It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina forced the New Orleans Hornets to relocate for the better part of two seasons to Oklahoma City. The move would alter the sports landscape in New Orleans and change it forever in Oklahoma City, paving the way for the NBA’s full-time move there in 2008-09.
As the Thunder visits the Pelicans for the first time this season Thursday night in the Smoothie King Center, we took a look back, through interviews with those who experienced the 2005-06 season and beyond in New Orleans and Oklahoma City, to examine the uncertainty of the times, and the lasting impact they had on the NBA.
Hurricane Katrina formed Aug. 23, 2005, and forced a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans four days later. A levee breach followed, and there was 6 to 8 feet of water in the Lower Ninth Ward by Aug. 29, about a month before the NBA was set to begin training camp. Hornets players hadn’t assembled for the preseason, but some of them were working out in the city, while other members of the team and support staff were just settling in.
Brandon Bass, Hornets forward
“After I got drafted (out of LSU), I had immediately contacted coach (Byron) Scott, and I had started driving from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to work out with him and prepare for the season. We heard there was a storm coming, and we didn’t need to go to New Orleans the next day because of the hurricane. So I woke up that next morning (in Baton Rouge) and thought it wasn’t too bad of a storm, but our power was out in my apartment. So I made a few phone calls and found out how bad the hurricane had hit New Orleans. I contacted friends, and most of them already had evacuated and were out of New Orleans.”
Sean Kelley, Hornets radio announcer
“The last thing I did at Tulane University was the College World Series — a dream assignment. In the summer of 2005, when I got back from Omaha, (the Hornets) made a change and put Bob Licht, who was the radio voice, to television and then they hired me away from Tulane full-time. So I was having the summer of my life, coming off the College World Series. My family was young at the time. I’d just gone on a great Florida vacation. I come back here, I get the job and I start Aug. 1. Later that month, Katrina hits, and everything changed for everybody.”
Mick Cornett, Oklahoma City mayor
“The hurricane hit on a Monday, and like every other American, I was kind of glued to (the coverage). Tuesday, as I recall, the water came in, and then Wednesday morning what struck me is that the water didn’t go back out. That was when it first kind of struck me that New Orleans was fundamentally going to be different and that the city was changed. It didn’t necessarily seem like forever, but it seemed like this wasn’t like every other hurricane that had ever hit shore. This was different.”
Brian Hagen, Hornets video coordinator
“I was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, at a Southern Miss basketball camp when the secretary came down on the court and told us there was a pretty big storm in the Gulf and they were talking about evacuating New Orleans. I grew up in the Midwest but had lived in New Orleans for a couple of years and there had been some hurricane/tropical storm warnings in the past that really didn’t end up being too severe, so it never really crossed my mind that Katrina could be as devastating as it ended up being. We ended up riding out the storm in the coaches’ locker room at Reed Green Coliseum. Thirty-six hours without power. When we walked out the doors after the storm, I knew this was different; this was really bad. It was like a bomb had been dropped.”
MAKING THE MOVE
At first, players were in the dark as to the organization’s future plans, but it soon became clear that playing in New Orleans was not an option. But there were several others. At least four cities reportedly were considered to host the Hornets, but the eventual relocation plan singled in on Oklahoma City and came together quickly. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Cornett found himself questioning whether it was helpful to reach out to the NBA or insensitive to what was happening in New Orleans.
“I thought, ‘I haven’t talked to (then-NBA Commissioner David Stern) in a while. I’m going to find out what they’re thinking (about the Hornets).’ He didn’t call me right back, and he told me later it’s because he knew what I wanted. They were scrambling at that point. I told him that we had just run the Hornets schedule over our arena and we had 35 open dates of the 41.
“And I remember him saying, ‘Really?’ That was really refreshing to him. Maybe it was the first time all morning he felt like he had options on the table, because we had an arena and no team.”
Doug Thornton, Superdome general manager
“We were very involved in the move. The arena in Oklahoma City was an NBA-sized, SMG-operated facility that we had available. It was a convenient place for the Hornets to get back up and running. We really didn’t consider any other city. We put (Hornets owner George Shinn) in touch with the people up there, and they were, of course, very receptive. This was my first weekend after we had gotten out of the Dome. The NBA folks wanted us play six games in New Orleans, but we settled on three at LSU and three in New Orleans.”
“Days after (Katrina), I got a call from somebody on the staff with the Hornets who said we weren’t going to be able to play our season in New Orleans. We were going to have to go to Oklahoma. For me, that was a big shock. I was kind of heartbroken. I thought I was going to be able to play at home. Instead, I would have to leave for the first time.
“It was an experience, man. It was a growing experience for me. It was my first time leaving home when I was alone. But the lives it affected — I had friends who had to move as well who didn’t play basketball, whose homes were ruined. I didn’t have that type of effect, but I wasn’t able to play at home.”
“In my case, we evacuated to Southern Illinois, where my wife’s family’s from. As soon as we came back, about three weeks after the storm, I got a call from my boss at the time with the Hornets and said, basically, ‘I need you to report to Oklahoma City in 10 days. We’re going to play this upcoming season in Oklahoma City.’ So that was pretty traumatic.”
Chris Paul, Hornets point guard
“It was a little bit strange, but for me it wasn’t so crazy, just because, for me, I wasn’t already in New Orleans. I’d found a house and all that, but for me, my first NBA feelings, moments — all of that was Oklahoma City.”
Gerry Vaillancourt, broadcaster
“It was an amazing accomplishment logistically because the organization had to move everything. How they set it up so efficiently in a short period of time was mesmerizing. When we finally got word we were moving to Oklahoma City, I had been doing the Emergency Radio Network for a few weeks in Baton Rouge. I’m driving up there thinking, ‘Where in the heck am I going?’ I almost felt a little bit guilty about it.”
“Before we left, we had to come to (what’s now the Smoothie King Center) and get a bunch of our gear to take with us to Oklahoma. This building had been used as basically a temporary medical facility. The power was still out. It was kind of freaky coming in here, but sure enough, guarding the facility were members of the Oklahoma National Guard. That’s when it all started to sink in that this is going to be like nothing you’ve ever experienced.”
Hornets players, coaches and staff relocated in short order and began to make a home in a mostly unfamiliar city.
“We stayed at an Amerisuites hotel for a couple months as I remember it. ... Maybe longer. At some point, the team put together some corporate apartments for staff. The Citadel ... that was the name of the place. Some staff stayed down in Norman, but most of basketball operations stayed closer to the practice facility, which ended up being at Southern Nazarene University. The people at SNU couldn’t have been more welcoming. We set up offices there, practiced there, worked a lot of hours in that building.”
“I remember having a hotel room at first, and then someone from the team helped me go around looking for an apartment. It was cool. Once I knew where we were going to be, I adjusted really quickly. And the fans of Oklahoma embraced us with open arms. They were amazing there.”
“Man, I always try to figure out how I made it through. I used to get a McGriddle every morning from McDonald’s before practice. Me and my brother, we’d eat Chick-fil-A after practice. And we’d order pizza and stay up all night. We lived in a little two-bedroom house out in Edmond. And somehow I became Rookie of the Year.
“I mean, I couldn’t function like that now, but all those different experiences, I think, mold and make you who you are now.”
“The routine was pretty much the same as it had been in New Orleans. Getting ready for games, going to the airport and so forth. The other logistics, like where you were going to get groceries and so forth, you learned quickly. Having the season was a great help, too, because you were totally consumed by that.
“But it was still a heavy emotional toll because everyone’s lives had been disrupted. We knew what was going on back home with fans worrying about whether the team was coming back.
“The same thing was going on with the Saints, so it was like a double whammy. To their credit, both leagues weren’t going to let it happen. But it still took a toll on the organization.”
THE BUZZ BUILDS
Oklahoma City is the heart of college football country, but it had longed for an opportunity to be viewed as a big-league city. And with its favorite football teams struggling — Oklahoma started the season 1-2 en route to a pedestrian 8-4 record, and Oklahoma State struggled to a 4-7 finish under first-year coach Mike Gundy, replacing Les Miles, who’d left for LSU — the town was hungry for something new, and it showed right away.
“I remember I was basically telling our citizens that we’re all uncomfortable with the manner in which this has unfolded, but the message should be clear: In a year, the world of sports is going to figure out whether or not we can support a sports team, and whatever that opinion is, we’re never going to change it. And with that, we basically sold out the season in hours.”
“When we got there, there was almost this craziness going on there. The people who were on the ground trying to set up advertising or ticket sales and all that were basically nonstop picking up the phone. So we thought, ‘This is great. It’s exciting for them.’ But I think our thoughts were still so much here in New Orleans that I’m not sure we could really appreciate what was happening for that city and what it would mean years down the road now with the Thunder.”
Mike Sherman, The Oklahoman sports editor
“The Hornets could not have been more cooperative. Our idea for our (preseason preview) section was we would take pictures of these folks all over town.
“So Byron Scott got up early one morning and came out by the Survivors’ Tree at the Oklahoma City bombing memorial, and it was just this really gorgeous shot one of our photographers got. And we got Chris Paul and J.R. Smith after practice just to meet us down at the arena. And then we got Chris Andersen standing in the birdcage at the Oklahoma City Zoo, with all kinds of exotic birds landing on his head.
“The joke used to be that if you wanted Chris Paul to come to your 7-year-old daughter’s birthday party, the Hornets would get him there — and bring a pony. That was how much they were trying to make it work. And then the city just wrapped their arms around them.”
“We get up there and discover the fan support was mind-blowing. The noise level in that building was ridiculous. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, ‘How do a city and a state so quickly attach itself to a team?’ That made the transition that much easier for us.
“The whole country at that time was embracing New Orleans because they knew what the area had gone through, and it had been one of the first areas in the country to send supplies. They just embraced us. It was like, ‘We know you had to leave home. This is going to be your new home and we’re going to take care of you for a while.’
“It was everyone from the governor to the local politicians to the stores and just to the people. It was simply fascinating. I was overwhelmed by it. That made the transition easier because you were always worried what was happening back in New Orleans.
“It was like they adopted us. You walk into that place, you couldn’t hear yourself. I’ll never forget that first standing ovation we got. The intensity gave us an incredible home-court advantage. I was like ‘Wow! This is unbelievable!’ They were simply marvelous to us. I’ll never, ever forget the treatment that we got and I still stay in touch with people up there.”
“The support in OKC was immediate and tremendous. It was unprecedented really, what the team was doing in such a short amount of time. Move an NBA team, set up shop and start a season in a six- to eight-week window or whatever it was. It’s really unbelievable to think about it looking back on it now, that it could even be done.”
Ben Hochman, New Orleans reporter
“The whole thing was weird. In the fall of 2005, I covered Tulane football, so I didn’t make it to Oklahoma until the winter, a couple months after the Hornets had already been there. So as I reunited with the Hornets, I was still thinking that this was New Orleans’ team, and that Oklahoma City was simply helping out New Orleans during this troubling time. Nope. The sentiment I felt from Oklahoma City was, New Orleans didn’t appreciate its team even before the storm, so now we’ll just keep their team.
“But I do see where the fans and Oklahoma media was coming from — they’d never had pro sports, so they weren’t going to let go of their grasp. The Hornets were instant superstars. I remember going to the bars and clubs, and there was always such a buzz (excuse the pun) when the Hornets players would show up. It was like ‘OH MY GOD, THERE HE IS, SPEEDY CLAXTON!’ ”
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Though they finished six games out of a playoff spot, the Hornets fared better than expectations. Paul was Rookie of the Year, David West had a breakout season and though the team lost five of its last six games, Oklahoma City’s love affair with the Hornets was strong. Strong enough, in fact, that throughout the season, there was tug of war in the city. While Hornets players and support staff felt a pull to New Orleans, fans hoped the team would remain in OKC for another season — and beyond.
“I was so emotionally tied to (New Orleans), and I was also so thankful for the way that the people of Oklahoma treated us. And so there was this constant feeling of, ‘Am I disrespecting one or the other?’ What made that even harder is that we built two different radio networks. We still had, at the time, the Hornets Radio Network here in Louisiana, and now we had a whole new network across Oklahoma.
“So every night I was broadcasting to both fan bases. So that was challenging to kind of localize things for fans and also to be respectful of both regions — what one was missing, and one was gaining and one was being hospitable and one didn’t have that chance. I think that was a dynamic that all of us struggled with, and the players at times would get sucked into it, too.”
“The fans of Oklahoma felt like we were Oklahoma City’s team, and we felt that every night we stepped on the basketball court. My second year, we played five games in New Orleans, and when we went to New Orleans, they felt like we were still their team. I think we all kind of struggled with it.
“We were so embraced by Oklahoma, we had to feel like they were home, and when we went to New Orleans, we had to feel like they were home as well, because we were loyal to the city. But it was definitely weird. Definitely weird. I felt like the guys got through it because we knew how strong and resilient the people of New Orleans were.”
“Everybody was sort of asking the NBA, ‘Do you like us? Do you like us? Do you like us?’ It was uncomfortable, in my opinion, because of what had happened in New Orleans, and the circumstances of the team coming. It was a little unseemly.
“I mean, David Stern came up here and had a press conference the night of the first time Shaquille O’Neal and the Heat came, and I remember he sort of remarked about the unseemly way San Antonio was trying to lure the Saints and sort of lauded Oklahoma City for its discretion in the Hornets. But truthfully, everybody loved the team and was hoping it didn’t go back.
“And unlike the Saints, who had this long (history) — the Saints hadn’t won a Super Bowl yet, but they were beloved — we started looking at attendance figures for the Hornets, and the thought was, ‘Nobody down there cares. They’ve lost one franchise already and they seem to be working on indifference toward the other.’ ”
“We were very cognizant of what was going on. Oklahoma City had welcomed the team with open arms and followed that up with outstanding ticket sales. It was an awkward situation, but we had a plan for them to come back all along. There was always doubt though whether they would be successful, just as was the case with the Saints. The market was struggling and people were trying to put their lives back together. Plus, the Hornets were still a relatively new entity that hadn’t had much success. They certainly didn’t have the connection with the community that the Saints had, and that made it more difficult.
“We had to work to rally the business community to show support. People did not want to lose either team, and because of the pride in New Orleans, they wanted to see it succeed. If the Hornets left, it would be seen as a failure in the community. It was all a great unknown.”
“It was a mess. Hornets sources are telling New Orleans media one thing, Oklahoma City media the other. There were all these murmurs. I remember writing a story about these New Orleans-based fans invited to the All-Star Game with George Shinn. In a private party, where Shinn didn’t know they were there, he gave a passionate speech to the partygoers, most of them being Oklahoma businesspersons, invited to the game. And Shinn said he wanted the Hornets to hopefully host an All-Star Game in Oklahoma City in, sure enough, 2016 (10 years later).”
“George Shinn was great, but George didn’t really understand the Internet. George didn’t understand that he couldn’t come up here and say, ‘I want to stay’ and it not get back to New Orleans. That was a mystery to him.”
“The Hornets, I think, if they were being honest with themselves, I don’t know if they wanted to go back. They were being treated a lot better. Obviously they were going to make money. And I was kind of thinking, ‘Is a post-Katrina New Orleans going to be able to support two sports franchises?’ Because the population was leaving. So the idea that the team might stay here was starting to make sense in a lot of ways.”
The will-they-or-won’t-they drama didn’t last into the offseason. After some back and forth, the NBA announced in late January that the Hornets would play six home games in New Orleans in 2006-07, with 35 home games in Oklahoma City.
“We met in December of 2005 to discuss what to do about the following season. We were concerned about bringing the team back to play at the same time the Saints would be playing their first year back. We felt that having two teams in a struggling market would be a hardship.
“We had very good relations with the Hornets that allowed them to play a second season in Oklahoma City. Nobody wanted them to come back and possibly struggle, but we did bring them back for six games. It turned out to be the right decision. We didn’t have to struggle for sponsorships, the advertising rights, the media rights and things like that. It allowed the team to get financially healthy on their own. And we got the (2008) All-Star game out of it.”
“I was hoping to get back home. But Oklahoma City showed us so much love that it wasn’t going to be easy for us to just leave them. I thought it would have been cool if we could have just played half and half. I think we did what was best for the organization, and that was to play most of the games in Oklahoma City.”
“We didn’t see staying for the second year coming. We felt bad because we wanted to come home and now you wondered if you were going to come back at all. But then we found out that they weren’t ready yet to take us back because of all of the work that had to be done. But then we realized that Year No. 1 was pretty damned good up here, so that made the second year easier because we knew what it was going to be like.
“The big question when we knew we were coming back after year No. 2 was how would the city be? We were in a state of happiness to be coming home, but also in a state of apprehension of hoping it was going to be OK.”
A SORT OF HOMECOMING
The team managed to find its way back to its original home in 2006-07, though infrequently. The Hornets played a game against the Phoenix Suns in Baton Rouge on Dec. 16 and returned to the New Orleans Arena three times in the spring, the first for a memorable 113-107 loss to the Lakers in which Kobe Bryant scored 40 points.
“It was weird. I didn’t know what to expect. I was just excited that we were able to have an NBA game in Baton Rouge at my old college. That was cool.
“But when we had games in New Orleans and actually visited the Lower Ninth Ward and saw all these homes being torn down and places that just only had steps, it was sad to see. So many people were without their homes. It was an uncomfortable situation at times, being a part of that.”
“I remember thinking (the Baton Rouge game was) the cheapest thing I’d ever seen in pro sports. I was still covering Tulane, but I headed over to help cover the game. Obviously, it was cool that they tried to have a game in the region. But the NBA is glamorous and big-time. And it was just weird seeing a game played in a small college venue.”
“I can remember that Lakers game at the Arena in March of 2006 like it was yesterday. I can still feel the energy and electricity. It was so incredibly emotional pulling up and walking into that arena for the first time after the storm. A great majority of people in that gym had gone through great loss and personal upheaval because of the storm. Coming back home was like a celebration of sorts.
“It proved to me that New Orleans was different than anywhere else. New Orleans was unique. Less than 6 months after the greatest natural disaster in American history, and we’re back in town playing this game. It was a testament to the city as a whole, pretty inspiring. Kobe was in his prime, I think he hung 40 on us. Lamar Odom was at the top of his game. The result didn’t really matter that night.”
“This was only the second event back in the arena, and we’d had about $20 million in damages. The game against the Lakers was deliberately scheduled for New Orleans because Kobe Bryant was such a big draw and people in general were just glad to be back watching basketball.
“Commissioner Stern flew in to meet with us. By that time they had already awarded us the 2008 All-Star Game and I remember David Stern telling George, ‘The airport’s not ready. The hotels aren’t ready. We’re going to have an All-Star Game here in two years. You can’t embarrass us.’ That was pretty sobering.
“Kobe lit it up that night for about 50 points, and we had a full house. But we knew we were on notice, and two years later we pulled it off. If we hadn’t, I don’t know how things would’ve gone once George Shinn had to give up the team. But David Stern was very committed to keeping a team in New Orleans.”
HOME TO NOLA
In the fall of 2007, the Hornets returned to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season. The Seattle Supersonics would play one more season and relocate to Oklahoma City, leaving it without a team for just one season. As OKC adjusted to the loss of the NBA, New Orleans slowly began to embrace the team it had been separated from for most of two seasons.
“I had a wonderful time for two years in Oklahoma City and, if we had been told we had to stay, it would have been an easy transition because of the way we were embraced by the city. But at the same time, when we got the word we were going back, there was a feeling of ‘Good, we’re going home.’ Also, there was the feeling that you would be a part of bringing the city back to being normal again.
“But you’ve got to have a Plan B because you never know what awaits you. And Plan B was going to be staying up there. If you had to have a Plan B, at least you were in an area that embraced you. It would have been a comfortable transition.”
“What was really crazy was, when we came back in the fall of ’07, we had a darn good basketball team. I knew from the jump that it was going to be a really good season. So we get back, we make a big push here about, ‘Hey, we’re back,’ and I don’t know if we were more excited to be back than our fan base was, or our fan base was still busy with real, real heavy life issues at that point, but the first month of the season, there was nobody in the building. And you couldn’t help but wonder, ‘Did we make a mistake coming back? Is this a town now that can only support maybe one pro sports team?’
“Sure enough, the calendar turns into 2008. We’re going to host the All-Star Game. Right before that All-Star Game, we go on I think a 10-game winning streak. All-Star comes here. It’s wildly successful. The fan base loved it, the city loved it, the league loved it.
“From that point on, you couldn’t get a ticket in this town. It was like Oklahoma City. It was crazy. So all those feelings of, ‘It’s going to be OK. We’re back home and it’s right, and we’ve got this great team to watch,’ it was a fitting way to end that two-season emotional roller coaster.”
“That ’07-08 season, that was my third year in the NBA, and that was my most memorable All-Star (Game). We were first in the West, so my coach (Byron Scott) was the coach, and I got a chance to play in my first All-Star Game with my teammate, David West. It was like one of those storybook things, and the story would have gone a lot better had we beat San Antonio in that (Western Conference Semifinals) Game 7.”
Oklahoma City struggled to let go of its Hornets, even with another franchise arriving a year later. OKC didn’t have to wait long for a new team to embrace, but its love affair with the Thunder likely never would have been possible without the Hornets.
“Stern and I talked about it a lot. We weren’t getting a team. He was willing to help me with (NHL commissioner Gary Bettman), trying to get us a hockey team. But you just don’t go from where we were as a community to getting an NBA team without something happened. It never would have happened.”
“I was with the Thunder guys a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about this very thing. If not for the hurricane, they probably wouldn’t have a team. You’d never heard about Oklahoma City being on the radar for a team before. But it’s worked out great for them. They sell out every game and that venue is head over heels for the Thunder. It’s the only pro game in town, but on top of that, the Thunder is a fantastic organization. They run a tight ship, but they don’t apologize for being in a small market. And they’ve been very successful on the court.”
“It proved to the NBA that Oklahoma City was a vital fan base. They have amazing fans up there. When the NBA saw that support, their eyes got big and all of sudden Oklahoma City became a viable market. Bingo! They wanted a team and they got a team.”
“The team was fun. The organization was accessible. They warmed up the city and the building for the NBA and the Thunder in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I just don’t see the NBA saying, ‘Sure, let’s go to Oklahoma City.’ I don’t see the local ownership saying, ‘Sure, let’s go buy the Sonics,’ not knowing for sure it was going to work.”
“I used to (think about the Hornets’ impact on Oklahoma City getting the Thunder). I remember the first few times when I came back, I was looking and seeing these nice facilities and stuff that they had — especially when I was still in New Orleans, and we didn’t have our own practice facility and stuff like that. I still got a lot of friends and people that I know there in Oklahoma. I’ll always remember and be grateful, because that was my first two years in the NBA.”
“There was a time, several years later (when) the number of people that were involved with the Hornets in Oklahoma City had dwindled down to be just a couple of us. Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman wrote a column about the few of us that remained, and we had talked about how that place will always have this special place in our heart, and the gist of his column was basically that (Oklahoma City) had moved on.
“And really, it hurt, because it was this place of refuge for us. And as much as they had given us, we felt like we had given them something in this opportunity to become a major league city. So when I read it — and maybe I read it wrong — it kind of hurt a little bit. But still to this day, whenever I go there, it’s still special. Maybe just a little less and a little less and a little less.”
Advocate staff writer Ted Lewis and Scott Kushner contributed to this report.