NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Reminiscing about record crowds and the excitement of working in the NBA should be expected from someone like Bill Bertka, a longtime scouting director for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Yet the topic of discussion wasn't all those Lakers championships. It was his stint as an executive for the New Orleans Jazz in the 1970s.
``It was terrific. I've never forgotten the raw enthusiasm, especially the second year when we went into the Superdome,'' Bertka recalled during a phone interview this week. ``Of course, we had Pete Maravich and Pete was on top of his game.''
Attendance figures contradict common assumptions that the Jazz fled New Orleans because of a lack of fan interest. During three of their five seasons in New Orleans, despite never making the playoffs, the Jazz drew at or above the NBA average (which back then ranged between 10,000 and 11,000).
When the Philadelphia 76ers visited New Orleans in November 1977, a then-NBA single-game record crowd of 35,077 turned out.
he critical thing is institutional support.''
Many see this weekend's All-Star festivities as a launching point for fans in New Orleans to prove Bertka's point.
Attendance has been low since the Hornets' full-time return this season following a two-year, Hurricane Katrina-forced displacement to Oklahoma City. Sellouts have been rare despite the Hornets' 36-15 record and the emergence of Chris Paul and David West as All-Stars.
It's nothing like the euphoria that greeted the return of the NFL's New Orleans Saints, who've sold out all of their games during the past two seasons and having a season ticket waiting list of more than 25,000.
``New Orleans has always been a football-dominant type of city,'' said basketball Hall-of-Famer Gail Goodrich, who played for the Jazz in New Orleans and is now an NBA TV analyst. ``So whether basketball can survive, there's probably still lot of questions out on table and only time will tell.''
Several factors beyond fan interest have complicated the Hornets' efforts to draw crowds.
Until a temporary resolution to a cable dispute was struck last weekend, the Hornets could not be seen on TV in suburban St. Tammany Parish, home to about 250,000 viewers.
r the All-Star game.
``If we as a community are going to keep the Hornets, we have to try to get their games telecast in what is one of the most affluent and now highly populated areas in our whole state,'' said Fielkow, a former Saints marketing executive. ``If we were to lose the Hornets, it would be a terrible black eye on the recovery of the community and we wouldn't likely get another NBA or any other sports franchise. We need to hold on to what we have.''
Meanwhile, there are pubs in the heart of New Orleans where it's easier to watch Manchester United soccer games in Europe than the local NBA team because no satellite subscribers in the metro area can see most Hornets games. Cox Sports Television (CST), owned by the local cable company, has blackout rights and hasn't been able to work out a deal with satellite providers.
The result is that hundreds of thousands of area viewers have been unable to see how the punchless, 18-win team they remembered from the season before Katrina has developed into one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. Even many who've been buying tickets were unable to watch some of the Hornets' most impressive road victories of the season.
Lately, however, word appears to be getting out.
r a victory over Memphis.
Hornets spokesman Harold Kaufman said there has been a spike in ticket sales in recent weeks, though there haven't been any advance sellouts yet.
Good or bad, Hornets attendance figures will make news this year and next, thanks to an unusual lease in which team owner George Shinn has essentially placed the franchise's future in the hands of New Orleans fans.
From last Dec. 1 through the end of the 2008-09 regular season, an average attendance figure of 14,735 or better will eliminate an opt-out clause that would allow Shinn to move his team before the lease expires in 2014. The benchmark is a modest one which would still place the Hornets in the bottom third of the NBA in attendance. The Hornets can live with that because corporate support has been solid and suite sales stronger than before the storm, though they would certainly like to do better.
For the games included in the count so far, attendance has averaged 13,099.
Who knows how long the Jazz might have stayed if fans where given a similar say? But other factors influenced then-owner Sam Battistone's decision to move. The Jazz weren't the primary tenants in the Superdome, working home games around the Saints, the Sugar Bowl, conventions, trade shows and Mardi Gras balls. And Battistone, who's Morman, had personal ties to Salt Lake City.
Shinn, who fell out of favor in the once-thriving NBA market of Charlotte before moving to New Orleans in 2002, said he doesn't want to move again. He sold Louisiana businessman Gary Chouest a quarter of the team in hopes of showing fans, business leaders and politicians he's serious about staying, despite widespread speculation to the contrary.
Goodrich said he hopes to see pro basketball work here this time.
Fan support probably appeared worse than it really was for the Jazz, he said, because the expansive Superdome dwarfed the typical basketball crowd.
``The building was not conducive to basketball,'' Goodrich said.
Losing didn't help matters.
``That was difficult for me from a professional standpoint, but I loved the city,'' Goodrich said. ``It's a very unique city - no other city like it. There's a lot of questions still unanswered, but the NBA is certainly giving it an opportunity to support basketball.''
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