By Keith O'Brien
On a recent Wednesday night, the New Orleans Hornets took the floor to square off against the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers and Hornets collectively have no marquee stars, and little chance of competing for an NBA title this season.
But near the top of section 117, fans were chanting. And one of them - Cherese Oatis - was wearing a Hornets-themed costume, decked out in team colors - purple, gold, and blue. That's how much she cares.
Such enthusiasm is somewhat surprising. The NBA assumed ownership of the Hornets a little over a year ago after a failed attempt to find a buyer. The team's best player, star point guard Chris Paul, was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers just day before the season began for young players and a draft pick. By the end of last season, the Hornets had less than 6,000 season ticket holders.
To be viable, they needed to sell an additional 4,000 season tickets amidst an unpopular lockout, widespread fan dissatisfaction, and general economic woes. That's when the Hornets got creative.
The franchise organized a group of well-known faces and voices, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Louisiana's U.S. senators, the mayor, the governor, various musicians, and even the local archbishop. Together, they produced a television ad, announcing "I'm in" with the Hornets.
“If there’s one thing we’ve proved in New Orleans, it’s that we never take a challenge lightly," Brees says at the beginning of the commercial.
It turned out the be exactly the right thing to say, recalled team president Hugh Weber.
"While everyone else was talking about lockouts and bickering and fighting of owners and the potential of contraction because of NBA ownership and all this other stuff, we were talking about New Orleans," Weber said.
With the players locked out, front office executives essentially went door to door, often meeting groups of fans in their own living rooms.
“I’m in it with the mayor and the governor and all these other beautiful fans here," said Darryl Romero, one of the thousands who signed up for season tickets this year. "We’re all in it together as a team.”
Finally, last month, just before the season began and the front office shipped Chris Paul to Los Angeles, the Hornets met their goal of 10,000 season ticket holders - an achievement that didn't surprise head coach Monty Williams, who was one of those team officials meeting with fans.
“It was a great time to get to know our fan base," said Williams. "Now I see those people at the games. It’s pretty cool.”
The fans, early on this season, though, aren't getting to see a lot of winning. In that Wednesday night game against Philadelphia, the Hornets blew an early 14-point lead, losing 101-93 as they were outscored 61-46 in the second half.
Three weeks into the season, the team is now 3-7. The players admit it's going to take time to learn how to work together, or even just learn the playbook.
"Trying to get all the plays down, The defensive coverages, then jell with the guys, kind of get on the same page with everybody. It’s a difficult situation to be in," admitted center Chris Kaman, who was acquired in the Chris Paul trade and is one of ten new players on the hastily assembled New Orleans roster.
The team is still looking for a long-term stadium lease and a buyer. But, Weber thinks they'll get that lease - and a new owner - in the months ahead. He's confident that the team will be staying. And for the moment, anyway, that alone is reason enough to cheer.
This segment aired on January 14, 2012.