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Chris Jones

Homeless NBA Team Checks on Las Vegas' Interest

9 September 2005

LAS VEGAS -- Forced out of town by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Hornets owner George Shinn is exploring whether he can move his National Basketball Association franchise to Southern Nevada, a source close to the talks said Thursday.

Shinn called Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman several times this week to discuss the community's interest and ability to host his team, though it remains unclear whether Shinn hopes the Hornets' proposed stay would be temporary or permanent, the source added.

Unlike the city's past flirtations with professional sports, the source also stressed that, this time, a team's representatives reached out to Las Vegas, not the other way around.

Despite Shinn's inquiries, many obstacles could chase the Hornets elsewhere. In addition to scheduling challenges at each of the city's busy arenas, the NBA's long-standing opposition to sports book wagering on pro basketball could pose an insurmountable hurdle.

As long as NBA games are posted at the state's legalized sports books, the league will not consider Las Vegas as host destination on either a short- or long-term basis, NBA spokesman Tim Frank said Thursday.

"That's always been our policy," Frank said. The local source agreed, saying the team will not play here for precisely that reason.

The NBA last month picked Las Vegas to host its All-Star Weekend in 2007, but only after state gaming leaders agreed to ban wagers on NBA events that weekend. Casino leaders were willing to give up All-Star action because the game is not historically popular with bettors, but it's highly unlikely a permanent ban on NBA contests would be accepted in Nevada gaming circles.

At his weekly news conference Thursday, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said he's received calls from "a lot of people" who have suggested Katrina's winds and waves could represent a turning point in this city's ongoing quest to land a major sports franchise.

But Goodman added he believes it's inappropriate to "take advantage of people while they're down," so he therefore declined to actively court the Hornets.

Goodman also said he was contacted this week by New Orleans sports representatives, though he declined to identify who.

In an e-mail sent Thursday from a temporary team office in Houston, Hornets spokesman Scott Hall referred questions about the team's potential relocation to the NBA league's office in Manhattan.

Reached there by telephone, Frank said league leaders continue to work with the team on contingency plans for the coming season, though no decision has been made regarding alternate sites for the 2005-06 schedule, or a permanent relocation of the franchise outside of New Orleans.

The Hornets' first preseason game at New Orleans Arena is not scheduled until Oct. 20, but Katrina's destruction of the city -- as well as the lives, jobs and possessions of much of the Hornets' fan base -- makes it extremely unlikely the team will play at its normal home anytime soon.

NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik recently sent an e-mail to the league's 29 other franchises that asked teams to prepare for the possibility that the Hornets would have to move.

"Even if the arena is operable, it still may be impossible to play games in New Orleans for some time," read the message, according to a report published in The New York Times.

The Review-Journal reported this week that UNLV has offered its Thomas & Mack Center to host some Hornets games in the coming season, and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett also said his city's 19,675 -seat Ford Center could accommodate the team, the Associated Press reported.

Published reports also suggested the 14,164-seat Pete Maravich Assembly Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge could be considered. The team's training camp will begin at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Shinn's personal history -- like that of his franchise -- is rife with ups and downs, including a controversial franchise relocation three years ago. His past insistence on tax-supported stadiums could also turn off Southern Nevada sports fans.

The Hornets began play in the NBA's 1988-89 season. In its initial years, the team routinely sold out North Carolina's 23,698-seat Charlotte Coliseum as basketball-crazy fans greatly supported the Tar Heel state's first major professional sports franchise.

But things soured in the mid-1990s when Shinn and co-owner Ray Wooldridge traded several popular players, and threatened to move the team unless taxpayers chipped in for a new, luxury box-laden arena.

Shinn's reputation was further damaged when a younger woman named Leslie Price accused him of sexual assault during a 1999 civil trial. Shinn, who was married at the time, admitted to a sexual encounter with Price, though he claimed it was consensual.

Court testimony also revealed Shinn had engaged in a lengthy extramarital affair with a member of the Hornets' dance team, according to reports published in the Gaston (N.C.) Gazette newspaper.

Shinn was acquitted in the Price trial, but the public was less forgiving, particularly when Price's estranged husband shot and killed himself soon after the case concluded. The couple said the dispute with Shinn "strained their marriage and finances," according to the Charlotte Observer.

Taking issue largely with Shinn, according to published reports, voters in Charlotte in 2001 overwhelmingly rejected a $342 million tax package that would have financed a new Hornets arena. That step assured the team would leave the city, and following courtships with several cities, including Las Vegas, the team began play in New Orleans in fall 2002, where its $110 million arena was financed entirely with public funds.

Even prior to Katrina, the team's stay in the Big Easy has been difficult. Playing before the smallest crowds in the NBA, the team earlier this year was caught inflating its attendance figures by reselling tickets originally bought at huge discounts for Shinn's charity account.

Baron Davis, who was the team's best player, was traded to Golden State in February, a move that stripped the Hornets of their top box office draw.

On the court, the team enjoyed its best regular season in 1996-97 when it finished 54-28 before falling to the New York Knicks in the opening round of the playoffs.

Overall, the Hornets qualified for postseason play eight times in the franchise's 17-year history. The team enjoyed its best postseason run in 2001, when it lost a tough seven-game series to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

The team was shifted to the NBA's Western Conference at the start of the 2004-05 season, when its poor 18-64 record caused the team to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

The franchise's best-known player was arguably former UNLV standout Larry Johnson, a two-time NBA All-Star in Charlotte who spent five seasons with the team beginning in 1991-92.

The team's current roster is devoid of big-name stars, but other popular ex-Hornets include Alonzo Mourning, Glen Rice and Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues, a 5-foot-3-inch point guard.