NEW ORLEANS — The NBA’s version of Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers may not have an owner either and their future may forever be tenuous, but the New Orleans Hornets will always have Sunday, April 24, 2011.
That was the night they beat the back-to-back NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers and left their back-to-back MVP Kobe Bryant limping out of New Orleans Arena on crutches after a 93-88 victory in front of a consecutive sold-out crowd of 18,083 that was as in the game as Hornets’ triple-double machine Chris Paul.
The win evened the best-of-seven Western Conference playoff opening round at two games apiece and guaranteed at least one more overflow gate at New Orleans Arena Thursday night after the Hornets play game five in Los Angeles at 9:30 central time tonight.
“I’ve heard our fans saying the excitement in the building Sunday night gave them the feeling of a top five moment in the history of the franchise in New Orleans,” Hornets president Hugh Weber said Monday morning. “The people of this city appreciate a hard working underdog that is showing its mettle at this time of year. The fans love it because it’s the Lakers, and most of the experts weren’t giving us a chance.”
Many experts gave New Orleans little chance of keeping its second NBA franchise, which it received in 2002, particularly after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 temporarily moved the team to Oklahoma City for two seasons until a return in 2007 when Weber came aboard. The Hornets have been up and down, but they did give New Orleans its first NBA Playoffs teams in 2003 and 2004, though both appearances ended in first round losses. In 2008, New Orleans celebrated its first NBA postseason series victory over Dallas, and the Hornets took San Antonio to seven games before falling. A weak playoff showing in 2009 and a no playoffs in 2010 led to decreased attendance and fear of a move.
Everything changed this season under first-year coach Monty Williams, who directed the Hornets to a 46-36 regular season finish and seventh seed in the playoffs, and because of a strong city and statewide ticket push that should help keep the Hornets in New Orleans for the time being anyway. In January, the franchise hit its lease agreement goal of an average game attendance of 14,735 so as to avoid a possible move. Had the average not been met, the Hornets could have terminated their lease for just $10 million and moved on.
“When you look at the situations in which other franchises have moved, a whole series of things were falling part,” Weber said. “That hasn’t happened here, and now everything is coming together. We’ve got tremendous support from Governor Bobby Jindal on down to the mayor’s office and certainly in the business community and from the fan base.”
On the morning after their thrilling victory Sunday night, the Hornets announced that season tickets for next season are up to 7,500 and have already surpassed last year’s preseason total by 1,000.
“Everything is getting re-upped instead of the other way around,” Weber said. “Ultimately, the longevity of the franchise will be determined by the leadership of the new owner, but everything that’s been happening lately illustrates that we’re here for the long haul. It’s my job to get the team and organization as good as it can be to keep the fans coming and to make this franchise so polished that a great potential owner would be attracted to it.”
The Hornets appeared to be a glimmering franchise Sunday night with its once pouting savior point guard, who has considered his own moves from time to time, as happy as ever in the Big Easy. The Hornets are two wins away from eliminating the defending champions without star forward David West, who was lost for the season last month with a knee injury.
“It’s 2-2. Anything can happen now,” Hornets guard Trevor Ariza said.
“It’s a great feeling, man,” said Paul, who looked much more Bryant-like than Bryant with 27 points, 15 assist and 13 rebounds — 11 of those on offense. Bryant was shut out in the first half, mainly by Ariza, for the first time in playoffs since 2004 before finishing with 17. An injury to his left foot may limit him tonight.
“I’m the only guy other than D. West, who’s not with us right now, who has been on this team my whole career,” Paul said. “We’ve got guys from other teams. I have more than just a bond to this city. When I see people out, they say, ‘Man, beat LA. We want to win.’ So regardless of what happens in this series, it was good to see this city with a smile on their face. These people are happy … happy. But we’ve still got work to do. We’re not satisfied, but this city and this arena deserved this win tonight. And we got it.”
One reporter compared the Easter Sunday victory to a resurrection.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Paul said, but he did make a religious reference of sorts on his game-clinching assist to Jarrett Jack for a 90-86 lead with 9.3 seconds to go. Those were Jack’s first points.
“I made a move, attacked and Jarrett Jack saved me because I was about to take probably one of the worst shots I’d taken all game,” Paul said. “I didn’t have a shot, and thank the Lord I saw Jarrett out of the corner of my eye.”
“You know it being Easter Sunday, I’m just so thankful to get to say this is my way of life,” Paul said. “This is my job. They pay me to do this. They’re crazy. They’ve lost their mind, man. I’m just happy I get to hoop.”
And for now, Paul, who will be a free agent after the 2011-12 season, loves it in New Orleans.
“I think that’s about all I was thinking about in the locker room — we’ve got to come back here,” he said. “We’ve got to come back here. I have played a lot of games in this arena, man. When they call us for the starting lineups, it is kind of warm in this arena. It was warm in that arena tonight. I mean, it’s crazy. I love it.”