Somehow, in the two years the New Orleans Hornets spent away from home after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the biggest beneficiaries turned out not to be the evacuees but their hosts.
Follow the path of just this one side of the story and you can see how the effects of Katrina extended so much farther than the 200-mile span of its winds, lasted so much longer than the day it reached the Gulf Coast 10 years ago. Reduced to its purest elements, this is the tale of the team from Charlotte that moved to New Orleans that came to Oklahoma City and paved the way for the relocation of the team from Seattle.
If that's a lot of history to condense into one sentence, it's nothing compared to the work that had to be condensed into the two months between the time Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, and the NBA season began on Nov. 1.
It began with an email from NBA commissioner David Stern to Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett in the first few days after Katrina, asking Cornett to call him. Cornett had met with Stern in the past to sell the commissioner on the virtues of Oklahoma City as a big league sports market. Stern suggested Cornett would be better off looking for a hockey team. Now it was Stern who was in the position of asking, not granting, and he needed Cornett's help.
Oklahoma City had an arena, the Ford Center, that was close to NBA standards. It just happened to be run by the same company, SMG, that managed the Hornets' arena in New Orleans. The arena was open on the dates of 36 of the 41 homes already on the schedule. Cox cable, which handled the Hornets' local television broadcasts, also had service in Oklahoma City. Those were the conveniences and coincidences. What Stern really wanted to hear were the commitments.
The city agreed to cover up to $10 million in revenue shortfalls for the Hornets. Five major companies -- three in the energy sector, one bank and the local newspaper -- became business partners. Fans snapped up 10,000 season tickets. The arena took steps to get NBA-ready, ordering a new court, upgrading the lighting, adding television camera locations, even raising the heights of the locker room shower nozzles.
It wasn't as simple to get the Hornets' players and staff into town between the Sept. 21 announcement and the start of training camp just over a week later. They were scattered around the country.
Assistant coach Jim Cleamons had driven with his family to Memphis on the eve of the hurricane's arrival, a typical five-hour commute that wound up taking 14 hours (it took four hours just to get past the airport from their home in New Orleans' Garden District; it's normally a 20-minute drive). When they got to the hotel in Memphis in the early morning hours they turned on the TV, saw the projections that Katrina was headed that way and drove on to Little Rock, Arkansas. From there they went to stay with his wife's parents in Little Rock, then to Columbus, Ohio, to see his mother. He had just a couple days' worth of clothes because he only expected to be gone for a couple of days when he left. That's the way everyone felt.
Dennis Rogers, the Hornets' director of communications, had a bill sitting on his desk when he left the office on a Friday. He figured he would just mail it in on Monday. It wound up going unpaid for more than month. He had been working in the offices of the Dallas Mavericks in the interim, awaiting clearance to return to New Orleans. The staff had dispersed around the country, he couldn't reach anyone with a New Orleans-based cell phone number for the first week after the storm, and the staff eventually formed a Yahoo email group to keep everyone updated about the future of the franchise.
Rasual Butler had the distinction of being traded to New Orleans but not going to New Orleans. He was sent to the Hornets by the Heat at the beginning of August as part of the massive five-team trade engineered by Miami's Pat Riley in an effort to go all-in for a championship with Shaquille O'Neal. Butler was working out in Houston with Cuttino Mobley in the offseason and his flight to New Orleans was canceled by the early signs of the storm. He wound up going straight to Oklahoma City.
Once they arrived they found receptive hosts. Just as the people of New Orleans feel closely linked to the damage of Katrina today, in 2005 the residents of Oklahoma City were still only 10 years removed from the federal building bombing that killed 168 of their family members, friends and co-workers. They felt qualified to help heal.
"They were very congenial and they rolled out the red carpet the best they could for us and recommended some places for us to stay," Cleamons said. "They did their best to make us feel they were feeling our pain. It was very consoling."
Players rarely paid for meals when they dined out.
"Either someone that was eating there would pay the bill or the restaurant would just treat you sometimes," Butler said.
The players felt just as much love in the arena, where 18,000 fans would stand until the Hornets scored their first basket, then spent the rest of the game yelling their lungs out. It was such a supportive and productive environment that when the Hornets went back to Louisiana in December for a game in Baton Rouge and lost to the Phoenix Suns in front of only 7,000 people, coach Byron Scott lamented that the Hornets would have won if they'd had the backing of their Oklahoma City fans.
The fans were so good that what sticks out to Butler was a two-point loss at home to the Houston Rockets.
"They gave us a standing ovation when we were walking off the floor because we had competed as hard as we did," Butler said. "I had never seen anything like that in my career at that point."
The Hornets averaged 18,717 fans per game in Oklahoma City in 2005-06, more than 4,000 more than their league-lowest average in New Orleans the previous season. Revenues per game were about $800,000, twice the take in New Orleans. Not only did the city escape writing that $10 million check, it got to invoke the clause that let it share in profits over $42 million for the season.
Something else was happening, a phenomenon that couldn't be measured at the box office or by the accountants. The presence of these visitors from New Orleans, these outsiders, created a place that became a distinct reflection of Oklahoma City.
"It did something in our community that I think never happened before," said Roy Williams, president of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce.
"We're a college football town. The University of Oklahoma is south of us 20 miles. We have Oklahoma State north of us 40 miles. Huge rivalries, huge alumni who live in the metropolitan area. During college football season, you're either orange [Oklahoma State] or red [Oklahoma]. "And when you go to a college football game, you look at the crowd, and these people, they're connected to the university. When you looked at who was at the Hornets game, it was a cross-section of the community, not a cross-section of the alumni. Rich, poor, black, white, blue-collar, white-collar ... it truly represented the community. If you weren't either an Oklahoma or Oklahoma State supporter you could go, too, and you felt perfectly comfortable. This was your team."
They loved the feeling, even if they recognized that the Hornets could never truly belong to them. Everyone could see that it made financial sense to stay in Oklahoma City even if New Orleans could immediately restore pre-Katrina conditions, let alone the uncertainty that awaited back home. But Stern didn't want to abandon an American city during a time of need. He remained adamant that the Hornets would be back in New Orleans, even while team owner George Shinn sent mixed signals.
"I feel like the guy that's got two women that's fighting over him," Shinn said at one point. "It would be nice if it was two women instead of two states."
Probably not the best analogy to use by a man whose affair with a Hornets cheerleader contributed to the fans in Charlotte souring on him, precipitating the move to New Orleans in 2002. There was no such hand-wringing in the league offices. The league was proud to play the first major pro game back in New Orleans (Hornets-Lakers on March 8, 2006) and intended to have a continued role in the city's rehabilitation. The Hornets could stay a second year, while New Orleans slowly recovered, but they could not be in Oklahoma City forever.
It was plenty of time for OKC to demonstrate its worthiness. Only 10 days into the city's first season hosting the Hornets, Stern proclaimed, "I can say without reservation that Oklahoma City is now at the top of the list" when it came to expansion or relocation. Just a few months later, Stern delivered ominous threats to Seattle about the city and state's unwillingness to assist in the construction of a new arena for the SuperSonics. It was the start of the chain of events that went from Howard Schultz selling the Sonics to a group led by Oklahoma City's Clay Bennett in 2006 to the move of the team from Seattle and re-christening as the Thunder in 2008.
The Hornets struggled financially after going back to New Orleans, even though they'd gone from an 18-win team prior to their departure to regular playoff contenders upon their return. When no qualified local owners emerged (another Gulf environmental crisis, the British Petroleum oil spill, helped undermine the finances of one potential suitor) the NBA took the unusual step of taking ownership of the team itself. New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson bought the team in April of 2012. He renamed them the Pelicans, freeing the Hornets moniker to return to its ancestral homeland in Charlotte to replace the Bobcats.
So three teams and four cities are all linked to this Hurricane Katrina story, a story that on the surface seems about transience but really is about making the best of where you are.
That was Butler's approach to playing under the tumultuous circumstances of 2005-06 -- "You have to block those things out as a professional athlete," he said -- and his long-term takeaway from the experience.
Asked about his lasting memory from that time, Butler recalls when the Hornets went back to New Orleans for good, and he met a nurse who was living with her two kids in one of the notorious FEMA trailers.
"Her spirit was so pure and right, saying she knew she'd get through it," Butler said. "She was thankful she had somewhere to lay her head."
It's perspective like that that keeps any of those transplanted Hornets from referring to their time in Oklahoma City as "lost." It's much easier for them to talk about gains, particularly when compared to those in New Orleans who were quite literally deprived of everything, those whose refuge became cots in domed stadiums.
Everyone craves the comforts of home. The traumatized can appreciate the value of shelter.