Coming off an 18-64 campaign, the New Orleans Hornets were lucky enough to land Chris Paul with the fourth pick in NBA Draft 2005. Just two months later, though, they had to leave their home after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Such was the dichotomy that defined the Hornets' season, a season in which they called two cities home.
One of the costliest and deadliest natural disasters on record, Katrina rampaged through the Gulf Coast and left the majority of the historic city of New Orleans under feet of water in late August and early September of 2005. Like many of the Louisiana natives, the Hornets were forced to evacuate the area, and settled more than 800 miles away in Oklahoma City.
A week after the storm, former NBA player and current TNT analyst Kenny Smith organized a charity basketball game to raise money for and hopes of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Almost 30 NBA stars participated in the event.
“As professional athletes we’ve been very privileged,” Smith said prior to the game. “These are the types of communities where we come from and this is one way we can help take care of our own.”
While still supporting their home community, the Hornets got comfortable in their new digs. In their season opener and Oklahoma City debut, they rolled 93-67 over the Sacramento Kings, who were coming off of a playoff appearance.
Later in November, the Warriors’ Baron Davis pledged $500 for every point he scored in his first game against his former team. Davis scored 17 points, raising $8,500 for the victims of the hurricane.
“It was a great cause, and I wanted to do something special for the city of New Orleans,” Davis said afterward. “(The people there) received and welcomed me with open arms and were very hospitable to me while I was there.”
The state of Louisiana got a chance to reopen its arms to its team when the Hornets hosted Phoenix in Baton Rouge on Dec. 16.
"It was good to be back in front of our hometown fans," said forward and Louisiana native P.J. Brown afterward. "People here love us and it was good to be back in front of family. It felt good."
Paul scored 25 points against reigning MVP Steve Nash in that game, and the 6-footer out of Wake Forest has never hit the proverbial "rookie wall." Paul has won Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors all five times it's been awarded. He is averaging 16.3 points, 7.9 assists (No. 7 in the NBA) and 2.24 steals (No. 3) per game.
But the main reason that many are saying that Paul is having the best debut season of any point guard in the past two decades is the dramatic turnaround he’s sparked. The Hornets eclipsed their 2004-05 win total before the 2005-06 midway point, and were in playoff contention until the season’s final week. They finished 38-44, more than doubling their victories from the season before, and Paul has deservedly earned much of the credit.
"CP3" made his New Orleans debut when the Hornets hosted the Lakers on March 8 in the first professional sporting event in the city since the hurricane. Paul notched 22 points and 10 assists (he racked up nine other 20-10 games this season) and was received warmly by what will eventually be his regular home crowd for a long time.
The Hornets played in the Crescent City twice more before the end of the month, and on March 21, New Orleans fans finally got to watch a win.
“People put other stuff on the back burner to come out and see us play,” said third-year forward David West, who tallied 21 points and 11 rebounds in that game and could be named Most Improved Player. “It was nice to send them home happy.”
As New Orleans continues to recover and rebuild, the Hornets announced it will play the majority of its 2006-07 home schedule in Oklahoma City, which has responded well in its first opportunity to support a major professional sports franchise. The Hornets will play 35 games at the Ford Center and six at New Orleans Arena.
“Our team is still part of New Orleans,” Paul said following the first game back in the Big Easy. “We've still got New Orleans on our jerseys.”