In a few months, Tom Benson will begin to reshape the New Orleans Hornets in his vision, most visibly by changing the team's name but also by doing something the team's last owner couldn't consider a priority: making the team part of the fabric of the city. George Shinn brought basketball back to New Orleans in 2002, but he did it to make money. It was driven by his nasty break-up with Charlotte and The Big Easy's willingness to supply an arena.
The motives were clear once Hurricane Katrina hit. I'm not the morality police. But in 2007, Shinn tried to undercut Clay Bennett by filing to claim the Oklahoma City market as his own. He wanted to prevent Bennett from bringing the Seattle SuperSonics to OKC ... so that he could move the Hornets there. When New Orleans needed help the most, Shinn wanted to abandon it. Shinn had scores of other "morality" problems, but that's the kicker for me: within a couple years of Katrina, he tried to bail on New Orleans permanently.
Thankfully, the NBA saved the market and preserved pro basketball in New Orleans. Benson, who owns the Saints and has been one of the great philanthropists in post-Katrina Louisiana, agreed to buy the team last week.
David Stern's decision to take over the Hornets was not without a good deal of risk. Shinn was hemorrhaging money (in part because he seemed wholly incapable of building a modern franchise, in part because New Orleans requires special commitments), and would have sold to an out-of-towner like billionaire Larry Ellison had Stern not stepped in. To prevent the quick flight of the Hornets, Stern convinced the other 29 NBA owners to pitch in and pay off Shinn to leave the team in New Orleans; the league paid $300 million and took over operations of the team.
There was absolutely no guarantee that the league would make back that $300 million -- both the New Jersey Nets and Charlotte Bobcats sold for less than that, and though there were unique factors in each of those transactions, the New Orleans market posed a special problem, too. In addition to that, there was a possibility that the team would lose money throughout the NBA's ownership, which would have forced Stern to ask his owners to bankroll a competitor's losses.
But the greatest fear of all was that the league's play would be in vain, that the result of NBA stewardship would be no different than Shinn's stewardship: the franchise would remain disconnected from the city, be sold to an out-of-towner and abandon New Orleans.
As it turns out, none of these fears came to pass. The NBA's crack team of marketers sold 10,000 season tickets for the 2011-12 season, just an amazing number for a franchise in the Hornets' position. The revenue was just fine for the 16 months that the NBA ran the team. Benson kicked over $330 million for the club, making the league a tidy return on investment. (Whether the NBA structured the deal to fuzz up the numbers a little bit and make the transaction look more lucrative than it actually is will be an item left up to your imagination.)
But most importantly, the NBA found the right owner for the Hornets, even though it took 16 months. If you'd built a list of dream owners for the Hornets back in December 2010, Benson would have had to be at the top of the list. There's little doubt he was at the top of Stern's list. Getting a man with his reputation into the NBA is a huge victory; getting him into the Hornets is a coup. The future has never looked brighter for the Hornets, and yes, we're talking about an 18-42 team.
If there's one regret from the NBA's ownership of the Hornets, it's that Stern couldn't keep his nose out of basketball operations despite a promise to do so upon taking over the club. Stern's interjection in the Chris Paul trade proceedings wouldn't have been such a massive issue if he'd simply told everyone in December 2010 that he would actually as an owner and make final personnel decisions based on the impact on the team's future. Instead, he said he'd leave those decisions to GM Dell Demps. By axing the Chris Paul-Lakers trade, he gave substance to the fourth fear about the NBA's Hornets takeover: He meddled in the trade market itself, seemingly to prevent another superpower team in a big city.
But that episode already looks like a blip, and it will be remembered less and less as time goes on. It's dawn for the Hornets -- or whatever you call them -- and New Orleans can smile at the close of the NBA's tenure as owners. Demps and coach Monty Williams seem like the right personalities to lead the basketball operations forward, and if Eric Gordon is re-signed and the right two draft picks are made in June, this team will improve on the court quickly. All parties involved, from Stern to the owners who supported him to the local businesses and most of all the fans, can hold their heads high after a job well done. The future of New Orleans basketball has never been brighter.
The Hook is a twice-weekly NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.