hornets reach out to Oklahoma City

Saturday, December 24th 2005, 5:12 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A Santa Claus hat atop his head, George Shinn set off to shake hands and make sure his hungry neighbors had enough to eat on a cold, snowy day.

At a Christmas dinner he provided for hundreds of senior citizens, the New Orleans Hornets owner soon became a celebrity, pausing for photographs and even signing autographs.

The next day at the City Rescue Mission, he was bending down to help a man try on one of 300 pairs of new shoes he had donated for clients of the homeless shelter.

Since their move to Oklahoma City in October, events like the turkey dinner and shoe giveaway have become commonplace for the Hornets as they attempt to build a relationship with citizens of their temporary home.

Some events are a carry-over from the team's days in New Orleans and, before that, Charlotte _ while others, such as a purple and teal bookmobile that will visit dozens of schools to give away books, are new to Oklahoma City.

On top of that, Shinn encourages his players to find ways to give back. Chris Paul bought 50 bicycles to give away to children and J.R. Smith handed out 100 gift cards at Wal-Mart as part of eight straight days of Hornets holiday events.

``If you do that, the community feels like you're part of their community and they want to support you,'' Shinn said.

And support they have. In 10 games at Oklahoma City's Ford Center, the Hornets have recorded five sellouts and rank among the NBA leaders in attendance. Their last home game against the Spurs attracted 19,267 fans, a record for any sporting event at the arena.

Excluding a half-full home game at Baton Rouge, the Hornets' average attendance of 18,669 this season ranks seventh out of the 30 NBA teams. And none of the 10 crowds would have fit in the 17,200-seat New Orleans Arena, where the team drew a league-low 14,221 fans per game last season.

Shinn said the outreach isn't intended to sell more tickets. In fact, many of the events are aimed at people who may never attend a single game.

``I grew up dirt poor and my mom always told me, particularly after I started reaching a certain level of success in my life, she always reminded me, `Don't ever forget to help other people, because if you hadn't been helped you wouldn't be where you are,''' he said.

Still, he believes the Hornets have reaped rewards from their projects.

``From a business standpoint, it's always benefited me,'' Shinn said. ``The more I give, the more I get back.''

In addition to the charity events, the Hornets have started an ``In the Heart of OKC'' advertising campaign with television spots featuring Paul and coach Byron Scott, more than 20 radio ads, and components for direct mail and newspapers.

``It's an ad campaign that speaks not only to where we play right downtown in the heart of Oklahoma City, but ultimately where we hope to be in the hearts of fans in Oklahoma City,'' team spokesman Michael Thompson said.

The Hornets haven't forsaken New Orleans, though. The team and the NBA Players Association combined with Feed the Children this month to send a caravan of food to 8,800 people affected by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. An initiative with Habitat for Humanity is building new homes for those displaced by Katrina.

All that is on top of the efforts in Oklahoma City, where Smith was not only passing out gift cards but encouraging those children to be generous and use them on presents for their families. The second-year guard said it's easy to tell that locals are appreciative.

``They smile from ear to ear,'' Smith said. ``It makes us feel more at home when you see people smiling and they're so happy to see you. It makes you feel good.''

It's impossible to know how big a factor the Hornets' deeds have been in how Oklahoma City has embraced the team, but Paul said that's not the reason players have reached out to locals so often.

``I hope they appreciate it, but at the same time it's not about that,'' Paul said. ``It's about just giving back.''