The New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets have been somewhat lost to history over the years. The Thunder’s presence in Oklahoma has meant that the state’s first team has disappeared into the memory banks of many fans.
The passing of time has meant that few fans honestly remember what the Hornets represented to the city. It was the first professional sports franchise in Oklahoma. People loved the Hornets and turned out in their droves to support a franchise that was, in effect, loaned to Oklahoma City.
The Hornets were important in proving that Oklahoma City was a market that could sustain a professional sports team. It is one of the reasons why the relocation of the Sonics was allowed in 2008. The league office and owners did not have to worry about the Thunder’s viability as the Hornets had proven that the people of Oklahoma wanted pro basketball.
It has been forgotten, but there was a real possibility that the Hornets could have stayed in Oklahoma City permanently without returning to New Orleans. At the time, there was a concerted effort to get the Hornets back to Louisiana.
Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans, and the NBA felt that it was morally right to return the Hornets to their home. Louisiana had lost so much during Katrina. It did not seem right that the state would lose its professional basketball team as well.
Despite the general sentiment of the time, the reasons for the Hornets moving to Oklahoma City were pretty clear. As a franchise, the Hornets were suspect financially. The organization was laden with debt, and George Shinn did not have the money needed to satisfy these issues.
Moreover, the New Orleans Hornets did not attract huge crowds to games throughout the season, which meant that the Hornets struggled to turn a profit in the market. The finances would not have been an issue in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder have consistently sold-out Chesapeake Energy Arena (formerly the Ford Center) since the team came to town, fans are willing to spend money attending games. In the brief time that the Hornets were in Oklahoma City, regular-season games averaged an attendance of over 16,000 fans.
The sheer amount of gate revenue generated every month would have covered operating costs. The New Orleans Hornets would have been financially sustainable as a franchise.
A move to Oklahoma City would also improve the corporate money flooding into the Hornets’ organization. In a multi-sports market, the corporate revenue pool is divided among each franchise. Oklahoma City is a one-sport town. Professional basketball is the only game in the city.
The oil industry in Oklahoma would have turned out in their droves to support the Hornets in the same way that companies like Devon Energy sponsor the Thunder. The Hornets would have commanded all of that revenue as they were not the ugly stepchild of the marketplace.
The issue of the long-term debt is more difficult to solve, but I believe that George Shinn would have sold the franchise if he was rid of the excessive financial burden. There is reason to think that this would be the path taken by Shinn, he chose to sell the franchise to the league in 2011 as he could no longer cover the losses.
The Oklahoma City Hornets would have had a long list of suitors who would have wanted to build a home for professional basketball in Oklahoma. At the top of the list would be the man who played a massive role in the Hornets coming to Oklahoma in the first place, Clay Bennett.
Before Bennett had bought the Sonics, he was a minor partner in the San Antonio Spurs’ consortium. Bennett’s represented the Spurs at the Board of Governors, but he wanted to bring professional basketball to Oklahoma. It was a personal aim for Bennett, and he worked closely with local government to make the Hornets stay in Oklahoma happen.
It would be probable that Clay Bennett would want to purchase the franchise that he helped bring to the city. The ownership group who purchased the Sonics had more than enough capital to buy Shinn out of the Hornets. The issue of the debt would have been solved with new ownership.
Another reason why the Hornets were close to making a permanent move to Oklahoma City was that the team wasn’t supported in New Orleans. The Hornets generally had poor attendance up until that date. The fans did not particularly care for basketball.
In Louisiana, football is the law of the land. The New Orleans Saints and LSU Football are the two biggest sporting entities in the state. It would not be a stretch to say that the SEC means more to the state of Louisiana that the New Orleans Hornets ever did.
In the first few years in New Orleans, the Hornets were not reasonable or exciting enough to disrupt the established order. The New Orleans Hornets were very different from the high-flying Charlotte team of the 1990s.
The lack of success and football’s dominance meant that the Hornets were regarded with indifference. Few people cared when the franchise was losing or winning. The Hornets’ lack of support was represented in the attendance figures.
When it is considered that Oklahoma presented better business opportunities for the league, ownership who cared about the franchise, and a rabid fanbase, it is not hard to understand why the Hornets staying in Oklahoma felt probable.
Providing the Hornets stay in Oklahoma with Clay Bennett purchasing the team from George Shinn, the lay of the league would look entirely different. Oklahoma City would have professional basketball in the city by the start of 2007-08 Season. There would not be a protracted legal battle with Seattle over the Sonics.
The owners were committed to keeping the Sonics in Seattle rather than move elsewhere. Some investors were interested in purchasing the Sonics from Howard Schultz.
Investors such as Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen had both made attempts to purchase the franchise off Schultz. Both bidders were local Seattle businessmen with ties to the team. They would have kept the Sonics in Seattle.
The Hornets staying in Oklahoma City would mean that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would not come to the state as adopted sons. The Hornets were a good team in 2008. The team won 56 games, and Chris Paul was a burgeoning superstar.
The Hornets would have reached success earlier than the Thunder did. By the start of the 2007-08 NBA Season, New Orleans had a good nucleus of talent. Chris Paul was the offensive conductor, the prodigy who managed possessions expertly to produce looks for his team-mates.
David West was Paul’s chief partner, a power forward with a smooth stroke from the mid-range area. The Hornets dissected opposing defenses in pick and pop sets with West sliding out into his preferred shooting zone. West was unflashy but excellent. His steady scoring was the cornerstone for an efficient offense.
The pairing of All-Star was complemented by smart roster construction around the edges. Tyson Chandler brought defensive intensity and interior defense to the Hornets. Peja Stojakovic bore his sweet shooting stroke and the ability to knock down the long bomb.
All of the significant pieces fitted together nicely, and the Hornets did an excellent job of putting quality veterans around this group. Basketball players like Rasual Butler were high character guys who had influence within the locker-room.
The Oklahoma City Hornets may achieve continued success with this group of players. By the end of George Shinn’s ownership, core pieces of the team were being traded away to lower the team’s running costs.
Tyson Chandler was traded for pennies on the dollar to the Charlotte Hornets. The same story applied to Peja Stojakovic. Stojakovic was traded away to Toronto for three mediocre role players.
The Hornets being in Oklahoma City was a more attractive financial situation, and as such, the core pieces of the team would not have been traded away to avoid debt. The Hornets would have been able to keep this group together longer, which is always beneficial from a team-building perspective.
A nucleus gets better as they play more games alongside each other; the chemistry between players is developed. The Oklahoma City Hornets are probably able to make a Western Conference Finals play a team like the Spurs or Lakers.
The Hornets staying in Oklahoma City under ownership from Oklahoma-based businesspeople was a genuine possibility. Several interested parties had made offers towards George Shinn regarding the Hornets.
It is a new alternate reality to consider, the Hornets staying in Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma City Hornets would have meant that the Thunder would never come to fruition, there would be no incentive for Clay Bennett to buy the Sonics if he had the Hornets already.
Chris Paul would have been the franchise’s star, and Sam Presti would not be the general manager. Everything that we know about the Thunder would be different in regards to the Hornets.
The possible history of the Oklahoma City Hornets being a permanent franchise in the NBA has been lost history. The history of the Oklahoma City Thunder has been written and will continue to be written. It is the nature of sports. The Hornets could have stayed in Oklahoma, but it was the gateway to the Thunder coming to town.