ESPN: How Hurricane Katrina upended NBA landscape (Hint: It involves OKC Thunder)

Friday, August 28, 2015

OKC fans "gave us a standing ovation when we were walking off the floor because we had competed as hard as we did," said former New Orleans Hornets player Rasual Butler, who started his career with the Hornets in Oklahoma City, referring to a loss to Houston. "I had never seen anything like that in my career at that point."

J.A. Adande
ESPN Senior Writer

Somehow, in the two years the New Orleans Hornets spent away from home after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the biggest beneficiaries turned out not to be the evacuees but their hosts.

Follow the path of just this one side of the story and you can see how the effects of Katrina extended so much farther than the 200-mile span of its winds, lasted so much longer than the day it reached the Gulf Coast 10 years ago. Reduced to its purest elements, this is the tale of the team from Charlotte that moved to New Orleans that came to Oklahoma City and paved the way for the relocation of the team from Seattle.

If that's a lot of history to condense into one sentence, it's nothing compared to the work that had to be condensed into the two months between the time Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, and the NBA season began on Nov. 1.

It began with an email from NBA commissioner David Stern to Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett in the first few days after Katrina, asking Cornett to call him. Cornett had met with Stern in the past to sell the commissioner on the virtues of Oklahoma City as a big league sports market. Stern suggested Cornett would be better off looking for a hockey team. Now it was Stern who was in the position of asking, not granting, and he needed Cornett's help.

Oklahoma City had an arena, the Ford Center, that was close to NBA standards. It just happened to be run by the same company, SMG, that managed the Hornets' arena in New Orleans. The arena was open on the dates of 36 of the 41 homes already on the schedule. Cox cable, which handled the Hornets' local television broadcasts, also had service in Oklahoma City. Those were the conveniences and coincidences. What Stern really wanted to hear were the commitments.

The city agreed to cover up to $10 million in revenue shortfalls for the Hornets. Five major companies -- three in the energy sector, one bank and the local newspaper -- became business partners. Fans snapped up 10,000 season tickets. The arena took steps to get NBA-ready, ordering a new court, upgrading the lighting, adding television camera locations, even raising the heights of the locker room shower nozzles. ...

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