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Scott Howard-Cooper

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Mayor Mick Cornett's dogged pursuit of an NBA team was instrumental in the Thunder landing in Oklahoma.
Mayor Mick Cornett/Chris Graythen

Aftermath of Katrina still reverberates around the league


Posted Dec 30 2009 10:13AM

Hurricane Katrina brutalized the Gulf Coast on Aug, 29, 2005, a moment worldly in scope and still national in importance. That is the perspective that matters. Period.

But it is impossible to have a conversation about the NBA in the 2000s without discussing the impact of how nature's unforgiving assault forever changed the professional basketball landscape. Changed it in ways the smartest, most forward-thinking minds in the league could not have seen, changed it in towns thousands of miles apart, changed it so much that events shaping the league are still unfolding more than four years later.

New Orleans had a team, lost a team, got a team back, then got a special All-Star weekend that stands as one of the genuinely impactful moments for the NBA. Seattle lost a team. Oklahoma City, which knew pain and the healing process all too well, got a team, then got a good a team that in December 2009 has rewarded its fans for their laudable early support.

All because of Katrina.

Maybe Seattle would have lost the SuperSonics anyway. Attendance was down, the lack of a new arena was a major problem, the owner could have sold to someone from a different city not looking to pirate a team. Maybe New Orleans would have gotten the same magical 2007-08 second half from the Hornets and All-Starapalooza. Those are the uncertainties in a very complicated process.

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The Hornets and Thunder will always be linked.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

The certainty: it happened as a package spinning off of Aug. 29, 2005.

Oklahoma City? Oklahoma City was nowhere with the NBA before Katrina. Mayor Mick Cornett lobbied David Stern to consider the Ford Center for a relocation or expansion team, visiting the commissioner twice that year in New York and leaving the second time, in April, with the clear understanding that the campaign was pointless. To Cornett, Stern was diplomatic but frank.

Oklahoma City would pursue an NHL team, hoping to continue a trend that stretched the sport into the Sun Belt: Nashville, Atlanta, Raleigh, Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Miami and Dallas -- all "non-traditional" hockey markets -- got a team. Except the NHL announced a lockout in September 2004 that made it impossible for Cornett to get anything close to a commitment in three trips to meet with hockey officials in New York.

Katrina made landfall in New Orleans on a Monday morning. Cornett called Stern on Wednesday, telling him that Oklahoma City would like to be considered if the Hornets needed to relocate. The mayor did it knowing he could be branded a looter -- the way San Antonio officials got blasted for trying to move in on the Saints -- but Cornett would have liked the image even less of missing out on the basketball team that might be leaving Louisiana anyway.

The Ford Center in Oklahoma City got the Hornets with the promise of one season and the potential of a second, depending on the New Orleans recovery. Fans embraced the team as their own and the corporate backing seconded the adoption papers. Unplanned as it was, unwanted as it was because of the circumstances that sent the NBA there, it turned out to be the audition that proved Oklahoma City could support the product.

When the SuperSonics were sold to an Oklahoma businessman and applied to move in the summer of 2008, the bid was overwhelming approved by the other owners. And when the relocation became official after legal settlements in Seattle, it took the re-named Thunder five days to sell approximately 13,000 seats that had been set aside for season-ticket purchase, with the remaining 5,000 or so in Ford Center held back for single-game sales.

Oklahoma City cherished the chance to be on the national radar for something other than the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. That was a major reason civic leaders wanted a professional team there, to show off the inspirational spirit of people who came together with immeasurable heart. Sports could project themselves in a new way.

As 2010 beckons, the people of Oklahoma City have a winning team building into something special, with a budding superstar in Kevin Durant surrounded by a solid core of young talent. And the Thunder, based in a city with a 2008 population of 552,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, are 11th in the league in attendance.

The Hornets moved back to New Orleans, and the league welcomed them with the All-Star Game in 2008, showcasing the recovering city in a socially significant weekend that Stern would call the one of the highlights of his time as commissioner.

The Hornets received an attendance bump that was especially meaningful at a time when it had become commonplace to speculate how much longer the team could stay in a city that was getting hit hard economically even before Katrina. They won 56 games and the Southwest Division title and then made a strong run in the playoffs. Those few months were much-needed stability for the franchise.

Its been tougher this season in New Orleans, where the Hornets are 26th in attendance and likewise struggling to gain traction in the standings. But it's not as difficult as it is in the old home of the SuperSonics.

Seattle is the only one of the three locations that got left empty-handed. The oldest pro team in the town was lost to Oklahoma City because of the unimaginable circumstances that put the events in motion. The hurricane of 2005 caused death and destruction, and on a lesser level -- a much lesser level -- changed the landscape of the league.

Nothing has been the same in the NBA since.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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