After the Jan. 24 game against the San Antonio Spurs, New Orleans — and the NBA — will know whether the Hornets have averaged enough fans to lock them into their lease with the New Orleans Arena, or whether the team can opt out, putting the future location of the franchise into play.
The Hornets have been struggling with attendance all season long (the team ranks 25th of 30 in the league), though a late surge due to blocks of tickets bought by the New Orleans Business Council has given them a bump. An estimated crowd of 15,155 people came to see the Hornets play the Toronto Raptors in an afternoon game on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and nearly 16,000 showed up for the Jan. 19 showdown against the Memphis Grizzlies, which ended in a thrilling overtime victory that gave the Hornets their sixth straight win.
Regardless of the attendance markers, the NBA — which bought the Hornets in December and, ultimately, is the only entity that has the final say on what will happen to this franchise — made it clear that attendance markers of the last few weeks are key to determining the team's long-term viability in New Orleans.
By now, rookie head coach Monty Williams has fielded questions about every story angle sportswriters can come up with about his team's attendance and ownership situation.
"My thing is that it could be a lot worse. Nobody's lost their job," Williams said before his team's first game after David Stern announced the NBA would buy the Hornets.
That meeting with print media before the Hornets faced the Detroit Pistons went on for six minutes, and every question related to the NBA purchase. Williams, usually loath to talk about anything other than basketball, fielded the questions despite having relatively little to say of significance. At one point, Williams — at 39, the league's youngest head coach — was able to find humor in the situation.
"You know, I've had a number of firsts this year," he said, laughing. "It can be a distraction, I'm not going to lie about that, it can be. But we get to play ball and that's a good thing."
Williams has been dealing with distractions surrounding the Hornets since before the season began. He was hired over the summer while rumors swirled that Chris Paul was demanding a trade from New Orleans. The preseason didn't go much better as the team won only a single game. Then Williams and his players turned things around, winning 11 out of their first 12 games before the winning streak went south again. Now the ownership situation is front and center.
Williams, though, has dealt with bigger distractions. When he attended Notre Dame, he was diagnosed with a heart condition and was disqualified from playing because of it.
"To be 18 years old and be told that you're going to die, that's not a career goal," he says, adding that, as tough as that time was for him, he doesn't regret the changes it wrought. Up to that point, basketball dominated his life, but once he couldn't play the game he loved, he says, he needed to reprioritize things.
"I could say, 'I became a better student, or I became more focused on this or my family was important' — but that wasn't it," he says. "It was strictly faith-based. That was the perspective to me, that God had to be No. 1 in my life."
Doctors forbade Williams from playing basketball for two years. But then, in the summer of 1992, he underwent a series of tests at the National Institutes of Health and was cleared to play. In a Sports Illustrated article written after Williams was drafted by the New York Knicks, he was quoted as saying he "started praying and crying" when he learned he was cleared to play ball.
When he returned to the court, however, Williams couldn't dodge questions about his heart and how he was able to overcome his condition. "I got so sick of telling people, 'God healed my heart,'" he says. "I just wanted to hold up a transcript of my answer to everyone."
Flash-forward 16 years and now Williams heads an NBA team and fields questions about his star player's happiness and what he thinks of the league being his boss. Every day seems like it brings a new twist, but Williams says he's unfazed, relying on his faith.
"One of my favorite verses is Proverbs 3:5-6: 'Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight,'" he said. "Sometimes you're just not going to understand. I know if I trust in the Lord things will be OK."
But while Williams puts his trust in his faith, his players put their trust in his intelligence. Paul began the season by praising Williams' basketball IQ as "unbelievable." After the team beat the Raptors Jan. 17, power forward David West said the players "bought in, and we bought in early" to Williams' system. The reason?
"You gotta respect intelligence," he said. "[The coaching staff] proved that they're a very smart, astute group."
Wiliams gained much of that savvy playing under NBA champion head coaches Larry Brown, Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers. It was the San Antonio Spurs' Popovich who gave Williams his first coaching job. "We just thought he had the intelligence and the work ethic," Popovich told reporters before facing off against Williams for the first time (the Hornets won that night, 99-90).
Rivers, another Popovich protege, shared a similar story before the Hornets played the Boston Celtics on New Year's Eve (another game the Hornets won, this time 83-81). When Williams played for Rivers in Orlando, the then-rookie coach told Williams he had what it takes to be a coach.
"You knew right when he retired that he would be a head coach," Rivers told NESN before the Dec. 31 game. "It was no secret with Monty."
At the time, Williams took it as another seemingly crazy bit of advice similar to what he's heard from coaches all his life. "I remember they'd say something to me and I thought that they were nuts," Williams says. Now, though, Williams says he's realized the wisdom of the advice he received and finds himself repeating the same things to the players he coaches.
"It enforces why I say what I say because I know the benefit of it," he says.
In New Orleans, the benefits are tangible. Together with general manager Dell Demps, another student of Popovich's tutelage, Williams has overhauled New Orleans' roster and turned the Hornets into a strong defensive team that's played exceedingly well for two stretches this season — at least well enough that the cacophony of trade rumors surrounding Paul has subsided while he's returned to being the most efficient and effective point guard in the NBA. West, meanwhile, is also in All-Star form, anchoring the offense and demonstrating the ability to score 20 points in any given game.
Put together, it's a team that, despite what attendance figures suggest, is well worth watching. And Williams has made it possible despite all the problems that landed in his lap when he took the job. But he says none of that factored into his decision.
"Bottom line: it was a job and I think people lose track of that," he says. "In this economy you can't turn your nose up at a job. For me to sit here and complain about what happened last summer — most people laugh at you. You know, it's not that big of a deal."
Williams has kept the same dialogue going all season long. When his team won 11 straight games to start the season, he kept talking about the Hornets' need to get better every day. During their 3-12 skid after Thanksgiving, Williams again stressed fundamentals, insisting at the time that "it's not hard" for the Hornets to get back to winning.
Turns out it wasn't that hard: Williams stayed on message, his players listened, the Hornets pulled out of their funk and rebounded for a winning streak in mid-January — just as the league attendance numbers were coming due. The coach credits his players for the bounce back.
"When guys know your heart and they know where your comments are coming from, if they're coming from a good place, guys are more willing to listen," Wiliams says.