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Scott Howard-Cooper

The fans in New Orleans have rallied around Trevor Ariza and Co., but could be without a team soon.
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Hornets facing possible final game in New Orleans

Posted Apr 24 2011 2:56AM

NEW ORLEANS -- oh Lord I feel like I'm on holy ground.


The song floated from the radio of the rental car just as we rolled slowly past a church, barely faster than a jog to maneuver the deep pot holes and to allow the three of us to get a better look at the embattled Lower Ninth Ward.

oh Lord I've wandered in the wilderness.

We have driven dozens of quiet neighborhoods, some rebuilt and some dotted with the empty lots that remain a constant visual reminder of the wrath of Katrina some 5 years ago and lives that were washed away. Many homes that survived the carnage still show the painted markings from rescue crews that were sprayed on outside walls to show the property had been searched for survivors, and if there were any.

This is New Orleans. Bourbon Street isn't New Orleans. Bourbon Street is a few thousand varieties of fun, some of them legal, but it's prop people and a Universal Studios back lot. Just add alcohol.

The Garden District is New Orleans.

Uptown is New Orleans. (Three words: grilled pecan pie.)

Even the French Quarter is New Orleans despite being associated with Bourbon Street, in the way a large portion of the area has homes and business worlds removed from the buzz-fueled assault on the senses of the tourist haven.

At some point, depending on the extent of the lockout, the NBA, as the new owners of the Hornets, will get offers to buy the team that may include relocation proposals, and it will be worth remembering the impact on a city trying to claw its way back. Getting outside the area between New Orleans Arena and the hotel near Rue Bourbon the last couple days as the playoffs came to town was a welcome reminder of the world that really exists.

New Orleans -- the place and the team -- already lives in NBA uncertainty. This season alone, the Hornets were uniquely sold from George Shinn to the league, they had a pretty close race to reach an attendance benchmark when failing to make the number would have allowed the team to get out of the lease with the state of Louisiana and potentially move forward with relocation now, and had an offer from mogul Larry Ellison that almost certainly would have included an attempted jump to San Jose, Calif.

They have a playoff team and a crowd-pleasing superstar point guard, Chris Paul, and still finished 26th in attendance. That does not bode well. Plus, the economic squeeze is particularly unforgiving with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 adding to the financial woes from Katrina and the nationwide struggles.

The Hornets could be playing the final home game of the season Sunday night, depending on if the Lakers win to take a 3-1 lead before the best-of-seven series shifts back to Los Angeles on Tuesday. If New Orleans wins, Game 6 will definitely be here on Thursday. Those are the only certainties.

If the season ends without another appearance at the arena adjacent to the Superdome, the uncertainty only increases. Barring unexpected developments, the lockout will start July 1. Potential buyers will monitor negotiations to see whether the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is more conducive to making money than the current deal. Then, at some point, sales talks begin as the NBA tries to flip its investment.

This is a singular city, unlike any other in the United States in everything from spirit to the European feel of some areas to the style of homes. People who end up with the Hornets talk of liking New Orleans more than they expected, after hearing so much about the devastation and seeing some for themselves as part of visiting teams. The NBA brought the All-Star Game here at a time when the players' association was concerned about safety, and the event went off so well, in a message the city could handle big parties again, that David Stern called it one of the highlights of his time as commissioner. The showcase will likely come back within a few years, if there is a team to host.

There is a realness to the place that won't be found on Bourbon Street. Will White was singing I Feel Like I'm On Holy Ground through the radio as we rubbernecked our way through the Lower Ninth on Saturday, a day after specifically wanting to leave downtown to see other parts of the city, and there is so much to see. The NBA is still part of the landscape until further notice, but the future of pro basketball here is high on the speculation list. That's another real part of New Orleans.

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

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