OKLAHOMA CITY - The New Orleans Hornets planned to let a deadline pass Wednesday on the team's option to play a third season at its temporary home in Oklahoma City.
Relocated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets have played the majority of their home games at Oklahoma City's Ford Center over the past two seasons. The team sought the option for a third year in Oklahoma City as a contingency plan in case it was unable to return to New Orleans next season as planned.
"Obviously we're extremely grateful for the people in this community, the way they've embraced us and have supported us," Hornets owner George Shinn said Wednesday. "It's been an incredible stay for us. But the whole situation is that New Orleans has had problems and they continue to have problems, and the right thing for us to do is to go back and give it our best shot and try to make it work.
"That's our plan. We plan to do that. That's been our plan. I admit it's probably not going to be easy. I think if anybody can get it done, we can."
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The Hornets have moved forward with plans to return to New Orleans for their full schedule next season, working with the NBA to line up sponsors to make for a successful return.
Last week, the team announced a sponsorship agreement with Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages to make the company's 7UP brand the official soft drink of the Hornets. Other sponsors haven't been announced yet.
"I think when we do announce some others that there are going to be some major surprises," Shinn said.
The Hornets sold out 18 of their 36 games in Oklahoma City last season and had seven sellouts in their first 19 games at the Ford Center this season. The Hornets were the first major league team to call Oklahoma City home, even temporarily.
They'll play 15 games more games in Oklahoma City in a sort of lame-duck period.
"We've been here for two years, and from the start there's been knowledge that we're going back. People continue here to support this team, which I think is a fantastic thing," Hornets coach Byron Scott said. "I don't think it's affected our home-court (advantage).
"I think they come out and they understand that this is the situation, and they understood from the first day we stepped on this court and we stepped in this city that this was a temporary thing.
"They wanted to make an impression to the NBA that this was an NBA-type city, that it can definitely support a basketball team and a franchise, and I think they've made their point as well."
A clause in the contract states that the Hornets cannot move from Oklahoma City to any city other than New Orleans for 2007-08 "unless otherwise directed by the NBA."
New Orleans is also scheduled to host the league's All-Star game next February.
"We're just going to not pull out any stops to make it work. We feel good about it. Our key people are going," Shinn said. "Everybody is revved up and ready to hit the ground running, charging ahead to make it work."
Before the hurricane, the Hornets had the lowest attendance average in the NBA during an 18-64 season in 2004-05. When they return, it'll be to a city at less than full strength.
"I expect us to have a reasonable amount of season-ticket base, I expect us to have a reasonable amount of sponsorship money, and I expect our players to be healthy a reasonable amount of days next year," Shinn said, referring to a series of injuries to three starters and the team's top backup this season. "This year has been horrible, absolutely too much."
Shinn said he thinks New Orleans' recovery after the hurricane "probably surprised a lot of people that it has taken longer than what everybody predicted or thought."
"I've seen progress. I haven't seen enough progress. I'm still concerned, not just for me but for people that want to come back," Shinn said. "Crime's out of control, and the leadership has got to get that under control. It will prevent people from wanting to move there, it will prevent tourists from wanting to come there. It should be a major focus to every political and business leader in that community to do something to get crime under control.
"I think they're working hard to try to get the other aspects. Businesses are slowly coming back, they've got to improve the educational system - just some basic things - the major medical facilities open. I think things are going to be OK."