As everyone here is well aware, Hurricane Katrina struck the United States Gulf Coast region on August 29th of 2005 and devastated that area; in particular crippling the city of New Orleans and temporarily halting all operations in the city due to the flooding caused by the storm's surge. One of the operations of the team is, obviously, the New Orleans Hornets. With very little time until the new season were to start, the Hornets looked for a temporary home for the season, vocally wishing to play in Baton Rouge, but eventually winding up in Oklahoma City; a location that beat out other cities such as Kansas City, Nashville, Louisville and San Diego. What transpired was pretty special all ways around. The Hornets, fresh off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, went to Oklahoma City behind the emergence of both Chris Paul and David West and breathed life into a struggling franchise. Likewise, the city of Oklahoma City responded overwhelmingly positively in their support for the team and was among the league leaders in attendance the next two seasons. That's all common knowledge to most Hornets fans but what's often overlooked is how well that two year stay worked for both franchises and how the affects of that stay are still being felt by two franchises, the Hornets and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
First of all, there may still be some tension in regards to citizens of New Orleans and how Oklahoma City tried to keep the Hornets there even after the two year lease agreement had been reached. I'm aware of that and am glad that the NBA and the Hornets committed to the city of New Orleans. However, even as a former Louisiana resident, I was a fan of the Hornets in their Charlotte days so my ties don't lie exclusively with the city itself. As a result, I thoroughly enjoyed the two years in Oklahoma City and understood why the franchise thought hard about staying. In fact, even Byron Scott, then the Head Coach for the Hornets, voiced his opinion in stating his desire for the team to remain in Oklahoma City, stating that he and the players were "at home here." I know that's touchy. But both franchises benefitted from the stay in Oklahoma City in ways that stretch beyond the basketball court.
First, Oklahoma City was known almost exclusively for the extremely unfortunate Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the fallout from that incident. Oklahoma City is not necessarily known for its metropolitan area or even for its attraction of outside tourists. It simply serves as the largest city and the capital of the state of Oklahoma. Oklahoma City, in fact, qualifies as the NBA's second to last market. For comparison purposes, New Orleans ranks dead last. But the community support in leasing the Hornets for those two seasons and then the outward display of support from the crowds in the Ford Center, the Hornets ranked 6th out of 30 teams and 8th out of 30 teams in attendance in the two seasons there, showed how well the city could support an NBA franchise. It's safe to say that Oklahoma City would never have received an NBA team if not for Hurricane Katrina and the Hornets temporary relocation there.
But as a result of that temporary relocation, Oklahoma City businessman Clay Bennet bought the Seattle Supersonics and moved them to Oklahoma City in 2008, only one year removed from the Hornets returning to New Orleans full time in 2007. The fallout from that has been controversial in some ways. Obviously relocating teams is tough on the fans that you leave behind and Seattle genuinely supported the Supersonics for a long time. The citizens of Seattle are still bitter over the dispute (although they don't see the irony in wanting to take the Hornets from New Orleans this past season either) but Oklahoma City has reaped the benefits. The Thunder have been among the league leaders in attendance all three seasons there, they're currently in the Western Conference Finals and the Ford Center received expensive renovations under the promise of the Thunder coming to Oklahoma City. That two year trial benefitted the city tremendously.
Now all that is well and true but there may still be some questions as to how the move benefitted the Hornets franchise since their city in New Orleans. Well first of all, it gave a certain appeal to the Hornets that hadn't been there their Charlotte days around the 1990s. They were cool again, to a certain degree of sorts, and although attendance wasn't good at the beginning of the 2007/2008 season in New Orleans, it improved as the team continued to play terrific basketball over the course of that season. But big parts of why that team was successful were manifested during the two year trial in Oklahoma City. Had it not been for Oklahoma City, it's a wonder how long that rebuilding year in 2005 would have dragged out for the franchise and how that would have affected their stay in New Orleans. After all, the Hornets were last in attendance during that 18 win seasons in 2005. But after Hurricane Katrina forced the Hornets to temporarily call Oklahoma City home, the Hornets saw a support system they hadn't in almost a decade. Fans came out in droves to support a team that wasn't truly there's and the Hornets reaped the benefits financially. Let's not discredit the team's drafting of Chris Paul in 2005 as well, but the Hornets improvement to 38 and then 39 wins during their two years in Oklahoma City helped out George Shinn's pockets enough to be an aggressive spender.
Following the very lucrative first season in Oklahoma City, Shinn used that money to open up his wallets and make moves that the Hornets organization hadn't made in over a decade. We saw an aggressive George Shinn, one willing to spend money to put a winner out on the court now that he had some financial backing to do so. In that 2006 offseason, Shinn signed Bobby Jackson to a 3 year, 15 million dollar deal. He signed David West to a 5 year, 45 million dollar contract extension. He signed Peja Stojakovic to a 5 year, 64 million dollar contract. And then he backed the departure of J.R. Smith, who was traded to take on the remaining 5 years and 54 million dollars remaining for a center in Tyson Chandler who was coming off an extremely tough season in Chicago. Those players aren't going to necessarily blow people away globally, but three of the four were hugely crucial to the best season in franchise history in 2008. And without that great initial season in 2008, it's questionable as to if Chris Paul stays, if the city doesn't improve its support for the Hornets and other factors that are still affecting the franchise today.
It's possible that everything would have worked out either way had the Hornets not temporarily relocated to Oklahoma City. But even now in 2011, five years (six NBA years) after the Hornets moved their operations to the state capital of Oklahoma, both the Thunder and the Hornets can look back at the benefits gained by both franchises. Not only that, Oklahoma City is proof enough that with one great player (Chris Paul in the Hornets case; Kevin Durant in the Thunder case) and with the basketball Gods ensuring that everything situates itself financially, that small market teams can eventually succeed long term. It's 2011, but it's safe to say that the relocation of the Hornets to Oklahoma City still has had an effect on both franchises.