Oklahoma will house the Hornets next season

By Jeff Latzke The Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY – The Hornets will play most of their home games in Oklahoma City next season with New Orleans still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

The NBA announced Tuesday that the Hornets will play 35 games in Oklahoma City and six in New Orleans in 2006-07.

NBA commissioner David Stern said in a statement the league remains committed to returning to New Orleans, but “for now, our collective interests are best served by having the team play the bulk of its 2006-07 schedule in Oklahoma City.

“However, we are hopeful that the team will be in a position to return to New Orleans full time beginning in the 2007-08 season.”

The agreement reached between the state of Louisiana and the Hornets allows the team to amend its lease agreement with the New Orleans Arena.

“The agreement reached today will ensure the Hornets’ stability while the New Orleans market fully recovers, and at the same time maintains our presence in the NBA,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said.

Stern also said the NBA will enter exclusive negotiations to bring the 2008 All-Star Game to New Orleans.

“From everything we have seen and heard, we have little doubt that New Orleans will soon regain its place among the world’s premiere cities for hosting major sporting events,” Stern said.

The NBA has also agreed to hold its annual marketing meetings in New Orleans in October, with some 300-400 people expected to attend.

“The permanent identity of New Orleans as an NBA city is important to the economy of our entire region,” Blanco said. “New Orleans has always been a great city for big events, and we are confident that we can quickly negotiate a deal to bring the All-Star Game to New Orleans.”

In 19 games at Oklahoma City’s Ford Center this season, the Hornets have averaged 18,546 fans, including 10 sellouts. The surprising young team is 22-22.

Last season playing in the New Orleans Arena, the Hornets averaged a league-low 14,221 fans and finished with a franchise-worst 18-64 record.

“I think the energy in the crowd has been a tremendous boost to our team. We’ve got a lot of young guys and they feed off that type of energy,” Hornets coach Byron Scott said earlier Tuesday. “When you have a college atmosphere and you have a young team, this is what they like to play in front of.”

After the Aug. 29 hurricane devastated New Orleans, the Hornets scheduled 35 games in Oklahoma City and six others at LSU in Baton Rouge. But after fans filled only half of the LSU arena for a December game, the Hornets moved the remaining five games – two to Oklahoma and three to the New Orleans Arena.

The Hornets are 13-7 in Oklahoma, including one win at the University of Oklahoma’s Lloyd Noble Center.

“The fans have been wonderful,” veteran center P.J. Brown, a Louisiana native, said after the Hornets’ practice Tuesday. “We don’t win a lot of those games at home without those guys. They really bring it.”

The decision takes the Hornets in the opposite direction of the NFL’s Saints. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said he expects the Saints to return to New Orleans for their eight home games next season, after splitting last season between Baton Rouge and San Antonio.