Hurricane Katrina gave OKC chance to show it could support NBA franchise

OKLAHOMA CITY – The NBA Finals have come here less than four years after the Oklahoma City Thunder arrived on the town's doorstep. And as Oklahoma City mayor Mick Cornett watches the Thunder and Miami Heat compete for a championship, he can't help but think about how one of the nation's biggest tragedies gave his city this unlikely opportunity.

Out of the death and devastation of Hurricane Katrina seven years ago came a chance for Oklahoma City to not only show its brotherly love and compassion, but also prove it was someday worthy of its own major professional sports franchise.

"We had a zero percent chance of having an NBA team without it," Cornett said.

University of Oklahoma football has long been the marquee sport in the Sooner State. Oklahoma City had yearned to be considered a major league city with dreams of landing an NBA or NHL team. Instead, minor league baseball and hockey and the defunct United States Football League were the best the town could attract in a television market that ranks 45th in the country.

With an NBA-ready arena already built, Cornett met with NBA commissioner David Stern in January and April of 2005 in New York to try to sway Stern into giving Oklahoma City a franchise. Stern's answer: No.

"The scenario was somewhat emotional and personal having grown up here and knowing we could support it," Cornett said. "But the pro metrics weren’t in our favor. We had no track record of major pro sports. Stern couldn’t have been kinder, but he left us with no hope for a team."

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"Stern said the NHL was our best shot and he could help us with that. I remember after the meetings sitting on the bottom of the stairs at the NBA’s New York office contemplating how this wasn’t going to happen."

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 28, 2005. The hurricane and subsequent floods caused $81 billion in damage and left 1,836 dead in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast area. Cornett had an idea of the suffering and recovery New Orleans faced. Oklahoma City dealt with its own tragedy during the April 19, 1995, bombing of the downtown Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in which 168 people died.

"Our city has been through a bombing," Cornett said. "We knew what New Orleans was going through and that the worst was coming for the city."

Cornett was watching a TV news update on Katrina on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, that questioned where the NFL's New Orleans Saints would relocate in the aftermath of the storm. He wondered if the New Orleans Hornets would also have to relocate, and called Stern to offer OKC as a temporary home.

"I called Stern at 9 a.m. and he didn’t call back immediately because he said he knew what I wanted to talk about," Cornett said. "I talked to some people from the arena and we put the Hornets’ 42-game schedule against [the arena's] schedule, and 35 dates were open. We kept the talks below the radar screen."

Then-Hornets owner George Shinn also was wondering where the franchise would move. "After the hurricane were some very, very tough times," Shinn said. "What were we going to do? No one in NBA history experienced this. It was new territory and we had to figure it out."

Oklahoma City; Pittsburgh; Anaheim, Calif.; Las Vegas; and Louisville, Ky., were all options for the Hornets. Oklahoma City entrepreneur Clay Bennett helped by locating major sponsorship dollars. Selling tickets wasn’t going to be a problem. The close proximity between OKC and New Orleans also didn’t hurt.

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Stern recommended Shinn consider Oklahoma City.

"I said, 'There’s a place you ought to talk to,'" Stern said. "And he said, 'Where is that?' And I showed him on the map. And he did. And Mayor Mick and Clay Bennett and the business community stepped up and recognized that they were going to be, in effect, taking care of a borrowed team with a tragedy of its own that it was dealing with."

After Shinn received positive reports following a staff visit, the Hornets made Oklahoma City their temporary home for the 2005-06 season. It was Chris Paul's rookie season, and the Hornets were an immediate success in Oklahoma City, drawing 18,168 fans per game. The previous season in New Orleans, the Hornets ranked last in the NBA in attendance, averaging 14,221 fans.

"The energy was always there," said former Hornets forward David West, who now plays for the Indiana Pacers. "The people were passionate about the game from the very beginning. From day one they welcomed us and got behind the team. The way they supported us it was not a question of if but when a permanent team would get there. The atmosphere was better than any other arena, just like it is now, because of the energy of the people."

The Hornets enjoyed a successful two seasons in Oklahoma City, but New Orleans wanted its team back as it began to recover from Katrina. Stern also wanted the Hornets to return while Hornets coach Byron Scott thought it was best for the team to stay in Oklahoma.

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Shinn moved the Hornets back to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season.

"My mind told me to keep the team in Oklahoma City, but my heart told me to keep it in New Orleans," Shinn said. "So many people in New Orleans were crushed by Hurricane Katrina and they needed things like the Hornets back. The decision was from the heart and the NBA wanted me to come back, too."

The Hornets' move again left Oklahoma City without a major pro sports franchise. But now Stern and other NBA owners had seen OKC was capable of supporting its own team. On July 18, 2006, a group of Oklahoma businessmen led by Bennett purchased the Seattle SuperSonics and the WNBA's Seattle Storm. "It's not our intention to move or relocate the teams as long, of course, as we are able to negotiate a successor venue to the current basketball arena," Bennett said on the day of the sale.

After financing to support a new Seattle arena couldn't be found, the NBA granted the franchise permission on April 18, 2008, to move to Oklahoma City. "It was a failure of ours that we were not able to persuade Seattle that there should be a new building,” Stern said. “And we didn’t like the fact that the team moved."

Seattle kept the SuperSonics nickname as the Oklahoma City franchise changed to the Thunder. Oklahomans immediately embraced the Thunder from their arrival during the 2008-09 season. OKC also quickly earned a reputation for having one of the loudest NBA venues as sold-out crowds cheer for young stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Thunder-mania has reached its peak. The team is in the NBA Finals and merchandise has sold quickly across the state. Cornett says the Thunder’s popularity has even eclipsed OU football.

"It's the first thing that we’ve had in this state that is for everyone," Cornett said. "The college market is split Oklahoma-Oklahoma State. You are identified by the school you support. This is the first chance for those fans to sit side-by-side. It’s a great unifying effort."

Shinn recently sent a letter to Bennett congratulating him on the Thunder’s trip to the Finals.

"This small market," Shinn said, "is quite a success story."

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