How Charlotte’s Loss Became Kelly Oubre Jr.’s Gain
It’s been almost 20 years since the original era of the Charlotte Hornets franchise relocated down to New Orleans, LA, a move that broke the hearts of countless hometown fans. But with change comes opportunity and for a young, impressionable Big Easy native like Kelly Oubre Jr. at the time, having an NBA team in his hometown changed his life forever.
Oubre was just six years old when the then-New Orleans Hornets played their first regular season home game on Oct. 30, 2002, which culminated in a 100-75 win over the visiting Utah Jazz. Baron Davis had 21 points and 10 assists in the victory for a host squad that went on to notch a 47-35 record and an Eastern Conference playoff berth that year.
“My reaction? I was just excited,” recalls Oubre. “We had a basketball team for me to root for in my hometown. I was just really happy to hop on the bandwagon. At that time, I was really just curious about what my passion was and what lane I wanted to take. I was doing taekwondo and once the team moved to New Orleans, my dad started taking me to basketball games. I got to really see and feel the energy of being a fan of the game. So, that’s where I became a fan of the game of basketball.”
The following year, NBA All-Stars Davis and Jamaal Magloire led the Hornets to a 41-41 record and a fifth consecutive playoff appearance, despite 20-point-per-game scorer Jamal Mashburn sitting out most of the season because of lingering knee problems.
Now in the Western Conference, New Orleans began the 2004-05 campaign with a ghastly 2-29 record, then traded away Mashburn (who was still sidelined with injury), Davis, David Wesley and Darrell Armstrong before limping to the finish line with 18 wins. One major silver lining to the season though? The organization was in prime position to draft future Hall-of-Fame point guard Chris Paul.
“JR Smith was my favorite player at that time,” says Oubre, referring to the two-time champion and Sixth Man of the Year sharpshooter who made his NBA debut with New Orleans in 2004. “He was just so electric, so energetic and just cool. Chris Paul was on that team. David West, Jamal Mashburn, Jamaal Magloire, guys like that. That whole era of basketball was my favorite.”
In August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, leaving behind a devastating wake of destruction in the Gulf Coast region. The Oubre family, who had just moved into a new house in the Eastover neighborhood after previously living in the Magnolia Projects, fled for the Houston area just hours before the storm fully hit. As for the Hornets, they played a majority of their home games over the next two seasons in Oklahoma City.
“I stopped following the Hornets when they moved to Oklahoma City,” says Oubre, who was nine at the time. “I think they ran their course for me as basketball player because I started to realize that there were 30 NBA teams for me to be able to choose as my favorite. At the end of the day, without that team, I don’t think I’d even be here today. I can sit here and tell you right now I wouldn’t.”
Now more fully conscious of where the sport could take him, Oubre’s basketball career really began accelerating at George Bush High School in Fort Bend, TX before he enrolled at Nevada’s Findlay Prep for his senior season. A McDonald’s All-American at the time, Oubre completed a one-and-done freshman campaign at Kansas University, then landed with the Washington Wizards as the 15th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
Adds Oubre, “I’m very thankful for my dad (Kelly Sr.) for having the ultimate confidence in me from the jump. No matter what I wanted do – it didn’t have to be basketball – he was just the same way when I was doing taekwondo. It’s just that resiliency, that work ethic and that mindset that he instilled in me.”
Traded to Phoenix along with former-New Orleans Hornet Austin Rivers in December of 2018, Oubre spent a season and a half with the Suns before he was dealt again to Oklahoma City, a transaction that featured a familiar face from his childhood. “It’s crazy because I got traded for Chris Paul of all people,” he says. “He was the guy who I looked up to who played for the New Orleans Hornets. For me to get traded for him and then end up here [in Charlotte], it’s just a full-circle moment for me. It’s just God telling me that everything happens for a reason. Everybody is in your life for a reason.”
In a way, Oubre is back to where it all started, only this time, he’s representing the Hornets on the hardwood instead of just watching from the stands. And right now, he’s playing some of his best basketball at this stop on a uniquely circuitous journey. “You have to really just cherish each and every moment that you get to do something or be with someone,” Oubre says. “This is a perfect opportunity for me to do God’s work, just be myself, allow my soul to open up and reach my full potential. I’m just blessed to be here all and all. The stars aligned.”