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  1. Default USA Today Article about Hornets


    By Greg Boeck, USA TODAY

    OKLAHOMA CITY "Live your life so that whenever you lose, you are ahead." Will Rogers, humorist and political satirist, 1879-1935

    Oklahoma's favorite son would be proud of this city, 140 miles southwest of his Oologah birthplace. Some 80 years after he doled out that down-home advice, this reborn city has bear-hugged a team it will one day lose but be ahead.

    Fueling a vibrant renaissance of a downtown rocked by the federal building bombing that claimed 168 lives in 1995, Oklahoma City, almost overnight, has stamped itself as a red-hot big league sports property with its rousing embrace of the New Orleans Hornets. They're the NBA team displaced by Hurricane Katrina in September.

    Love at first dribble. That's one way to explain this western-flaired city's instant attachment to a team relocated from the Deep South. Another is the kinship born out of shared tragedies.

    "We can identify with New Orleans, big time," says Oklahoma City native Mike Wilson, 55.

    Mayor Mick Cornett agrees. "It made us more sensitive to what they were going through. One (tragedy) was man-made, the other wasn't. But both cities probably went through a 'why us?' that's tough to come out of."

    The Hornets sold 10,000 season tickets after the move was announced. After five games of 35 set for NBA-ready Ford Center, the team is playing to 97% of its 19,163-seat capacity and feeding off the crowd with a surprising 4-6 start entering tonight's home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    "They've made us feel at home," says center P.J. Brown, whose flooded home in Slidell, La., sent his family to live in Humble, Texas, outside Houston. "There's energy throughout the whole city."

    The major league sports-starved locals have so taken to the young Hornets, who were 18-64 and averaged a league-low 14,221 last season in New Orleans Arena, that coach Byron Scott marveled at the cheers his team heard coming off the court after a loss.

    "It was because of our effort," he says. "The people have been fantastic."

    How rabid are fans, who line up at games to buy $20 T-shirts and $25 caps emblazoned with "Oklahoma City Hornets"? According to The Daily Oklahoman, two teens arrested last week for allegedly robbing a convenience store at knifepoint told police they wanted money for Hornets tickets so they could see professional basketball players.

    Exceeding expectations

    The NBA team is targeted to return to its flood-ravaged home, perhaps as early as March for three games. Owner George Shinn, who bought a home in Oklahoma City and comes to games in cowboy boots, has promised to bring home the team when the time is right.

    But Oklahoma City, with a metropolitan population of 1.1 million that ranks it as the second-smallest market in the NBA ahead of only the Salt Lake City-based Utah Jazz, isn't expected to be left out in the NBA cold for long.

    Once a sleepy cowboy town that rooted for college football teams in Norman (Oklahoma) and Stillwater (Oklahoma State) and claimed state-grown stars Mickey Mantle and Johnny Bench, the city has irreversibly proven itself a vital major league destination.

    "It's beyond anything we expected or hoped for," NBA commissioner David Stern says. "The community stepped up big time elected officials, the corporate sector and fans. In my view, they've moved to the top of the list if an NBA team were ready to move."

    Prime prospects, with expansion not on the horizon: The Seattle Supersonics and Sacramento Kings, if neither resolves its lease negotiations, and the Orlando Magic if they fail to get the new arena they want.

    "We had expectations, but they've been exceeded," says Clay Bennett, who championed the courtship of the Hornets on the business front. "There's pent-up demand in a much more sophisticated market than we even gave ourselves credit for."

    "This," said Cornett, "is validation."

    Hospitality 'overwhelming'

    Originally, leaders at the forefront of the city's renaissance in the late '90s targeted the NHL for an expansion team in 1999 but came up empty-handed with the $89 million Ford Center under construction. It opened in 2002 with the Blazers, a Central Hockey League team, and the Yard Dawgz, an Arena Football League team, its main tenants.

    Coupled with the '98 opening of SBC Bricktown Ballpark, home of the Class AAA Redhawks, and development of Bricktown, crown jewel of the downtown entertainment district, the city had everything but a big-league tenant.

    That changed after Hurricane Katrina, just four months after Cornett left Stern's office in New York with no encouragement from the commissioner for an NBA team relocating.

    Although Shinn pushed for Las Vegas, where the NBA will hold the 2007 All-Star Game, Stern convinced him to consider Oklahoma City. When he did, it was a slam dunk.

    "It's been like a godsend," says Shinn, "short of a miracle. I've been overwhelmed by everything. To put a deal together like this in three weeks' time is unbelievable."

    For Shinn, it's a sweetheart deal in which he bears no financial risks. If the Hornets fall short of earning $40 million this season, the state, city and group of local investors will make up the difference up to $10 million. Cornett, however, says the city is heading toward a break-even deal. Also, the deal provides 108 furnished apartments and a $500,000 allowance to cover housing costs for employees, to be reimbursed by grants from FEMA, and furnished office space for staff, with rent and utilities provided by the city.

    "The owners," says Shinn, "are very pleased."

    He has embraced the city back. Shinn mandated all employees and players visit the memorial where the bombing occurred. "I want them to understand what this community went through, to see firsthand why they embraced us so much. They've been through it."

    Shinn says he hasn't forgotten New Orleans. He returned Monday for groundbreaking on 20 houses the Hornets are building with Habitat for Humanity to help in the recovery project.

    "Friends call and ask me when I'm coming back," he says. "I ask them, 'Are you coming back?' They say, 'Well, I'm coming back if New Orleans comes back.' And I say that's the wrong attitude. You can't wait and see. You have to do your part, help make this happen. That's why we're building the homes."

    Twin followings boost team

    Stern has set a Jan. 31 deadline for deciding whether to exercise the Hornets' option for returning to Oklahoma City next season. That's when the ticket drive for 2006-2007 starts. Although New Orleans Arena, which suffered minor damage, is expected to be ready as early as March, Stern says he doesn't want to return to the city full time if it's not in position to support the Hornets.

    Also in January, Stern says he will consider playing three of the six games set for Baton Rouge in New Orleans Arena, starting in March.

    Both Oklahoma City and New Orleans are following the Hornets on telecasts provided by Cox Communications TV Sports, the first time two markets are televising the same team. Ratings aren't available yet, says Cox's Rod Mickler, "But my gut is games are being viewed well in both markets. The numbers are high, if not higher than normal."

    Newspapers in both towns are covering the team. Asked about interest in the Hornets in New Orleans, Doug Tatum, sports editor of The Times Picayune, says it is hard to gauge. "So many people are focused on the recovery aspect. There is still a segment of the community interested in them, but it's not to the level of the Saints. We won't really be able to judge until a game in March is moved from Baton Rouge."

    Although Shinn has promised the Hornets will return to the city they moved to from Charlotte in 2002, Tatum says there remains "definite concern" the team might never come home.

    "Shinn has been positive, but Stern has been guarded, rightfully so," says Tatum. "There are concerns whether they can sell their suites, get the sponsorship needed and sustain a fan base."

    Brown, who attended Louisiana Tech, says the players want to return home. "The people want us back, and we want to get back. But most importantly, people have to get their lives together, get jobs, get the economy going."

    He says friends back home say they're watching the Hornets. "That's 21/2 hours they can get away from everything."

    In Oklahoma City, locals celebrated the opener with a street party, and a rowdy, sell-out crowd watched the Hornets win. Big crowds followed the next four games. Not only was the appetite there for an NBA team, the price is right: Season tickets were available for $999 in the lower bowl.

    "We're proving to people we love sports other than football," says Charles Greene, 67.

    "There's nothing like this here," says Jared Wilson, 22.

    The team has responded in turn. "We owe them so much for coming out and supporting us," says rookie point guard Chris Paul. "It's like a college atmosphere here."

    Cornett expects fan support to remain strong, even though the Hornets, with seven players with one year or less of NBA experience, are long shots to challenge for a playoff spot.

    "They get a free pass from us," he says. "They're young, and they hustle. That's about all you can ask."

    Swingman Desmond Mason played at nearby Oklahoma State. He knows about the divided college loyalty here. But that's changed with the arrival of the Hornets. "Now it's an opportunity to root for one team," he says.

    Will Rogers would be proud.

  2. Default Re: USA Today Article about Hornets

    Will Rogers would be proud.
    Here's a scan of the print version (only the 1st page) (I'd insert it here, but I've not figured out how to insert images from OkcTalk's Photo Gallery):


    The article also includes a inset table titled, "Okla. City outdrawing New Orleans", subtitled "How the Hornets compare after five games at Oklahoma City's Ford Center to the first five games of last season at New Orleans Arena", the stats totalling 92,830 at the Ford Center and 72,530 at the New Orleans Arena.

  3. #3

    Default Re: USA Today Article about Hornets

    That a nice comprehensive article.

    That's crazy that we're already 20k ahead in attendance. That's like having an extra home game for the owners.

    The table is at the bottom of the online articel as well.

  4. Default Re: USA Today Article about Hornets

    Quote Originally Posted by Doug Loudenback
    The article also includes a inset table titled, "Okla. City outdrawing New Orleans", subtitled "How the Hornets compare after five games at Oklahoma City's Ford Center to the first five games of last season at New Orleans Arena", the stats totalling 92,830 at the Ford Center and 72,530 at the New Orleans Arena.
    Thanks for mentioning that Doug. I meant to include a seperate post with that info.

  5. #5

    Default Re: USA Today Article about Hornets

    Excellent article!!

  6. #6

    Default Re: USA Today Article about Hornets

    I just thought of something. Today being a huge travel day, this article might get some added exposure as people read in the aiprots and on planes.

  7. Default Re: USA Today Article about Hornets

    I was just going to paste the article - I'm so PROUD of our state!! ( well I could have lived without the teens robbing a convenience store for tickets!) but oh well!

    I'm so glad that our city is basking in the glow of something so positive and successful - the nation is watching and we are looking sweet!
    " You've Been Thunder Struck ! "

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