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Thursday, January 5, 2006
Hornets will play three March games in New Orleans

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The New Orleans Hornets on Thursday reached an agreement to play three games at the New Orleans Arena in March and move two other games scheduled in Baton Rouge this month to their temporary home in Oklahoma.

In their first games in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets will face the Los Angeles Lakers on March 8, the Denver Nuggets on March 18 and the Los Angeles Clippers on March 21.

"I'm looking forward to seeing New Orleans rebuilt," Hornets President Paul Mott said by telephone after the announcement. "This is not a city that is going to vanish. ... I think this is a city that is going to come back better and stronger, and I want to be a part of it."

The NBA, which announced the schedule change Thursday, also said it plans to announce the Hornets' home for next season by the end of January.

Mott said scheduling the games in Baton Rouge was the best option prior to the season, but he's now confident that management company SMG will have the New Orleans Arena ready in time for the March games. He's hoping there will be enough fans in attendance to provide a noticeable home-court advantage.

"We're doing this because I think it's the right thing to do," said Mott, who toured the arena in November and December.

Also, the Hornets will play their games Jan. 13 against Sacramento and Jan. 18 against Memphis in Oklahoma instead of at Louisiana State University's Pete Maravich Center in Baton Rouge.

The Hornets were disappointed by turnout last month at the first of six games scheduled in Baton Rouge, which were considered a gesture toward maintaining the team's connection to Louisiana and its intended return to New Orleans next season.

Only 7,302 fans -- or just more than half of capacity -- were in attendance Dec. 16 when the Hornets squandered a 15-point lead in a 101-88 loss to Phoenix in Baton Rouge. Afterward, Hornets coach Byron Scott approached general manager Jeff Bower about moving the other games.

"We had that game in hand," Scott said. "We thoroughly outplayed them for 36 minutes. In the back of my mind when I went into the locker room, I said, `If this game would have been in Oklahoma City, it wouldn't have been this close.' If we would have had a 14-point lead going into the fourth quarter, we'd have won the game."

Scott said he doesn't think moving the two games out of Louisiana will alienate fans in the state, noting that hurricane victims probably have better things to spend their money on than attending an NBA game.

"I think they would understand," Scott said. "All the people that were in Louisiana before the hurricane are not there right now, so I don't think the fan base is there right now for our basketball team, especially right now in this month. It might change in March."

Moving the games also eliminates a span of seven consecutive games scheduled outside Oklahoma for the Hornets. After a game against Detroit on Tuesday, the Hornets weren't scheduled to play in Oklahoma City for 15 days despite having two "home" games.

Scott said the Hornets' success made it more important to move the games. New Orleans entered Thursday 1½games behind Utah for the final Western Conference playoff spot.

"It would have been a killer trip for us," Scott said.

Due to a conflict with a Bon Jovi concert rehearsal at the Ford Center, the Hornets are still seeking a site for their Jan. 13 game against Sacramento.

The Memphis game will be played at the Ford Center, where the Hornets have sold out eight of their 14 games so far this season. The Hornets are averaging 18,720 fans at their Oklahoma City games this season.

After winning only 18 games all last season, the Hornets are off to a 14-17 start this season and are 9-5 at the Ford Center. San Antonio, Miami and the Los Angeles Clippers were all in first place when they lost at the Ford Center, where the Hornets also beat current Northwest Division leader Minnesota.

"Our guys feel real comfortable here. I think the fans have made them feel that this is their team, and our players feel that this is our home," Scott said.

The Hornets moved to Oklahoma City in September after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and damaged the arena. The team was to play 35 regular-season games, plus two preseason games and any playoff games, at the 19,163-seat Ford Center.