NEW ORLEANS (AP) -Glum economic forecasts greeted the Hornets upon their return to New Orleans following a two-year displacement forced by Hurricane Katrina.
George Shinn, the team's majority owner, said his accountants initially projected the franchise would run a deficit of about $20 million this season, but he was determined to do right by a city recovering from the worst natural disaster in American history, then hope for the best.
Players, coaches and team employees had misgivings about moving back to the Big Easy from Oklahoma City. Seeing a half-empty New Orleans Arena back in November and December didn't help.
``When we first came here, so many writers and reporters were saying it wouldn't work, we didn't have chance and I was stupid,'' Shinn recalled Tuesday, the day after the Hornets' season ended with a Game 7 loss to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals.
The nay-sayers, it turned out, failed to account for the way an exciting young team, led by an emerging superstar in Chris Paul and fellow first-time All-Star David West, could galvanize a community.
The Hornets set a franchise record with 56 regular season victories en route to a first division title. A first-round playoff series triumph over the Dallas Mavericks followed before the season came to a tearful end Monday night.
There was more. Even while residents bemoaned the city's struggles with crime and a lack of progress in some neighborhoods that remain largely deserted disaster zones more than two years after the storm, Hornets players never wavered from a message of hope.
They incorporated the city's fleur-de-lis symbol in their uniforms, a sign of solidarity with recovery efforts, then spent hundreds of hours at rebuilding projects across town.
In between pounding opponents on the court, they pounded nails with Habitat for Humanity, rebuilt playgrounds, refurbished school libraries and met with children.
The entire NBA pitched in when New Orleans hosted the All-Star game, and by the second half of the season, big crowds at the arena were a common sight, as were Hornets jerseys being worn around town.
Public basketball courts, fixed up with the help of the Hornets or other teams during their visits to the city, drew swarms of kids playing hoops.
The last 13 Hornets home games were all sellouts. Shinn said the Hornets far exceeded revenue goals and might have broken even.
``Now you wouldn't find one player who'd rather play somewhere else,'' Shinn said. ``Our staff has been uplifted by all of this and we're really at stage for us to do something great next year. I believe it, really. I feel it in my bones.''
During the playoffs, the Hornets launched a season ticket drive, achieving a 90 percent renewal rate while selling an additional 3,500.
The Hornets will need the resulting revenue boost. Paul, with only one season remaining on his contract, is expected to get a lucrative extension as early as this summer.
``We'll step up and do what we've got to do to keep him,'' Shinn said. ``He's the best point guard in the NBA and one of top franchise players.''
NBA coach of the year Byron Scott also is due an extension soon.
``He can buy out of his contract, but we're trying to put together something to keep him,'' Shinn said. ``We're going to be fair and step up with the goal to make him one of the highest (paid) coaches in the league.''
Scott has shown no interest in leaving a young team which he had a major hand in rebuilding after going 18-64 in 2004-05, his first season with the club.
``I'm very proud of this team, this organization,'' Scott said Monday night. ``It's an honor to be part of this team.''
Paul's averages of 21.1 points and 11.6 assists per game made him a bona fide MVP candidate; he finished second in voting behind the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant.
If he gets the anticipated extension, the Hornets could be a force for years to come. West (20.6 points per game, 8.9 rebounds per game) is under contract for at least three more seasons with a player option for a fourth. Center Tyson Chandler (11.8 ppg, 11.7 rpg) has at least two more years left on his deal. Sharpshooter Peja Stojakovic (16.4 ppg) has three seasons left, while versatile, high-flying rookie Julian Wright showed enormous potential with several highlight-reel plays in the postseason.
This year, it wasn't quite enough to get the Hornets past the conference semifinals for the first time in the franchise's 20-year history. Maybe next year.
``Every great team has to go through things like this,'' Paul said. ``The make of our team is special. We really play for each other.
``The City of New Orleans - I think our hats go off to them. They made this season unbelievably special for us. There's no doubt about it,'' Paul said. ``I'm not even worried that we'll be back (in the playoffs) next year.''

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