I'm in New Orleans! It's Carnival time! And I have a case of the Hornets.
Not Hornets Fever, there being no such thing. Every fifth person you meet in the Big Easy this week who is not costumed as a croissant or largely naked will be wearing a Saints jersey or at least assuring you that it's all right the Saints didn't get into the Super Bowl this year because next year it's in New Orleans and anyway Eli is a homeboy and can you imagine being Green Bay? They got nothing but winter now, and we got Mardi Gras!
But outside of game night at the Hive—as the New Orleans Arena, home of the Hornets, is called—you're not likely to find any Hornets buzz.
More important things about New Orleans need to be saved, most notably the wetlands above and below the city that help protect it against flooding and that shrink by an area the size of a football field every hour. But the Bees, as the Hornets are called by those who care—I know, I know, there are actual honeybees whose plight is more important—have pressing, and actually quite simple, needs. They need players, and they need an owner.
As of last Saturday they had won four games and lost 23. But their haplessness is not yet established enough to inspire inventive folkways of distress, like the Aints of the 1970s and '80s, whose fans wore paper bags over their heads. The Bees don't look that bad. Until they hosted the Bulls on Feb. 8, they seemed doomed to put in three solid quarters and fade definitively in the fourth. The final period appeared to come upon them in a way suggested by a T-shirt for sale on Bourbon Street: I SOMETIMES WONDER, "WHY IS THAT FRISBEE GETTING BIGGER?" THEN IT HITS ME. Against the Bulls, they broke out of that rut by fading steadily from the tip-off. They lost 90--67. But let us not forget that a couple of weeks ago they beat Orlando 93--67.
Let us also not forget that New Orleans has been a basketball town. From 1974 to '79 the local team was, aptly, the Jazz. And the leader of the band was an LSU man, Pistol Pete Maravich, the best ball handler of all time. Pistol was a gunner, and a good one, but if you were a teammate on the court and he was all the way at the other end of it and his back was to you, you should be ready for a pass or you'd be caught wondering, Why is that ball getting bigger? The Jazz sometimes drew more than 30,000 to the Superdome. Then on Jan. 31, 1978, Maravich blew out a knee (while picking up a half-court between-the-legs assist). He refused surgery, tried to heal the knee holistically and was never quite the same.
Attendance declined, and the team's principal owner, a Californian and a Mormon, moved the Jazz, inaptly, to Utah. In 1999 New Orleans opened a spiffy new arena and waited, and in 2002 from Charlotte the Hornets came. They reached the first round of the playoffs twice, and in '05 they drafted a new virtuoso, Chris Paul. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and the Hornets moved for two years to Oklahoma City. But they came back, and Paul's below-the-rim uplift made them a playoff contender. Then George Shinn, who brought the Hornets from Charlotte, was hit by the financial shorts. In December 2010 the NBA stepped in to buy the franchise.
A league owning a team is like a country owning one of its political parties. Unless the owner wants to crush all the other teams, neither the team nor its fans will ever believe the owner has their interests at heart. Does anyone ever root wholeheartedly for the general good? When Paul made it clear that he needed a more stable situation, management worked out a trade that would have sent him to the Lakers for pretty good value. Commissioner David Stern nixed the deal. His reasoning, says the Bees' president, Hugh Weber, was that they should be building for the future, not trading their star to an already loaded team for established players.
So the Bees sent Paul to the Clippers instead, and as Harry Shearer put it on his radio show, "When you trade with Clippers, you get Clippers." The best of those acquisitions, guard Eric Gordon, is suffering from a knee bruise that must be as deep as a well, because he's played only two games this season. Many other Bees have been injured, and coach Monty Williams says he won't push people to play hurt because that's how his own playing career was blighted. Now nearly every team in the league is owning the Bees individually. Heckuva job, Sterny. Anyone with both the power of a commissioner and the instincts of an owner would be fixing it so the Bees play the fourth quarter five-on-four.
But sources say Stern is determined to keep the team in town. At present they aren't filling the Hive, but they've sold 10,000 season tickets, and according to Jac Sperling, a New Orleans lawyer and franchise broker whom Stern brought in as team chairman, the state will guarantee their lease for several years. Sperling also says that several aspiring owners have put in bids, and one will be chosen pretty soon.