NEW ORLEANS -- Hornets fans have more than your standard small-market issues to worry about. They're not just concerned that Chris Paul might not be around after he can become a free agent in 2012. They have to worry about the long-term presence of the franchise itself.
"Five years, maybe 10 years, they won't be here," said George Hebbler, who is part of a group of season-seat owners. "I just don't think they can sustain it. I really don't."
Asked for any source of hope for averting that outcome, he points down to Gary Chouest in his courtside seat.
"The man sitting across from us, he's gotta buy 'em," Hebbler said.
Chouest was in line to be the next owner of the Hornets. But he had his chance and passed, perhaps not coincidentally after his primary business (marine services) was affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. No other locals stepped up to purchase the Hornets, so the NBA took the unprecedented step of buying the team itself.
Perhaps it's fitting for a city that does things so differently than the rest of the United States (such as "burying" its deceased above ground) that there could actually be benefits to the string of bad news that has afflicted New Orleans and the Hornets. NBA commissioner David Stern has said repeatedly that the league wants to be sensitive to a region that was brought to its knees by the effects of Hurricane Katrina. In other words, if the Hornets are staying in New Orleans longer than logic and finances suggest is reasonable, it could be due in part to Katrina.
And if the Hornets don't pre-emptively trade Paul, as the Jazz did with Deron Williams, it could be because the NBA wants to keep the team looking as attractive as possible to potential buyers. In that case, the takeover of the team from George Shinn -- seen as a last-resort move -- could actually keep the star in town longer than he would be otherwise.
It's impossible to separate Paul's future from the future of the Hornets. How many other chances will they get to have a player considered among the best at his position in the league?
When general manager Dell Demps described the realities of trying to assemble a winning team in a small market, he said: "You've got to be very confident in what you do and really maximize the usage of dollars. You've got to keep looking. You've got to find guys that fit into your system. And sometimes you've got to get a little lucky."
Paul's availability when the Hornets had the fourth pick in the 2005 draft is as fortunate a moment as any franchise could expect. The Atlanta Hawks, who desperately needed a point guard, could have taken Paul instead of Marvin Williams with the second pick. Or they could have taken Deron Williams, allowing the Utah Jazz to snatch Paul at No. 3. But Paul wound up with the Hornets, where he became only the fifth player to win the rookie of the year award as a No. 4 pick.
Since then he finished second in MVP balloting and took the Hornets to within a game of the Western Conference finals in 2008. And it seems that whenever there was food to be handed out to those in need, a public service announcement to be filmed or a basketball clinic to be taught, Paul was there. Hornets president Hugh Weber talks about the team's need to interact with the community; Paul has embraced it.
You've got to be very confident in what you do and really maximize the usage of dollars. You've got to keep looking. You've got to find guys that fit into your system. And sometimes you've got to get a little lucky.
”-- Hornets general manager Dell Demps
"The identity in connection with the city has grown; that's due in large part to Chris Paul," fan David Boyd said of the Hornets, who moved to New Orleans in 2002. "Without a doubt. He's active in the community, but bottom line, he's such a great ballplayer, you have to love coming to watch him play."
Last year the Hornets got a taste of life without Paul. He sat out almost half of their games with injuries, and the team missed the playoffs. The way to keep him long-term is to put the team in position to win a championship ... which brings us back to the challenge of doing that in a small market.
"You've got to be creative," Paul said. "You've got to be creative in who you bring in. And I think at the end of the day it's all about competing, too. I'm one of those people that's a firm believer that intensity and playing hard trumps out, you know what I mean? So we've just got to find a way.
"I'm one of those people, I don't care where you put me, it's all about basketball. And it's been great here in New Orleans. I guess it's a small market, but it's a big city, if you ask me. Every event comes here. For years and years we've found a way to compete, and I think that's a credit to our organization. We've kept good guys around and good players. Now we've just got to figure out how to get over the top.
"It's not about what I've done for this team. I think it's the town; look at what this team has done for me. This city has definitely embraced me and lifted me up, and I'm truly grateful for it.
"I'm one of those people that's always been a family person. Since I stepped foot in New Orleans I felt like this was my extended family."
And he considers David West his immediate family -- "Everybody knows he's my big brother," Paul said -- so if the Hornets want to retain Paul they should start by re-signing West. The Hornets forward can opt out of his contract after the season, but he might decide to stay in New Orleans for the final year of his contract. That's especially so now that he will miss the rest of the season and postseason after going down on March 24 with a torn left ACL.
If an essential part of the job is keeping Paul happy, Demps doesn't see that as his only task.
"Chris is an important part of the organization -- a very important part -- but we are doing this for everybody, not just Chris," Demps said. "I feel the same sentiment to the fans, to David West, Emeka Okafor, to everybody. We want to put together a team that can compete with the best."
Demps' strategy seems to be save first, then spend. He traded Darren Collison, who did a stellar job filling in for Paul as a rookie last season, but that was the price for shedding the final two years and $14 million on James Posey's contract.
He managed to move the burdensome $15 million contract of Peja Stojakovic by sending him and Jerryd Bayless to Toronto for Jarrett Jack, David Andersen and Marcus Banks, which netted the Hornets a payroll savings of $5.5 million this season.
Demps insisted the NBA takeover of the team wouldn't curtail his activities in any way, then he proved it by trading Marcus Thornton to Sacramento for Carl Landry and adding $750,000 to the payroll (much to the chagrin of Dallas' Mark Cuban, who technically owns 1/29th of the Hornets). Still, it feels as if they're always forced to clip coupons before they go shopping. Without a wealthy owner (you know, like the type who has a mini giraffe) they won't be able to go on a wild spending spree.
If you've ever used one credit card to pay another credit card, you know what the Hornets' finances are like. A peek into the team's financial reports revealed by Deadspin showed them relying on personal loans from Shinn and deferrals of fees for the relocation from Charlotte to stem the negative cash flow.
There isn't an abundance of corporate money around (Entergy is the only Fortune 500 company in town) and there's plenty of competition for the everyday people's attention and entertainment dollars.
The Saints have been there since 1967 and will always come first on the sports scene. The locals go big on holidays, from Halloween to New Year's Eve. In addition to the live jazz spilling out of clubs from Bourbon Street to Frenchmen Street, there's a series of big music festivals. And of course there's Mardi Gras season, which in New Orleans consists of several weeks of events before the blowout on Fat Tuesday.
The challenge for the Hornets is to establish themselves within that event rotation.
"We don't necessarily have all the corporate sponsorships, that maybe a larger market might have ... but it's a very intimate market," said Weber, the team president. "The fans are very passionate. It's very easy to get to know fans on a first-name basis. They feel the Hornets brand is very approachable. You have to change your whole mission on how you make that more powerful. You get deeper with the fans, as opposed to throwing a broad net over the whole community. And that loyalty [translates] into ticket sales."
They established themselves just enough to meet the threshold of 14,735 average attendance per game by Jan. 31 and avoid triggering an early arena-lease escape clause, even if it took a late push and some local business assistance to get there.
Demps has dedicated part of his first year in New Orleans to getting to know the fan base. He spends many halftimes in a club lounge beneath the stands, and fans regularly voice their opinions on the team to him as they head to and from the concession stands. The more he gets to know them, the more he feels a sense of obligation.
"You have to put a product on the floor that people are going to want to support," Demps said. "It's hard to sell the team on city and public support if they're not playing well. We're not the only game in town.
"I do feel, though, when the people show up, they're really energetic. They love the team, they love the city. People here are very resilient. They've been through a lot. They really want the city, their team to win. It's made me work harder to put a team together that the city can be proud of."
At a game against the Grizzlies, a Hornets surge propelled them into the lead and prompted a Memphis timeout. Suddenly the fans were on their feet, dancing to the music. The arena took on a French Quarter feel. That's what comes with winning in New Orleans.
And it brings us back to whether Paul believes that feeling can be more than just momentary.
"Right now my position is to win a championship right here in New Orleans," Paul said. "If I didn't believe it was possible I wouldn't go out there and play every night. As long as we step out on the court and it's 0-0 every night, it's going to be tough to beat us. Once we get to the playoffs, anything can happen."
Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking toward the possibility of his departure in 2012.
"That's a long time from now," he said.
You wonder what the Hornets can do to buy even more time. Then you realize it takes money to buy things. And where's it going to come from?