Andrew Unterberger loves flannel and basketball. Here’s his report from New Orleans…
Memphis — not a bad place for a music fan to take a day off in. After eating lunch at Payne’s Chris Herrington‘s recommended barbecue place (Love the way they do business in Memphis — my sliced-pork sandwich was huge, succulent and so sweet and tangy that it made my accompanying Dr. Pepper taste like seltzer), I started on a mini-tour of Memphis’s rock-history destinations: Graceland, Sun Studios and the Stax Museum. Graceland was closed on Tuesdays, amazingly, but Sun was open for touring, and our guide was a total gamer, relating the entire Sun story and demonstrating how Johnny Cash got the clicking percussion sound on “I Walk the Line” (Spoiler alert: Wrap a dollar bill around the guitar neck under the strings, and strum it muted.) Even cooler was Stax, which had me smiling for days with its revolving Isaac Hayes Cadillac (seriously, the actual car) and its huge wall projection of old Soul Train clips (with an accompanying dance floor, of course).
Before calling it a day in Memphis, I broke the seal on my soon-to-be-illustrious radio career with Chris and Chris Vernon on 730 AM Fox Sports, and had a podcast chat with the 48 Minutes of Hell guys about my stay in San Antonio. I also got to check Waffle House off my list of necessary road-stop destinations — though, to be totally honest, I still prefer IHOP, which I hit for the fifth time this trip before my way out to New Orleans.
Kings vs. Hornets for the second time this trip, the first being one of the more depressing games of sub-NBA ball I’ve ever witnessed live. Figured there was no way to go but up from there — especially with me in town, now a winner of eight straight.
The Stadium: Located right across the street from the Superdome — really, it’s a wonder that the building doesn’t develop some sort of inferiority complex in such close proximity to its much more-popular older brother — the New Orleans Arena is about as innocuous as its name would suggest. But this being New Orleans, the building itself was made largely irrelevant by the party going on outside of it. Showing up over an hour before the game, the joint was already jumping, a hot jazz group (sponsored by Zatarain’s!) playing for an appreciative crowd, with beer-a-plenty for the adults and mini basketball courts and moon bounces (Two of ‘em! No other stadium area even had one!) for the kids. It just put me in a good mood for the game — does a lot more to get you ready for some quality hoops action than the hour of Jock Jams and self-serving video montages you tend to see inside the stadiums before tip-off, anyway.
Not too much of note going on inside the stadium, though they certainly have one of the more festive color schemes in the league (made the gift shop fun to walk around, if nothing else). The team does an interesting job of trying to keep the fans invested in the team during the game, in any event — there’s the not-sitting-until-they-score thing (which I wonder if OKC stole from them when the Hornets were displaced), the Rick Flair “WOO!” call-and-response that they do for every time Chris Paul scores, and now the Italian flags that they have run across the lower stands when Marco Belinelli hits a three (replacing the Peja heads, I suppose, now that the Serb has been shipped north). The Hornets also adapted their “DE-FENSE” chant to be slightly more team-appropriate, now pleading for “BEE-FENSE!” (Jenna, the family friend I met at the game, insisted that I actually chant this when prompted, which made me feel absolutely ridiculous.)
The Game: Within about four minutes of play, the game was already better than the first time around, by simple virtue of the fact that both teams actually made a handful of shots — namely the Kings, who jumped out to an early lead on the Hornets. This was largely due to some superlative offense from rookie not-quite-a-sensation DeMarcus Cousins, who had one of the worst games a young big man could possibly have when I saw him in Sacramento, but quickly outdid his earlier effort with three straight drilled wing jumpers in the first quarter. If there were any scouts for opposing teams at the game, I’m sure DMC’s mini-run was more than a little bit terrifying — if a guy that physically dominant can also show that touch of finesse, it’s hard to imagine how dangerous he’ll be once he smartens up some.
But as Sacramento’s lead improbably ballooned further and further over the course of the first half, the main culprit was Tyreke Evans. ‘Reke’s had something of a rough go of it in his sophomore year, his stats down in almost every statistical category. Worse, Evans has the kind of game and demeanor that when he plays poorly, he just looks kind of lazy and unmotivated, like it’s no skin off his ass if the game ends up one way or the other. But this night, he was getting it done, flashing back to the first few months of his Rookie fo the Year campaign and reminding that you can count the number of NBA players on one hand that are more dangerous than him around the basket — he hit a contested reverse up-and-under at one point in the second that I’m not even sure Derrick Rose would have had the strength to power through.
Evans and DMC’s ownage of the Hornets had Sactown up 23 in the third, apparently cruising to an easy road victory. Of course, there was a former-ROY point guard on the other end of the court as well, and though Chris Paul had a rough first half, he started hitting his jumper in the third, and as the team started to cut into the Kings’ lead (also largely thanks to a strong effort off the bench from Marcus Thornton), you could see CP3 starting to put things together — orchestrating his team and getting everyone where they needed to be in order to mount what would eventually end up being the biggest comeback in New Orleans Hornets history. N.O. won 94-91, Paul ended up with 22 and 11, but it was how he seemed to keep the team focused as their surge began — so much that you knew that as the lead dwindled from 23 to 15, it was only going to get smaller — that really impressed. Cool stuff.
The Fans: “Looks like another sellout,” Tulane reporter Scott Kushner texted me sarcastically at tip-off at New Orleans Arena. Indeed, attendance was less than spectacular — not Memphis bad, anyway (at the very least, the weather was in the 60s), but lots of colored empty seats to be found all over. Everyone who I talked to insisted that until the end of the football season, there was simply no competing with the Saints for the hearts and minds of New Orleans fans — hey, it’s hard enough to compete with NFL to begin with, and with the Saints as the defending Super Bowl champs, it’s understandable that a team coming off a 37-win season whose star player might have one foot out the door wouldn’t exactly be providing much in the way of competition.
It was loud, though. Not so much in the first half, of course, since the fans were barely given anything to cheer about, but as the third-quarter run started — a layup here, an and-one there, a big rebound or two — the hum in the crowd began to crescendo, until eventually David West hit a jumper to cut the lead to ten that forced Paul Westphal to call a timeout, at which point the crowd went legitimately nuts. If it was this good at half-capacity, I can only imagine how good it must have been back in 2008, when the Hornets won 56 games and came within a Jannero Pargo jumper or two from beating the Spurs in the Conference semi-finals. (Jenna told me that back then, it was almost impossible to get tickets to the games at all.)
Of course, it seemed at the beginning of the season, with the Hornets starting 11-1, that they might get back there sooner than we thought. Then the team went 3-9, and expectations were appropriately readjusted. “I feel like teams figured it out,” Scott told me. “They played with nine new guys and a new coach. Teams started to adjust … Jason Smith came back to earth, Marco Bellinelli came back to earth.” When discussing the possibility of CP3 wanting out, Scott was sympathetic to his plight; “He’s a great distributing point guard, with no one to distribute to … with David West occasionally going ice-cold, then you’re out of options.” Dave, a fan in the upper deck, also understood the difficulty of keeping Paul long-term. “That’s a tough sell,” he said. “He’s like Melo, he’s looking to the future, going somewhere else … with all that [Big Three] stuff in Miami and all, I think it’s the wave of the future.”
Though sentiment was high on new coach Monty Williams (Dave: “He’s a good leader. Can’t say nothing bad about the guy.”) and new GM Dell Demps (Scott: “He did a great job with the dead weight he was able to jet”), ultimately, neither had the team making much noise in the post-season. “I’d say 70 percent,” Scott answered about the team’s playoff chances. “They don’t have a third scoring option.” Dave thought they’d make it, but just barely. “A bottom seed,” he predicted. “If they go, I think it’s one and done. I hope they prove me wrong.”
Most Popular Jerseys: If I said Emeka Okafor, would you believe me? Think I saw maybe three non-CP3 jerseys all night.
Also Worth Noting: “I’m more worried about keeping the franchise,” Scott answered when I first asked him if he was worried about keeping Paul in New Orleans. Unsurprisingly, hanging over the entire evening’s proceedings was the threat that the Hornets might not even be that long for the Crescent City. Jenna told me that her office that night was offering tickets that the stadium had shipped out in an effort to meet attendance quotas, and driving around New Orleans, I heard commercials on the radio pleading with people to come out and support the team. It’s sad that this is even a possibility so soon after that 2008 season, when it seemed like basketball had finally and officially arrived in the Big Easy. I’ve got my fingers crossed all season that some local ownership swoops in and saves the day, or that the team does well enough to inspire the fans to come out again in ’08-style numbers. Make no mistake — the NBA is better off with a basketball team in New Orleans.
Swag Acquired: I got some sort of ambiguously-shaped doll which I liked for some reason — possibly because unlike most of my recent purchases, it cost well under $20. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a voodoo thing, or if that would be a racist assumption on my part. I’ll stick some pins in it tomorrow and if David West is suddenly out with some sort of weird shoulder inflammation, you’ll know who to blame.
2010 Jam of the Day:
Buraka Som Sistema – “Buffalo Stance” You know, I never really even liked the Neneh Cherry song all that much, but this cover from the Portugese progressive kuduro group (I dunno, you tell me) just makes it infinitely badder. From the under-publicized 50 Years of Dr. Martens project.
Going to Georgia like my name was John Darnielle. See you from the Highlight Factory.