Hornets rookie point guard Chris Paul is hunched over, hands tightly grasping the ends of his shorts as he gasps for air. Center Jamaal Magloire curses as he grabs a seat on the bleachers at Southern Nazarene University, just west of Oklahoma City, after the team ends a series of sprints. Coach Byron Scott, noticing that his team is gassed from its three-hour practice, offers an out.
Scott walks up to guard Kirk Snyder and hands him a basketball. "Make both free throws and you guys can go," Scott tells Snyder before looking at his winded team, which is now officially the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. "If he misses one, you guys got another run coming in about 30 seconds."
Snyder sinks both free throws, and the players suddenly find the energy to run to Snyder and thank him for ending the first grueling day of training camp.
Under normal circumstances, Scott said, he would've pushed his players through a more intense first day. But considering how the Hornets have had anything but a normal offseason after Hurricane Katrina forced them to flee New Orleans and find refuge in Oklahoma City, Scott chose to have some sympathy for his players — for one day. "That's about it," he said.
Scott knows how workhorse power forward P.J. Brown used time that he would've spent training for the upcoming season to help his family relocate from Slidell, La., to Houston. He knows how tough it has been for his hotel-dwelling players to get acclimated to their new surroundings, since the team didn't know where it would play basketball until two weeks ago. Scott knows, because he has been dealing with the difficult transition himself. He and his wife, Anita, just found a home in Oklahoma City and his sons started school here on Tuesday.
"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy, to go through what we've been through," Scott said. "Not just me personally, but the city of New Orleans. What we've had to go through has been unbelievable, something you never thought you would have to face in your lifetime."
The Hornets were finally able to move beyond the chaos and uncertainty of the past month and find a brief respite in something they know. Riding the team bus meant more, Scott said, because it offered some familiarity. Forward-center Chris Andersen helped lighten the mood after practice when he joined reporters surrounding Scott using a Gatorade bottle instead of a microphone.
"I was glad to get a ball in my hands and to get up and down with these guys," Paul said. "We never got an opportunity to play due to the hurricane. It was good to just get out and to play and get the hurricane behind us a little bit. You never forget, but this gives us time to get back to some type of normalcy."
Paul, who was the fourth pick in the draft in June, was preparing to have a home built in New Orleans but he never had a chance to get acquainted with the city, although he visited a shelter in Baton Rouge, La., shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck. "It's something I'll never forget," he said. "Just to see that some people had nothing, we just want them to know that we're always playing for them and we're always fighting for the city of New Orleans."
Brown has lived in Louisiana his whole life and couldn't believe the damage inflicted upon his home state. He evacuated his home in Slidell two days before Katrina arrived and has made the trip home from Houston six times with his wife, Dee. That first drive home along Interstate 10 was the most shocking.
"As you'd get closer and closer in to southeast Louisiana, you started seeing parts of the storm where it hit certain areas. You'd see trees, you'd see power lines down and you're just amazed at the destruction and the wind and the power of the storm," Brown said. "You were just there a week ago and everything was calm and smooth, and now you've got neighborhoods that are unrecognizable. That was just unbelievable."
Brown entered a home that contained a few feet of water and sustained some roof damage. Looters stole TVs, DVDs, jewelry and a camcorder. "It's some unethical people out there," he said, shaking his head. Brown arrived in Oklahoma City on Sunday and plans to find a place to live soon, but his wife and three daughters will remain in Houston. It will be the first time in his 12-year career with New Jersey, Miami, Charlotte and New Orleans that he will be apart from his family.
"My situation is bad, but there are a lot of people who have it worse," Brown said. "People don't realize how huge this storm was, how devastating it was. Only if you can walk through that area would you be able to see what I'm talking about. A friend that I've known for years only had the shirt on his back. To see him in that situation was tough."
Magloire has been with the Hornets his entire five-year career, and he is preparing to play in his third city. The Hornets moved from Charlotte in 2002 because of lack of support. They have been forced to move again because its fan base has been dispersed. "It's definitely tough, but it comes with the territory," Magloire said. "You just have to be a professional."
George Lynch, one of just three Hornets remaining from their days in Charlotte, considers himself lucky because he sold his home in suburban New Orleans in July. The other positive Lynch sees in the move to Oklahoma is that he is only about three hours from his offseason home in Dallas.
Andersen's and Magloire's homes had minor damage, but Magloire didn't want to discuss his troubles. "I have friends living in shelters. A lot of friends, I still can't find," he said. "My home was affected, but all that is trivial. For me to talk about my house and my possessions would be selfish because so many other people have it harder than me -- who didn't have home insurance or still can't find their parents or kids. We just have to think about the people who are less fortunate than I am."
Hornets owner George Shinn describes the past five years and the past few weeks as "a rocky road." Although hesitant to consider Oklahoma City after NBA Commissioner David Stern suggested he should, Shinn has found a willing partner here. Looking to prove that it can support a major league team, Oklahoma City has already responded to the Hornets' arrival. Team officials said they have sold about 10,000 season tickets at Ford Center, where the team will play 35 games this season. (The Hornets have an option for another year.) That's no small feat considering the Hornets finished last in attendance and second-to-last in wins last season in New Orleans. "Somebody should've been here a long time ago," Shinn said, but he doesn't intend to stay there.
"We're planning to go back to New Orleans. We're a New Orleans team. It's that simple."
Shinn couldn't predict when -- or if -- the Hornets could return to New Orleans, but he is expecting more from his young team, which went 18-64 last season. "I told Byron I was going to choke him if we don't win 10 more games this season," Shinn said before laughing. "He told me, 'If we don't, I'm going to choke myself.' "
For now, though, it's about getting back to the basics.
"It's going to take some time to adjust to all of this, but this is probably our best medicine right now, to be able to get back on that basketball court," Scott said.