Hurricane Katrina's legacy for Chris Paul and the NBA

ByArash Markazi ESPN logo
Monday, August 24, 2015

Chris Paul went to bed on Aug. 28, 2005, in the same room in which he had grown up at his parents' house in Lewisville, N.C.

An admitted homebody who has never liked being more than an arm's length from his family, Paul rarely steered far from the town in which he was born and raised. He picked his high school (West Forsyth) and college (Wake Forest) because both were less than a 15-minute drive from home.

However, for Paul there would be no choice on where to live when he decided to go pro after his sophomore season with the Demon Deacons. He was projected to be a top-five pick, and the storybook ending would have been to be selected by the home state Charlotte Bobcats, who were in need of a point guard and held the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NBA draft.

Alas, the New Orleans Hornets selected him with the fourth pick, but Paul was happy. It represented a new home, a new beginning and a new chapter in his life. He flew to New Orleans the day after the draft and immediately fell in love with the Crescent City.

"There was just an excitement in the city," Paul said. "One of the first things I remember when they dropped me off at the arena for my first press conference was they were asking me questions about New Orleans. I remember one person saying, 'Oh, we have hurricanes but they're not that bad.' They were telling me about hurricane parties people have at their house. I just thought that was the craziest thing."

Paul ended up spending more than a month in New Orleans after the draft, working out and getting acclimated to his new home. His parents went to the annual Essence Festival in July and helped him pick out the place he would move into with his older brother, C.J., who had just graduated from college. In late-August the brothers finally settled on a home at the picturesque English Turn Golf and Country Club. It was his first major purchase as an NBA player. Paul then returned to Lewisville for a few days. He needed to pack up his things before moving to New Orleans in early September.

At least that was the plan.

Into the storm

Paul's first memory of Aug. 29, 2005, was the sound of his mother's voice waking him up and directing him to the television. The images were hard to fathom as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

"It was one of the most devastating things I had ever seen," Paul said. "That was my new home. Even though I had only just gotten drafted, it was going to be my first time away from home and I felt a connection to the city. I couldn't believe what I was watching."

Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans that early Monday morning, and as Paul huddled in front of the television with his family, he looked at his older brother and wondered what the future held for him and his new home.

"That was the most uncertain time of our lives," C.J. said. "Chris had just been drafted and closed on a house ... he's just getting a feel for the city and all of a sudden that new city you love is in trouble. Just to see all the people who were affected by it and to know we were there just a few days before it hit ...

"It seemed like it was a third world country we were watching on TV," C.J. added. "It didn't seem like it was a place in the United States we were due to live in in a week."

While Paul and his family watched Katrina's wrath unfold on television, the experience of going through it left deeper wounds for those living in the city. Jim Cleamons, who was an assistant on head coach Byron Scott's staff, says he and his family still have emotional scars from Katrina 10 years later.

"It was a horrific experience," Cleamons said. "To some degree, I don't want to remember some of the things myself."

Indeed, Scott himself kindly declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

The aftermath

It was almost two months before anyone was allowed back in the Hornets' offices in downtown New Orleans. When Hornets employees returned to the city to gather the team's belongings for an uncertain future in an unknown destination, what they would encounter in their own backyard remained a mystery to them, as well.

"We were allowed to go in from sun up to sun down," said Dennis Rogers, who was the Hornets' director of communications at the time. "I went with five other Hornets employees. There were six of us and we loaded up a 27-foot U-Haul and we had two guns and a baseball bat. We didn't know what to expect."

When Paul was able to return to New Orleans in October, the aftermath of Katrina was as surreal as the images he had witnessed on television.

"It gave me chills and goose bumps when I went back," Paul said. "The first time you're allowed to go back into the city you could see water marks everywhere. Even watching on TV, I saw St. Charles and the French Quarter and a lot of the streets I had just been on [days earlier], underwater. There was a Foot Action and a Lids [hat store] that I had just went to, and to see them under water is something that I still can't fathom."

The NBA announced Sept. 21, 2005, the Hornets would move to Oklahoma City for the 2005-06 season. However, the team's temporary home didn't stop Paul and his teammates and front office staffers from routinely returning to New Orleans. Paul fed 200 families in New Orleans on Thanksgiving Day and took 100 kids on a Christmas toy-shopping spree. He also would fund the building of homes and basketball courts in the region.

"We wanted to do anything and everything we could do to help the city get back on its feet," Paul said. "I quickly became a part of the city during that time. There are so many different things we take for granted. Some people say if there's a hurricane, I'm going to leave, but not everybody had that luxury when the storm came. Not everybody could just pick up and leave. It's one of those things when everything happened it brought the city together."

Home on the road

Paul said the memories of his rookie season are scattered. It was a season of uncertainty and flux. He rented a home in Oklahoma City, not knowing when or if he would be returning to New Orleans. The Hornets played 35 games in Oklahoma City, one in Norman, Okla., one in Baton Rouge and were allowed to go back to New Orleans for four games at the end of the season. Through it all, Paul managed to earn rookie of the year honors.

"We ended up going to Oklahoma and I knew nothing about Oklahoma," Paul said. "But it's crazy. I fell in love with Oklahoma City. The support they showed for our team was unbelievable. It's amazing how being in different situations can mold you. Being in Oklahoma is part of who I am. Being in New Orleans is part of who I am. You grow and you learn and you pay attention and realize certain situations in your life have helped to shape and mold you into who you are."

That Paul developed a fondness of Oklahoma City wasn't surprising. The city, which had never been home to a professional sports franchise before, rolled out the red carpet for the Hornets and welcomed them with open arms. The previous season the Hornets finished last in the league in attendance. In Oklahoma City, however, they enjoyed an almost 80 percent increase, putting them in the top half of the league with an average of 18,168 per game.

Despite being an interim home, it didn't take long for the Ford Center to become known as one of the loudest venues in the league. The surprisingly rabid fan base was impossible for the NBA to ignore. The league announced the Hornets would stay in Oklahoma City for one more season with an eye toward finding a more permanent tenant in the future.

"I felt like we had a huge part in showing that Oklahoma City was an NBA city," Paul said. "I feel we had a lot to do with it. Obviously it's been awhile, but even now when I go back and play in Oklahoma there are still a lot of fans who have those OKC Hornets jerseys on."

The Hornets went 77-87 and missed the playoffs in their two seasons in Oklahoma City but it was the first chance many in the state were able to see NBA games in person and it was during that time one 16-year-old Oklahoma City high school student learned what he wanted to do with his life.

"When the Hornets came it opened up an opportunity for Oklahoma City to show the NBA and the nation really that we could handle a pro team because we never had a pro team before," said Paul's Los Angeles Clippers teammate Blake Griffin, who was born and raised in Oklahoma City. "I remember going to some games and that was an eye-opening experience for me because I never went to an NBA game before. Being able to go to those games right around the time I was getting ready to go to college and basketball was really becoming a serious thing, shaped me as a player."

When the Hornets returned to New Orleans full-time for the 2007-08 regular season they enjoyed unprecedented success, winning 56 games and the Southwest Division. Scott won coach of the year honors and Paul finished second in MVP voting to Kobe Bryant. The NBA All-Star Game also was held in New Orleans, giving many players their first real chance to see New Orleans since Katrina, with players and coaches spending the weekend helping to build homes and playgrounds.

"To go back there after Katrina and see how disastrous it was and for us to bring something back to New Orleans and have All-Star weekend there was huge. I'd never seen anything like that," Carmelo Anthony said. "Chris did a great job of building that comraderie in New Orleans, as well as what he created in Oklahoma City when he was there. I don't know if there's basketball in New Orleans or Oklahoma City without Chris."

The end of that season still sticks with Paul to this day. Despite taking a 2-0 and later a 3-2 series lead on the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, the Hornets lost Game 7 in New Orleans and their dream season was over. It remains the only season in which the New Orleans franchise has won 50 games, won the division or even made it out of the first round of the playoffs.

"It was just one of those things when everything happened for us and it brought the city together," Paul said. "For us to make the playoffs and have the run that we did in our first year back was great, but it still sickens me we lost Game 7 to San Antonio. That city deserves a winner and a champion."

The domino effects of Katrina on the NBA a decade later are unmistakable. The Hornets' two seasons in Oklahoma City showed it was a basketball hotbed waiting to be tapped and in 2008 the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City and were renamed the Thunder.

Not wanting to abandon the Gulf Coast region following Katrina, the league made a commitment to keep the Hornets in New Orleans, even if that meant taking temporary control of the team from then-owner George Shinn. Shinn was unable to find a buyer for the team and could no longer afford to run it. During the league's year and a half control of the Hornets, Paul was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in a deal that was famously vetoed by NBA commissioner David Stern for "basketball reasons." He was then dealt to the Los Angeles Clippers one week later.

The finality of actually getting on a plane and leaving his adopted home hit him harder than he thought it would.

"It's one of those unspoken bonds that will never be broken," Paul said. "I still remember the night I got traded. Me and my brother got on a plane to fly out to L.A. and it was just the two of us on the plane and I remember crying when the plane was taking off. Nobody should feel sorry for NBA players, but when you get traded you don't get time to tell your closest friends good-bye. You just have to leave. That's how it was for me. But the city of New Orleans made me who I am as a person and who I am as a player. I'll never forget that."