November 20, 2007

Magic 95, Hornets 88

Could've used the guy in the smoking jacket

Monday night was the first Hornets game in the ridiculously cheap ticket package we purchased for the season--10 games (9 of 10 against the cream of the league) for $100 a seat. Combine that with the free parking you can find on the downtown side of Poydras and the (hypothetical!) ease of slipping into the lower bowl seats, and these games are one of the best deals in town.

We arrived a few minutes late and, as expected, learned that Chris Paul would be in streetclothes with a sprained ankle. And, although the Magic are one of the top teams in the East this year, fresh off a victory against the Celtics, the crowd was as light as I expected.

This didn't dampen the energy, though. In the 6 games I've attended over the last year, there's a strong sense that the fans that do show up have the potential to become something special, much like the team we support. On Monday night, both parties did the city proud.

The Hornets came out flat and the Magic jumped on them, feeding young Dwight Howard in the post and hitting open shots. The Rashard Lewis signing and the decision to let Jameer Nelson run the point looked good from where I was sitting. Where I was sitting, of course, improved markedly after the first quarter. And let me tell you, professional basketball at close range is as dramatic and vivid a spectacle as you'll find in sports. The form of shooters, the fight for a rebound, the way coaches either connect or alienate players, all of that is so much clearer up close. I recommend an innocent looking woman, a full cup of beer, wearing a jacket like you're just late, and a confident stride for this type of viewing.

When Tyson Chandler went down early, clutching his knee at midcourt, I flashed back to last season's injury plague and the pain of watching an undermanned team battle all year in the toughest division in the league, only to barely miss the playoffs. Chandler should be OK, but his removal seemed to spark the team. They cut the deficit to 10 at the half, then pulled ahead briefly in the 3rd. Peja shot well, the ill styles of Melvin Ely were oddly too much for Howard, and our defense tightened up.

And the crowd went nuts. Let's be clear: while the Hornets continue to improve their community outreach and keep the ticket prices low, the experience at the arena isn't much different than at any in the league. You get free t-shirts, cheerleaders, and an "urban" type of emcee. Being New Orleans, you unfortunately get hardly any assistance in the pro shop (Hey! I'm actually here to buy some of this crap! Stop messing around until I have to ask the slightly seedy manager for help! It's a store!) and a reallllly bored kid unable to make the debit machine work when you try to buy a $28 hat on the upper level.

There's definitely room for improvement. First, get that customer service up to par. In ordering my ticket package, the staff was great, extremely helpful, and did a lot of follow-up when I thought the tix were lost in the mail (which was in fact my fault, they were delivered to my office). The people at the arena should mirror that.

Second, go overboard on the New Orleans part. Really, the people in this region will definitely drink beer and get up and dance when you play generic shit like "Shout!" Now, imagine if you played "Hey Pocky Way." Imagine if, at halftime, you gave only half the time to the Slidell jump rope team, and the rest to, I dunno, the Soul Rebels. People would go for that, because right now, even po'boy festivals draw a crowd intent on praising our culture. If the team really wants to spend the next 5 years with a big crowd, make the entire experience a New Orleans thing.

Because from what I can tell, we have a shot at a great, great NBA crowd. All through the 4th quarter, the half-full arena was rocking, with people going all out in dance contests and D-Fence chants. A lot of this was the tight game, but there was also a sense of celebration, of unembarassed foolishness, that was a familiar sensation.

Many critics cite the size of the NO metro area as the inherent proof that this team can't work here. I think that's uninformed. Strong franchises in places like Sacramento and San Antonio fill arenas despite the size of the cities. If this team keeps progressing, why not New Orleans? Why not a place that likes to cheer and dance and get together? Why not us?

On Monday night, victory was not to be. In the hands of back-up point guard Jannero Pargo (Kim's special favorite), the team played too erratically in the last 2 minutes, with neither Peja nor Mo Peterson getting the ball at a point when shooters are most valuable. All the same, with our two best players out, we stuck it to one of the best young teams in the East (in some ways a good parallel talent-wise with the healthy Hornets) and almost pulled it off. We looked well-prepared and deeper, and, yet again, we hustled our ass off against the odds. I've said this for a year now: this team comes to play, and people want to see that.

And the crowd was something to see, too.