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Why the NBA Cares About the Hornets

Dec 7, 2010 – 1:47 PM
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Bethlehem Shoals

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It doesn't matter that Katrina was over five years ago. New Orleans is still trying to claw its way back, and sadly, the disaster has very nearly re-branded one of America's most vital cultural centers. Even David Simon's Treme, which looks to celebrate NOLA at its best, still ended up with a narrative of struggle -- the seemingly futile attempt of music and costume to triumph over ruin, neglect, corruption, and human failure.

That's why, no matter how great a point guard Chris Paul is, or what the economics of an NBA franchise are, the possibility of the Hornets leaving New Orleans is always going to be a visceral issue. There's simply been too much emotion invested in this city, and this franchise, for a spreadsheet to make the argument for relocation. Of course, much of it has been forced, or feigned; as Woj details today, George Shinn, David Stern, and the NBA as a brand have reaped the benefits of the post-Katrina photo-op. But that was only because the team couldn't up and move.

Can they now? When do the businessmen who run the league get to stop playing humanitarian and conduct themselves with their usual callousness? Katrina isn't going anywhere. It will always frame the discussion. The question is, when does it loosen its grip on the Hornets?

It's not hard to see this provisional sale as an attempt to give the impression that, if the franchise moves, it does so responsibly and compassionately. In other words, someone other than desperate crank George Shinn makes the decision. And, while even today no city really wants to be known for taking NOLA's team, putting the league in charge of the sale would give it an air of authority -- of sound, disinterested policy.

Of course, that couldn't be further from the truth. Shinn only cares about himself, and a sloppy relocation poses a problem insofar as it might give potential buyers, and the league, pause. Hell, just having Shinn in the picture makes the whole thing that much more unsavory. He is, after all, the quintessential bad owner. The league, however, has broader questions of brand, integrity, and sensitivity to worry about. In the early stages of CBA negotiations -- the part that's all posturing -- owners or the league approving a Hornets move could be a public relations disaster.

The league knew that Shinn was a wild card; the league had far more to lose than Shinn. Somehow, this reads as the NBA taking responsibility for a troubled franchise. They have that luxury -- or rather, have had it forced upon them. They have the most to lose, so it's only right that Stern would step in as a steward. It's the same reason the U.S. Government had to intervene in the market -- it couldn't afford to leave the market in charge of itself any longer without potential disastrous consequences.

What makes the NBA's position so bizarre, and ingenious, is that it tries to do an end-around on Katrina. Those attendance benchmarks built into the team's new lease? Somehow, these cold, hard numbers have become key to the case for moving. Shinn could never have bolted on the basis of a small sample of fan turnout. That can't capture, or speak to, emotion, and you would expect another human being to know better. In the hands of the league, though, this mechanism has become a de facto "New Orleans will have set them free."

If an individual interpreted it this way, he would be reviled. I wish I could tell you why that changes when the NBA is in charge. I really hope it's not because we have trouble pinning the blame on bureaucracy. You would think that, when it comes to the future of New Orleans, we would all know a little better.
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