Memoirs of a New Orleans Hornets Fan: the Battle for Legitimacy

Published: May 22, 2008

If you made it to a game at the Arena this past season, you're probably familiar with Mikey. He was the guy busting a lung from the front row of 303. I first met him while waiting for the streetcar to take me to the Hornets-Sonics game back on December 10th. He turned out to be somewhat of a legend, and we've been good friends ever since. Anyways, since Mikey's from New Orleans and he's been down with the Hornets ever since they first moved here, I asked him to write up his memories of the season here at Hornets247. I'll shut up now and let him tell it…

Let me start this off by first saying that I totally
understand that teams play for championships, and thusly, I am due a certain amount of criticism for even writing this. I am an admitted Hornets fan; have been since they moved to my hometown back in 2002. I moved back to New Orleans in August of 2005, just before the storm that changed the landscape of this entire region, and moved the team that I was looking forward to following. I made it a point to support whatever the Hornets did in New Orleans in an effort to let the powers-that-be know that there were fans in this torn and tattered city that cared about the NBA.

I was there for the three games in 2005-06, and the six game package the following season. About the time I was buying my tickets for the 2006-07 "six pack", I heard that the All-Star game was to be played in New Orleans in 2008. I knew that could only mean one thing: The team that I was longing to support was coming home.

As soon as humanly possible, I jumped at the opportunity to purchase a ticket package for the soon-to-again-be New Orleans Hornets. After two years of exile in Oklahoma City, they were coming home.

Since I purchased that six-pack in 2006-07, I was invited to the Draft Party last May. Before that event, I took a hard look at my finances (which I would recommend anyone do if they are thinking about purchasing season tickets for any major sports franchise), and decided that given the right deal, I would be able to afford season tickets. On Draft night I was married up with a sales rep; we'll just call him Julio. He and I talked about the upcoming season, and what we expected. I told him that I wanted two seats because I felt I could always find someone else to fill the second. He gave me a deal in section 303 that I could not refuse. And there I was, a season ticket holder for a major league sports franchise for the first time in my life. Not only that, but I was able to somehow be a part of the team that I had been longing to support for years.

That was also the night the Hornets drafted Julian Wright. Let me go on record to say that I really approved of the pick because of the upside that Julian possessed. Another part of me really wanted to draft Glen Davis because of his LSU roots, and I thought that would be an immediate ticket-seller. Selling Tickets was a major issue in the early days of 2007-08. The journey through this historic season had begun, but I had no idea what this team and this community had in store.

Opening night happened to be Halloween night. I didn't wear anything crazy, although there were some wacky costumes out there. I just had on my usual teal hat, which I continued to wear every single game day. The Bugs were playing the Sacramento Kings, and there was a certain amount of nervous energy at the start of the upcoming season. How was this young team going to play in the first game of their first full season back in the Big Easy? Were they going to be accepted by the fans of New Orleans? What was the attendance going to be? As I entered the stadium, I ran into my friend, Mike, who happens to run the Hornets' Nest. Before the game began, we were greeted to a short speech by Hornets owner, George Shinn. When Shinn took the mic, he was met with mixed reviews. You could actually hear some boos from the crowd. The game quickly turned into a rout as the Kings could never really make a significant run, and the Hornets cruised to a 14-point victory.

Attendance that first night was announced at just over 15,000, way better than I had expected. However, things would most certainly get worse before they got better. November brought some horrible attendance figures, such as the barely 8,300 folks that saw the Allen Iverson-less Sixers, and the T-Wolves a few weeks later. Through the first full month of the season, the Hornets record stood at 11-6, but it was pretty evident that the New Orleans fan base had not gotten the message.

It was clear to me at that point that the 07-08 season would be a test of legitimacy. Are the Hornets a legitimate team? Is Byron Scott a legitimate head coach? Is Chris Paul a legitimate superstar in the making? Is New Orleans a legitimate NBA city?

December started with a bang as the Hornets defeated the Dallas Mavericks in an overtime thriller, capped off by a Peja Stojakovic shot that was worthy of his likeness parading around on giant popsicle sticks. It was a huge game, and a huge moment. The Hornets had once again answered the bell of legitimacy by defeating a team that had beaten them 21 consecutive times before. Chris Paul answered some of his critics, again, to the tune of 33 points and 12 dimes. Attendance for this game was a shade over 12,000, but at the time, that was a GOOD night!

Next in December came the Pistons, a top-tier team, and 10,000 showed up to witness that event. This was not a good sign. The lone bright spots of the month attendance-wise were the Phoenix game, and when Lebron brought his Cavs to town for the Hornets first sellout of the season. Yes, that's right: the first sellout was on December 29, 2007. That's game 14 of 41.

It appeared as if the city of New Orleans was either slow to warm to the Hornets, or had turned a blind eye to them. My friends and I were looking for reasons why. The Hornets ended the 2007 calendar year with a loss to the Toronto Raptors, but their record was a respectable 20-11. Why weren't people coming? Was it because the Saints and LSU were still playing football? To put it a different way, the Hornets played the Memphis Grizzlies in New Orleans Arena on the same that the 1A and 2A high school football state championships were being played in the Dome. Attendance to the Hornets game was barely over 10,000. Attendance to the state championship games was almost 30,000 (although one of those teams WAS John Curtis).

The Hornets were clearly looking like the odd man out. I remember listening to a broadcast on WWL, a local radio station, when the host asked how people felt about the Hornets. I probably heard seven or eight responses to that question, and not a single caller had been to a game. When asked if they would attend a game, they all declined to say yes. Even the host himself admitted he had never been to a game because he wasn't "a basketball person". It was like the city was turning against their prodigal basketball team.

Then came something that was so unexpected, so out of left field, we didn't even know what to make of it at first. George Shinn had re-negotiated his deal with New Orleans and the State of Louisiana that included an attendance "out clause". He was immediately made public enemy number one. When I asked folks if they were going to games, they immediately cited this attendance benchmark as the reason they wouldn't go see the team play. "Why bother? They are just gonna move next year anyway. I won't waste my money on that." Yet this attendance benchmark was a stroke of genius. Shinn had issued a challenge to this city. His timing was perfect, because while folks were raking his name over the coals, and probably making little George Shinn Voo Doo dolls, the Hornets were in the midst of a nine-game win streak. Additionally, right around the corner was the single event that changed the hearts and minds of New Oleanians for good.

The NBA All-Star game was rapidly approaching, but in the midst of the Hornets longest winning streak of the season, they had some legitimizing of their own to do. Both Chris Paul and David West were named to the Western Conference All-Star Team. That moment, coupled with a convincing win in San Antonio, and a double-overtime win in Phoenix that was probably the most amazing game of the regular season, further cemented the Hornets as a team on the rise.

Up to this point in the season-long battle for legitimacy, many of the Hornets were proving themselves. Byron Scott was in the running for the head coach of the Western All-Star team, and you even started to hear grumblings about Coach of the Year. Chris Paul was just flat out dominating everybody, drawing comparisons to the likes of Kevin Johnson, Tiny Archibald, and Isiah Thomas. David West, on the other hand, was causing us here at the 247 to have various conversations about what his nickname should be. Let's not forget about Peja though. He was also locked in his own battle for legitimacy. After playing only thirteen games the previous season, there had been questions about how his health would hold up. It would seem he bounced back, having made the All-Star three-point shooting contest. That only left one element remaining in this whole equation to prove themselves: the fans.

I signed up to be a volunteer at the All-Star Jam Session, and when I arrived at the orientation meeting, I was astonished at the turnout. There were people everywhere. The NBA had come to town, talking big talk about re-energizing this area. Let me just tell you… they walked the walk too. The NBA took this city by force, blitzkreiging this community with signage and special events. I remember going to a Hornets radio show at Gordon Biersch, on Thursday night before the big game, with ole Ron Hitley, and who is sitting ten feet from us only OSCAR FREAKING ROBERTSON!

I also got to witness Chris Paul judge a dunk contest at the Jam Session, and had Chris Tucker come through my attraction. It was an amazing week, capped off by an amazing All-Star game. In the fourth quarter of the main event, Byron Scott let the young guys show their stuff. Chris Paul and Brandon Roy did not disappoint. Lebron James won the day with the dunk to end all dunks, but CP3 won the heart of a city that night.

The word was out. Everybody wanted to know who this Chris Paul was. It was almost like the city looked in the mirror and said a collective "What the hell were we thinking?!" Earlier in the season I would try to talk about the Hornets at work, and usually got the cold shoulder. After the All-Star game, all of a sudden I was showered with questions about the team. I was "Hornet Guy", or "The Yelling Guy".

The attendance started to climb too, little by little. I recall a game recap that Ron did, but I don't remember what game it was [Ron's note: it was this one]. I can still see the typed words in my mind's eye… the words "We turned a corner tonight". You could almost feel it. The city woke up, smelled the coffee, hell, insert cliche here!

Finally the city started to show signs of its legitimacy too. When I'd leave for work in the morning wearing my teal hat, folks near my home now knew what significance it held. I would get a "Go Hornets!" as I got into my truck to head to work. I'd get a "Game day today baby. YEAH!" or "When does the game come on?" whenever I wore my hat to work.

To us here in the Easy, the Hornets were legitimate. The type of character the team possessed, the enthusiasm that the young men played with, it was all on display at the New Orleans Arena. In fact, it had been there all season, but now people were getting to see it for themselves. All you had to do, though, was take one look at a national newspaper, national sports website, or listen to a national sports radio show, and you knew that the Hornets hadn't earned any national credibility.

After the All-Star Break, all the national know-it-alls predicted the inevitable downturn for the Hornets. None of them (except John Hollinger) thought the Hornets could sustain. The Bees opened the second half of their season with the Dallas Mavericks, and their new point guard, Jason Kidd, who Chris Paul promptly used and abused with 31 points and 11 assists.

Then the Hornets lost their next three straight, and you could hear it all over the airwaves; "They're done.", "They were a nice story, but it had to catch up to them eventually.", "They are too young and too inexperienced." It was too late though, national media, New Orleans was behind this team. Average attendance for the last five home games in February, after the All-Star break, was 16,264. One of those five was the infamous Wizards game that I still don't want to talk about to this day, and barely 11,250 saw that one.

I'll admit, even I looked at the Hornets schedule after the All-Star break and thought, "Man, that's a meat grinder." In the beginning of the season, I predicted that if the Bees stayed healthy, we would win 46 games. After the All-Star break, I upped my prediction to 51.

The Hornets stumbled a bit coming out of February, but didn't falter. Then came the month of March; two games against the Celtics and Rockets, a game against the Lakers, the Spurs, and Pistons, and we ended the month in the midst of the longest road trip of the season. EVERYONE thought we would fall out of the playoff picture. All the Hornets did was split with the Celtics and Rockets, beat the daylights out of the Lakers and Spurs, and lose to Detroit, albeit without David West. Even Josh Childress, Atlanta Hawks reserve swingman (at least one of them) showed his love for the Hornets; well, Tyson Chandler at least.

All the fans did in March was continue to flood through the turnstiles at New Orleans Arena. We had indeed turned a corner. Sometimes I would just sit back in my chair, look around at the newly packed New Orleans Arena, and just smile. I'd think to myself, "This is what NBA basketball is all about."

At the end of March / beginning of April came the road trip. It was a six-game journey that took our beloved Bugs through four of the top five teams in the East at the time. The end result was a 5-1 record, and another team record was broken. Some friends and I were crazy enough to greet the team at the Airport when they made their triumphant return. You can see the photos of that night here on the 247. (Please, don't adjust your computer; that really IS Chris Paul pausing for a photo op with us.)

You know, sometimes I really enjoy being wrong. As I previously stated, I predicted the Hornets would win 46 games, then 51. Well I was wrong twice, because when it was all said and done, our record was 56-26. That was good enough for the Southwest title, and a number two seed in the West heading into the playoffs. Still, the season-long battle for legitimacy was not over.

How was this young team going to react to being on the big stage? Surely their inexperience would do them in? Well, no, it didn't do them in, and don't call me Shirley. My playoff goals for the Hornets were simple: Learn as much as you can, protect home court at all costs, and learn how to win a road game.

I believe the boys learned a lot from this year's playoffs. They went 6-1 at home, with the only loss coming against the Champs in Game 7 of the second round. The Bugs also defeated the Mavericks in the American Airlines Center, their first victory ever in that building. Chris Paul and David West decided to put the entire NBA on alert, using the playoffs as their personal coming-out party. Byron Scott, much maligned in national media circles since his termination in New Jersey, had vindicated himself, and won the Coach of the Year award. More importantly, he earned the unwavering respect of his players. New Orleans was transformed from an apathetic, almost comatose fan base into one of the best places to see an NBA game played at its highest level.

And in the end, as our beloved Hornets were about to go down in defeat at the hands of the defending Champs, New Orleans once again stood tall, giving our Bees a standing ovation as thanks for one of the most terrific sports experiences the city had ever witnessed. There I was, clapping along with thousands of others. Sure I was sad that it was over, but at the same time I couldn't wipe the smile from my face. The city and the Hornets went down fighting in that Game 7, but I was smiling because I knew that we had won our legitimacy.

Dale "Mikey" Corcoran

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