NEW ORLEANS -- Louisiana officials could have legally forced the Hornets return to this city next season but instead put off the fight while accepting owner George Shinn's proposal to play the bulk of the team's 2006-07 home games in Oklahoma City.
The Hornets have been a box-office smash since relocating to Oklahoma City in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Under the deal signed with Oklahoma City, the Hornets were afforded the option to return next season if the New Orleans Arena wasn't ready for play. The Hornets are scheduled to play three games at the New Orleans facility next month, but Shinn pressed Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco on the fact the city wouldn't be prepared to adequately support a 41-game home schedule.
How quickly and to what level the city eventually repopulates remains one of the great unknowns. According to estimates released by the mayor's office this past week, New Orleans' population was 134,400 in December -- down from the 2000 Census Bureau estimate of 484,674.
"Clearly, the Hornets and the NBA felt the community could not support 41 games," said Tim Coulan, chairman of the state-affiliated Louisiana Superdome and Entertainment District. "That led them to ask for a reprieve in 2006. We looked at the opportunity for us to force them legally to come back in 2006 and the consequences of that. And what they might choose to do legally would put us in an adverse situation.
"If we won, then we got a team that didn't really want to be here. Why put us in an adversarial situation with a team that has great concern over the viability of the region? So this is the best that we could hope for under the conditions."
Shinn reiterated his concerns directly Tuesday to Blanco, who along with NBA commissioner David Stern agreed to the plan that has the Hornets playing 35 home games in Oklahoma City next season and six in New Orleans. The agreement includes the strong possibility that New Orleans will host the 2008 NBA All-Star Game -- a potential $30 million boost to the local economy -- as well as the league's annual marketing meetings next October.
"We believe the additives of the All-Star Game and the owners' meeting is a real confidence boost to the city and its recovery," Coulon said.
All the parties to the agreement anticipate the club returning to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season -- most important, Stern, though adding, "For now, our collective interests are best served by having the team play the bulk of 2006-07 in Oklahoma City."
The NFL already has addressed the fact the New Orleans Saints will be returning to the city next season, after splitting time this season between San Antonio and Baton Rouge.
Right now, no one is a bigger fan of Oklahoma City than Shinn. The move there has been a financial windfall, with some estimating the club could turn a profit of as much as $35 million this season. Hornets officials acknowledge the franchise lost money during the 2004-05 season, when the club's attendance figures were among the lowest in the league.
The latest agreement came after Shinn told the New Orleans Times-Picayune last Saturday that he'd reached the conclusion that New Orleans wasn't prepared to host an NBA club next season.
"They're not ready, so we should play in Oklahoma City next year and then start working to put everything together to come back," Shinn told the newspaper.
Shinn added: "I feel like the guy that's got two women that's fighting over him," in describing the two cities' pursuit of his franchise. "It would be nice if it was two women and not two states. It's a situation that I want to do what's best."
Likewise, Hornets players are torn between their affection for the struggling city they left behind and their new Oklahoma City fans.
"The fans here have been wonderful," P.J. Brown said after practice Tuesday. "There is no real winner. Somebody is going to lose. I don't know who that is going to be. It's tough. As a player you're very sensitive to the fans' feelings and you want to make them happy."