Basketball Notes

In New Orleans, it’s either buy or goodbye

By Gary Washburn
December 12, 2010

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The NBA’s unprecedented move to purchase the New Orleans Hornets and operate the franchise offers hope to those markets that have been seeking a club but had no shot at one because expansion was not in the league’s plans.

Commissioner David Stern consulted with the other 29 owners and agreed to buy the Hornets from George Shinn, who was unable to sell the team. Stern wants to give New Orleans every chance to retain the team and is hoping to find local owners willing to withstand short-term losses and secure a new lease in Louisiana.

When local businessman Gary Chouest withdrew his offer, the possibility of the team staying in New Orleans decreased dramatically, offering new hope for Kansas City, Seattle, San Jose, and Anaheim, cities in search of the NBA brand.

Stern would not deny the possibility of relocation, especially since the Hornets are struggling to draw in New Orleans. Despite an 11-1 start, they are 26th in the league in attendance at 13,860. The club needs to average 14,735 over last season and the first half of this season, or an out clause in the lease will be triggered after this season.

“I think, in fairness, any purchase outside of New Orleans in the long run would involve the potential of a relocation fee, or at least a valuation of the franchise based upon a relocation fee,’’ Stern said. “And so I think the best thing we can do is do this and let everyone who doesn’t know what our e-mail address is to know it and then we can receive such expressions of interest over time.

“But I think that anything that came in earlier than the early part of next year would be premature.’’

Kansas City has an NBA-ready arena — the Sprint Center — but the league may be wary of bringing a club back to a city where the NBA has been dormant for 25 years. Kansas City is a tricky market. The Kings never finished in the top half of the league in attendance during their 12-year run there (1973-85), and Middle America is generally football country. And the NBA can’t be encouraged by the struggles of baseball’s Kansas City Royals.

San Jose and Anaheim already have NBA teams in their markets, so they may have a difficult time landing another one. That leaves Seattle, still a sore spot in the NBA offices. The Sonics left the Emerald City for Oklahoma City because Seattle refused to approve an arena plan, and an overwhelmed mayor accepted a $75 million buyout from owner Clay Bennett.

That mayor, Greg Nickels, has been ousted and the city still desires an NBA team. The wild card in the equation is former Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer, a Harvard graduate and someone Stern wants badly in the owners’ fraternity.

The reason? Ballmer just cashed in an estimated $2 billion of his Microsoft stock, perhaps to fund a new Seattle arena. Ballmer agreed to invest $150 million to refurbish KeyArena three years ago but the city could not raise the other $150 million necessary, and Stern reluctantly allowed the Sonics to bolt.

According to league sources, Stern was annoyed that the political structure in Seattle refused to cooperate with his desires.

According to sources in Seattle, nothing much has changed there; the political leaders remain apathetic about the NBA returning and there are no plans for a new arena. Stern made it clear that he did not want an NBA team playing at KeyArena long-term, so he likely wouldn’t grant a team to Seattle unless a solid stadium proposal was approved.

State Rep. Frank Chopp, the biggest opponent to a new Seattle arena and the primary person who angered Stern several years ago, remains Washington’s Speaker of the House. And while Ballmer remains interested in contributing money for an arena, he isn’t Daddy Warbucks and it’s highly unlikely he would build an arena entirely with his own money. He would want a public contribution, and that’s the city’s biggest sticking point.

In other words, Seattle still doesn’t have its act together, so to put a team there, Stern would have to fight many of the same battles he did five years ago. If the city doesn’t get some political backing for a new venue, it could be behind Kansas City, Anaheim, and San Jose in the relocation line.

Stern assigned New Orleans native Jac Sperling to oversee the Hornets franchise and attempt to find a local buyer. The commissioner realizes that is not going to be easy, especially with out-of-town owners dangling money at the nomad organization.

“I think the lease itself without that [attendance] clause doesn’t run beyond 2014, which is going to be here before you know it,’’ said Stern. “So there’s a long-term negotiation required on the one hand with the state of Louisiana.

“The lease does give some flexibility if it’s determined that the future is not in Louisiana. But we expect to exhaust what the future would look like in Louisiana. And, frankly, that’s one of the reasons why we stepped in and made the purchase.’’

No star system in Charlotte This was supposed to be the year the Bobcats took a significant step forward. After Stephen Jackson and Gerald Wallace led Charlotte to the first playoff appearance in franchise history last season, there were expectations that it would push Atlanta and Milwaukee for the fifth playoff slot in the Eastern Conference.

So far, it hasn’t worked out that way. The Bobcats, because of their budget, aren’t likely to compete for premium free agents, so they have to be built on astute signings, trades, and draft picks. They allowed Raymond Felton to walk to the Knicks, and he is having a career year. The Knicks, not the Bobcats, are the rising team in the East.

Coach Larry Brown’s defense has been solid — Charlotte is 10th in points allowed — but the club lacks a scorer and the sizzle of its more elite counterparts.

“In terms of the ability to compete, we’re there,’’ said Charlotte general manager Rod Higgins. “That is a very tough step, because once you get into the top four, those guys don’t go anywhere for quite a few years.

“And for us, being a team that scratched the surface last year, you’re still trying to figure out if you’re as good as you were last year.’’

In an area more consumed with college basketball, the Bobcats have been a hard sell. But the playoff appearance sparked an increase of 2,000 in season-ticket sales, and last night’s matchup with the Celtics was a near sellout.

With owner Michael Jordan looking down from his office, the Bobcats have been inconsistent. They started the season 1-6 and have been fighting to remain competitive.

Charlotte also hasn’t scored big with the draft. Emeka Okafor, who looked like a potential All-Star center when drafted, was traded. Adam Morrison was a bust. Brandan Wright was dealt on draft night for Jason Richardson. And Gerald Henderson has yet to earn quality minutes in his second season.

“[To be] a championship-caliber team, it’s probably harder to do the way we’re constructed,’’ Higgins said. “But the one thing about our guys is they show up every night and play hard.’’

The person who personifies that style is the controversial Jackson, who begged out of Golden State and appears comfortable in Charlotte. After being ejected from two games this season and suspended for another because of his tirades against officials, he wrote a letter to season ticket-holders promising better behavior.

Jackson may never make the All-Star team because of politics, but he has kept the Bobcats respectable with his all-around game.

“It may be hard to temper the passion; you always want them to maintain that,’’ Higgins said. “And I think Stephen’s the first guy to tell you that passion has sometimes gotten him on the wrong side.

“But one of the positives about Jack is you can communicate with him very easily and he’s a good listener. He might not agree with you, and he’ll let you know, but that’s OK.’’

Jordan’s shadow is large, and after limited success in Washington, His Airness wants to make Charlotte a consistent winner. The challenge will be greater without major star power.

“His history states that he is a hard driver and a hard worker,’’ Higgins said. “And he’s going to demand excellence. I don’t think any of that has changed, and the people who work for him all realize that. If it’s too much pressure, you might be in the wrong franchise.’’

Walker starts his comeback Antoine Walker (left) didn’t want to resort to going to the Development League as a way back to the NBA. But he did, concluding a four-week process filled with background checks to sign with the Idaho Stampede.

Walker, hoping to put behind him a past filled with financial troubles and legal issues, dropped 13 points in his first game Wednesday, an 83-80 victory over Dakota. His new club makes an East Coast trek next weekend to Springfield and Maine.

“I’m just happy to play basketball at a competitive level again,’’ said Walker. “Being out of the game now for the last year and a half has been very difficult. So getting an opportunity to play is just great. My last year in the league, I took a buyout and I really didn’t get an opportunity to play.’’

So far, he is saying all the right things. He spoke extensively with Idaho coach Randy Livingston, who knew Walker from their days as high school stars in the early 1990s, and the former NBA player offered full support.

“When I got the call that Antoine wanted to get back into the league through the D-League, which I think he will, I just welcomed him,’’ Livingston said. “I still think he has a lot to give to the game in terms of playing and for his own personal reasons. I think it’s going to be a win-win situation.’’

Walker, 34, earned $108 million during his NBA career but blew that fortune with bad investments and gambling debts. He has spent the past several months negotiating payment plans with creditors and actually went to Charlotte before training camp hoping that Michael Jordan would offer him a tryout. But he didn’t, leaving the NBDL as one of his few alternatives.

“I had some personal problems going on,’’ said Walker. “All the negativity swirled around me, so I took a little time to kind of gather myself and just figure out what I want to do in life.

“Being 34, I still think I can play for a couple of more years. I left the game at the wrong time.’’

Walker played nearly eight years in Boston and with Paul Pierce led the Celtics to the Eastern finals in 2002.

Layups The NBA players union said this week it is still waiting for a counterproposal from the league regarding a new collective bargaining agreement. The NBPA realizes it has to relinquish something and has decided to offer up the 57 percent revenue sharing for negotiation, but that’s just a baby step for the league. Commissioner David Stern said he wants to completely restructure the league’s economic system, and that will mean fixed salaries and nonguaranteed contracts. Many players expect a lockout and have been told by the Players Association to prepare for a long one . . . Blazers guard Andre Miller had his consecutive-games streak end at 632 because of what the league deemed to be unnecessary contact with Blake Griffin. While the Clippers rookie was planted under the basket, Miller raced down the court and rammed into him. But what the officials didn’t notice or the league didn’t recognize is that Griffin shoved Miller from the back on two consecutive trips down the floor. Miller was suspended for one game. Derek Fisher is now the league leader in consecutive games played at 436 . . . The trade market will begin heating up next Wednesday, when players who signed free agent contracts in the summer will be eligible to be moved. Miami’s Eddie House could be available . . . The 76ers have benched No. 2 overall pick Evan Turner in favor of Jodie Meeks, who had 19 points against the Celtics Thursday. Turner has struggled to find a true position, and coach Doug Collins wants to give the rookie some time to deal with the expectations . . . Remember when Earl Clark was a potential franchise cornerstone? He has made zero impact with the Suns and could be had by a team willing to give him a shot because he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Suns drafted Clark 14th overall in 2009.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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