Hurricane Katrina and The Thunder: Chris Paul’s Oklahoma City Homecoming

By: Dani Bar-Lavi
Posted: December 5, 2019

It was Fall 2005. The United States was still reeling from the most destructive natural disaster in the country’s memory. Even now, 14 —-years later, only Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico compares. Over 1200 lives were lost, and countless more were damaged and disrupted as the city drowned for weeks on end. Ripple effects were felt all over the Southern Central United States, as a diaspora of refugees made new lives in other cities in the region, such as Oklahoma City.

For refugees from the Hurricane that found a new home in Oklahoma City, there was one constant. New Orleans Arena, the home of New Orleans’ NBA franchise, at the time the Hornets, had been severely damaged by the tropical storm. Katrina had hit only days before the Hornets, and their exciting rookie, Chris Paul, were set to begin training camp. After failing to secure an arena in Baton Rouge, Hornets owner George Shinn reached an agreement with SMG, owners of the Ford Center. The Hornets would partially relocate to Oklahoma City; which, of course, had no NBA franchise at the time. And thus, the only dual-city team in NBA history was born, with Chris Paul beginning his career as a member of the Oklahoma City/New Orleans Hornets.

While the Hornets didn’t make the playoffs during the ‘05-‘06 season, they did improve on their record from the previous season significantly; and their host city of Oklahoma City was enamored on them. OKC natives and transplants from New Orleans alike bonded over rooting for this promising squad, anchored by Rookie of the Year Chris Paul and young stud David West (what a weird sentence to write in 2019.) For the first time in NBA history, there was a team in Oklahoma, and the fans there ate it up.

A lot has changed since then. The Hornets returned to New Orleans in late 2007, and then became the Pelicans in 2013, allowing Charlotte to reclaim the Hornets name, as the franchise was based there until 2002. And of course, in 2008, the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics capitalized on the popularity of the Hornets in Oklahoma and became the Oklahoma City Thunder, giving OKC a new young duo to root for: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And then a third, James Harden.

But time is a flat circle. Harden, Westbrook and Durant have been cast to the wind. And who, once again, at the other end of his career, finds himself holding the reins in Oklahoma City?

Chris Paul.

After the Houston Rockets dealt Chris Paul to reunite James Harden with Westbrook, the general take seemed to be that the Thunder would either trade Chris Paul or buy him out, in order to lean into the rebuild seemingly signified by trading Westbrook and Paul George. Maybe they’d find some way to team him up with Jimmy Butler in Miami, or partner him with his BFF LeBron in Los Angeles. These are all fun scenarios to imagine, but all of them overlook the opportunity that has been presented to Sam Presti and the rest of the organization by holding onto Chris Paul.

Over the first 19 games of the NBA season, CP3 is averaging 15.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists, while shooting 45.6% from the field and 38.6% from the three. These numbers are serviceable, but they don’t exactly jump off the page, but they really shouldn’t. The most notable down-tick in Paul’s stats are in his assists, down from 8.2 per game last year in Houston. The Thunder have something that the Rockets did not: Two young guards who need a lot of time on ball to develop, in Dennis Schroder (somehow still only 26) and fellow former Clipper Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. At age 34, Chris Paul is unselfishly sacrificing his usage in order to help foster the development of his teammates for a franchise he only just arrived at. SGA has said that Paul has embraced a mentor role, giving him guidance while being his friend. This is part of the value that continuing to retain Paul brings for the Thunder, putting up serviceable numbers while making the choices that will help build the franchise’s future.

Perhaps even more important than his impact on the court or his influence on younger players is Chris Paul’s ability to help Sam Presti maintain an identity for the Thunder. Above all, the NBA, and all sports, are a piece of media, a collection of intertwining stories. That’s why my job as a sports writer matters, that’s why we have color commentary, that’s why NBA Twitter is so vibrant and…colorful: the NBA is a reality show. While the Oklahoma City Thunder are not the franchise that Chris Paul started his career with, they do play in the city where he did. They still play for the fans that watched him win Rookie of the Year almost 14 years ago. Oklahoma NBA fans who were 13 when Chris Paul burst into the scene are in Chesapeake Energy Arena every home game, some of them have brought children of their own to watch their childhood favorite basketball player run the floor. 

Westbrook’s exit from the Thunder was beyond anything an existential threat to Oklahoma City’s NBA narrative. A thread connected the Thunder to their arrival from Seattle, a thread woven through Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that was damaged when Durant left for the Golden Stars Warriors, and severed when Russ was traded to the Thunder. With the acquisition of Chris Paul, once Oklahoma City’s golden boy, the Thunder create a new thread to their city’s basketball past. Chris Paul’s presence in Oklahoma City anchors the Thunder in their past, reminding the city why this team is there. Reminding them of a time where a region ravaged by one of the worst natural disasters in American history banded together, took others into their cities, into their home, and found hope in a time of devastation.

This month, Dani is celebrating the Banana Boat, 4 NBA legends and best friends, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James, famously photographed together riding a Banana Boat while on a Caribbean vacation. If you missed their previous article on Carmelo Anthony, you can find it here.

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