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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Entire season blown off course

Some of them left on Friday night and drove to Houston. Some of them waited until Saturday, then went to higher ground in Lafayette, La. None of the New Orleans Hornets anticipated the magnitude of nature's fury.

It's been almost five months since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, and the New Orleans Hornets haven't been back to their own gym yet. They've played home games in Oklahoma City, Baton Rouge, and Norman, Okla. They won't play their first game in New Orleans until March 8 against the Lakers (wonder how many Kobe will get? Larry Bird once went for 60 in New Orleans). It will be one of only three true ''home" games for the Hornets this year.

''That will be special," veteran forward P.J. Brown said before last night's game against the Celtics at the Garden. ''It'll be the first professional sporting event in New Orleans since the storm. It will be symbolic to show that the city is coming back. It will send a message around the country."

The Hornets were the second-worst team in the NBA last year (thank you, Atlanta), winning only 18 games, but they left Boston with a 20-21 record and would be a veritable lock for the playoffs if they played in the Eastern Conference. It's a pretty good showing considering their status as true NBA Globetrotters.

Coach Byron Scott said, ''We've just got a group of young guys who understand exactly what's going on in New Orleans. Basketball's been a safe haven. It's the one place where we could go where this did not touch us. All of us have friends and loved ones in New Orleans. It's been a tragedy, but it also brought us closer together."

Training camp was still a month away when Katrina brought hell on earth to the Big Easy. Many of the Hornets scattered around the United States. Rookie-to-be Chris Paul had yet to find an apartment in the city where he'd had his party after being picked third in the 2005 NBA Draft.

Brown, getting ready for his 13th NBA season, had more at stake than most of his teammates. He went to high school and college in Louisiana and he was at home with his wife and four children when the mayor told everybody to get out of town.

''We're used to it," said the 6-foot-11-inch franchise anchor. ''We thought there was going to be some damage but we thought it would be minimal. So I waited until the last minute, but Saturday night, we left. We drove to Lafayette. Four days later, I came back. I'd seen a lot on TV, of course, but it's not the same as when you go back in. We were lucky. We had some damage, but none of the total devastation that so many had."

Coach Scott was similarly fortunate.

''The mayor was already saying to get out on Thursday, but I'm hard-headed and we waited until Saturday night," said the former Laker guard. ''My wife and kids and I drove to Houston. About 5 1/2 hours. We were there for a week."

It was a little different for equipment manager David Jovanovic, who's been with the Hornets since their first days in Charlotte in 1988.

''People don't realize how little time there was," said Jovanovic, who lived in Slidell, La. ''We left on Friday in our minivan. My wife, two kids, and me. We didn't bring the four cats. You take what you think you will need and you drive thinking that when you come home everything will be OK. That's what had happened in the past.

''But this was the big one. When I finally got back three weeks later, my house was half-destroyed. The wind took off three sides. We lost everything downstairs. The cats survived, but they were pissed off."

Jovanovic's family is staying in another New Orleans home while theirs is rebuilt. A pile of insurance claim forms has been filled out and the home is almost habitable again. Brown's family has temporarily relocated to Houston. The Scotts are in Oklahoma City, where the Hornet players and front office workers have been living since September.

A lot of other NBA-hungry cities offered shelter to the team, but Oklahoma City had the arena (the 19,163-seat Ford Center) and the location. The NBA schedule was already set when Katrina struck, so moving the Hornets to the West Coast was not feasible. The temporary site had to be somewhere near New Orleans.

Celtics radio announcer Sean Grande was impressed with the home crowd when the Green visited Oklahoma City in December.

''It was refreshing and cleansing," said Grande. ''The way you'd treat a new girlfriend, that's the way they were treating the Hornets. There's a certain purity about it. Almost a college atmosphere. And I think it's a huge part of their resurgence."

The Hornets are averaging more than 17,500 at home and have had 10 sellouts.

''Good people there," said Brown. ''They've embraced us."

Still, it's a strange situation. The front of the uniforms reads, ''New Orleans." The standings indicate that ''New Orleans" ranks fourth in the Southwest Division, below Memphis and above Houston. The Hornets are covered by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and their games are broadcast on WODT radio in New Orleans.

They have New Orleans written all over them, but the NBA season is exactly half-over and they haven't been home yet. Not even close.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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