Memories from a Magical Season

For me, it started on Wednesday, December 5th.

That night at the Arena, we got blown out by the Pistons with only 10,312 people in the stands, most of them not at all convinced that this NBA thing was going to last in Louisiana. The atmosphere was pretty good despite the loss. Cheap tickets, Dance Cam, and Honeybees in the flesh. Later I managed to sneak down courtside and shake the hand of George Shinn as the fourth quarter expired, telling him his Hornets were the reason I'd moved my entire life all the way to New Orleans just three days prior. He seemed amused by that.

Two days later, I was back at the Hive to witness my first Hornets' victory. It was a closer game than it had to be against the visiting Grizzlies, but Chris Paul broke their hearts and got mine pumping when he ripped through the lane and dropped the gamer just 1.8 seconds shy of the overtime buzzer. Goosebumps.

I was getting to every game after that, eventually committing to season tickets. I'd usually ride the streetcar down St. Charles, hop off at Girod and make the short walk to the Arena. Met some good people on those trips, and soon started tagging along to Gordon Biersch for postgame, listening to Joe Block manning the airwaves and occasionally getting wasted after the big wins. Good memories, hazy as they were.

Victories over Phoenix and Cleveland were the highs in December, but January was when everything really took off. The Saints had just wrapped up another disappointing season, and the Hornets were primed to step in and provide therapy for the sports fans of New Orleans. By the time the calendar flipped to February we'd racked up twelve wins and just two losses on the hardwood, including a nine-game winning streak that really started the city buzzing. The peak of that streak was on a Monday night at the Arena against the Denver Nuggets, when 15,601 fans showed up to see Chris Paul deliver a 23-17-9 performance and lead the Hornets to 24-point victory. The corner had been turned. The city was convinced. These Hornets were for real.

Of course, it took the rest of the country a little longer to realize. Our Hornets had blown out the Spurs in San Antonio just two days before that Nuggets game. America had shrugged. Fast forward to a day after Mardi Gras and the Hornets found themselves in a double-OT thriller in Phoenix, when Peja Stojakovic threw in an impossible shot at the sixth buzzer to end the madness. America clapped politely.

Then came All-Star weekend, and New Orleans finally got the love it deserved. We handled the event like Las Vegas couldn't, and convinced the world that not only did New Orleans still have serious soul, but it also had a pair of serious ballers on that All-Star squad, and more where they came from.

That made for one crazy stretch run, as the Hornets battled to stay atop the Western Conference and Chris Paul continued his ambush of Kobe, KG and LeBron to earn consideration as the league's MVP. We toppled the Spurs, Lakers and Celtics ten days apart in March, Byron Scott's men now playing to consistent sellout crowds, each one louder and more passionate than the last. The Hornets took to the road and won five of six as April came upon us. The Western Conference title was ours for the taking, but some late slippage saw the Lakers swoop in and steal it.

We didn't care. Give us our Southwest Division banner, a city now hopelessly in love with this team, and a first round playoff dance with the Dallas Mavericks. Yeah, those same Dallas Mavericks we hadn't beaten on the road since about the time Byron wore short shorts. Second seed, but we were the underdogs. Obviously America needed further convincing.

And so it began. Jerry Stackhouse read from his sucker book as Chris Paul left the defense shook. That would be David West going toe-to-toe and finger-to-face with the reigning MVP, Tyson Chandler crushing oops, and Peja heads circling the Arena. We were up 2-0 before the Mavs knew what hit 'em, then stole one on the road as Jason Kidd lost his cool. His punishment for the attempted assassination of Jannero Pargo: watch Byron get his redemption trophy, then go home for the Summer. Meanwhile, the Hornets advanced.

New Orleans fully fanned up and ready to explode, we welcomed the Spurs to the Hive, 18,000 strong and dressed in gold. Two games, two blowouts, and the defending champs were on the ropes. Bruce Bowen couldn't stop Chris Paul. Tim Duncan had malfunctioned. Serbsicles were everywhere. Then we flipped to San Antonio and the third quarter wasn't our friend anymore. Popovich adjusted and Duncan deleted the virus. It was all square coming back to the Crescent City, with the Spurs seemingly in control. Turned out it was David West's time to shine, as he dropped a godly 38 and 14 with a mortal spine. The Hornets won, the series made no sense, and we were left with two shots at a spot in the Conference Finals. A month before, there was me thinking that the Hornets could not be more loved in New Orleans. I was wrong. After that win, the hype was at an all-time high.

Game 6 followed the erratic script. The home team dominated the third and cruised the fourth. Robert Horry came up villainous. David West barely got up at all. It would take a Game 7 to decide the series, the biggest game in franchise history, and we had three whole days to think about it.

Some say we didn't believe. The crowd was nervous, the Spurs played to win while we played not to lose. Maybe. For the first time in seven games, the visitors owned the third quarter, building up a 15-point lead as we entered the final frame. The crowd remained loud and boisterous, but between the roars you could just about hear the sound of 18,000 hearts breaking. We couldn't go out like this.

And we didn't. Sure, we lost the game, but not before we scared the living shit out of those Spurs. Final minute of a Game 7 against the defending champs, and we were right there. No shame in that, and the crowd full of newborn basketball fans knew it, too. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the season decidedly over, enough people were left in the stands to put that December 5th crowd to shame. We finished it out with a standing ovation for a magical season, knowing we have many more ahead of us here in New Orleans. And finally, it seems the rest of the world knows that, too.

I sat back down as the crowd filed out of Game 7, watching the memories of the past five months flash by on the big screen. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes later, after the screen had gone black, the music had stopped and a second security dude had told me to get the hell out, I was finally ready to leave. As is the case with a great movie, I just couldn't do it until I'd watched those credits roll.

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