As one of the biggest New Orleans Hornets fans this side of the Pacific, you can imagine my delight with the success they had this season.
Sure, they didn’t exactly win the championship, but if one looks deeper inside their season-for-the ages then you’d understand why this year will go down as the most successful – and most memorable – season in the franchise’s history.
If you’ve been following this team for as long as I have – 16 years and counting – you know that the Hornets aren’t exactly a ‘storied’ franchise. They haven’t won a championship and the farthest they ever got was Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals. It’s easy to forget that out of the four teams that entered the league during the ’88 and ’89 expansion years, the Hornets are the only team that hasn’t reached the Conference Finals. The Miami Heat already has a championship banner hanging in their building after Dwyane Wade led them to a title. The Orlando Magic reached the Finals in 1995 and if it weren’t for Nick Anderson’s world-class choke job, the probably would have had one by now. Even the Minnesota Timberwolves – perennial underachievers that they are – reached the Conference Finals during the peak of KG’s reign in ‘Sota.
Sadly, the Hornets’ past reads like a laundry list of unfortunate, ill-fated events and circumstances. On the court, they’ve always been a good – not great – team. And when they were a great team, they were damned – as with all the other teams, anyway – to have played during Michael Jordan’s reign of terror in the league. They also couldn’t attract big-time free agents to join them, primarily because most players were turned off by North Carolina’s glowing reputation as the “Bible Belt”. Go figure.
It gets even worse when you consider what’s happened to this team off the court. From George’s Shinn unprecedented fall from grace in Charlotte (ironically, due to a sexual harassment case), to relocating in New Orleans in what was then known as a dead basketball town, to enduring the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, to relocating AGAIN - albeit temporarily - to Oklahoma City, and finally, moving back to New Orleans in a time where the effects of the hurricane was still fresh on everyone’s minds and hearts.
The adversity this team has gone through in the past couple of years is unheard of in sports. It’s absolutely ridiculous when people make such a big fuss about a ‘supposed’ franchise player’s trade demands on YouTube, or another team who, until recently, employed a coach responsible for single-handedly burning what was once a storied franchise to the ground.
Would you trade that for what the New Orleans Hornets have gone through?
Me thinks not.
Their biggest headaches are walks in the park on a sunny Saturday afternoon compared to what the Hornets have been through.
And that’s precisely why as a Hornets fan for three-fourths of my life, this season will go down as the best one in their history - both on and off the basketball court.
Before the year began, the New Orleans Hornets were actually considered an up-and-coming team, penciled in most mock play-off trees somewhere along the sixth to eight seed. If somebody actually said the Hornets would finish number two in the West, he would have been called a cocaine-sniffing, ecstacy swallowing delusional idiot. “The Hornets having a better record than the Spurs, Mavs, Suns, Jazz, and Rockets?! Please!”
Most had them rated, predictably, as a good – not great – team. Good enough to make the play-offs and be offered as a sacrificial lamb to any of the true contenders. It was the usual step for a franchise, people would say. From not making the play-offs the past three years, to getting a taste of it and eventually, be bounced out wanting more. That’s how everybody thought New Orleans’ season would go.
For my part, I actually had them as a sixth seed, but I didn’t think they’d go quietly into the night. I thought they had a great young nucleus of Chris Paul, David West, and Tyson Chandler, complemented by veteran guys like Peja Stojakovic and Mo Peterson. They were a good team that had tremendous upside.
But not even myself, die-hard New Orleans fan that I am, thought that they’d be one of the West’s elite teams for most of the season - spending the last month of the season as the conference’s number one seed (they ended up being the number two seed).
So imagine the number of jaws-dropping after every New Orleans win. With every blowout of San Antonio, with every trashing of the Suns, the Hornets were slowly earning recognition around the league. But most importantly, their success has spurned the city to finally support them.
Playing their home games in front of crowds that resembled a Saturday morning YMCA scrimmage, the Hornets’ success began drawing in more people. In the end, the half-filled arena became a hotbed for rabid and delirious fans that at the beginning was a complete afterthought.
And it wasn’t just at the New Orleans Arena. The Hornets, with the irrepressible Chris Paul leading the way, were doing their part in galvanizing the city.
Even after two years of rebuilding, New Orleans was still a shell of its former party-town self. There has been an increasingly absurd lack of progress, with various parts of town still looking more and more like a third-world country.
But in spite of that, the Hornets were determined to do more than their fare share. When their minds weren’t on basketball, they could be seen fixing homes, visiting children, and participating in community events.
That’s what makes this team different from all the other 29 teams in the league. They weren’t just playing for a championship; they were playing for a city that was left in tatters.
That mindset carried them throughout this season. Through all the win streaks, through all the bumps, they rode on that motivation and it led them to the play-offs were they manhandled the Dallas Mavericks and took the defending champion San Antonio Spurs to the brink of elimination (would you believe that the aggregate final score of that series was 645-645?).
After being eliminated by the Spurs, head coach Byron Scott said that the Hornets needed to learn from this experience to become better next year. “You don’t go from not making the playoffs to winning a championship. It just doesn’t work that way,” he said.
With apologies to Byron Scott, I believe the Hornets won more than just a championship. It’s easy to get caught up in that quest for the title because, after all, that is what everybody’s playing for.
But while everybody is focused on reaching the destination that is the “promised land”, they begin to lose touch of the journey that led them there.
And that’s where the success of the Hornets’ season lies. It’s not how far they made it into the play-offs, but how far they came from being a wandering vagabond of a franchise a little over three years ago to becoming a symbol of hope the city of New Orleans desperately needed.
I’ve been waiting a long time for the Hornets to hoist the NBA championship. And while they fell short in that task this year, I’m left with a lasting thought that while no trophy was won, this team still hoisted something far more important than championship hardware.
They hoisted their city, put them on their shoulders, and gave them what nobody up until then had given them – a reason to cheer and a sense of hope that one day, New Orleans will rise again.