Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 4/7/12
NEW ORLEANS At the top of a ramp on the Earhart Expressway, just another potholed, winding road outside New Orleans, several lights cut through the sticky air to illuminate a solitary billboard. Interspersed between the purple ads for Crown Royale that dot the pavement as it winds toward the city, it's a welcome blue and white, bearing the circular "I'M IN" Hornets logo and advertising a date four months in the past.December 28 it was the Hornets' home opener against the Celtics, a 97-78 win that pushed the team to 2-0. Since then, though, New Orleans has seen just 13 more wins. It's a team that's missing a star after the league-orchestrated trade of Chris Paul, a team without an owner or an established identity in a city that's so capable of getting behind it.No doubt that billboard was planned and executed long before David Stern attempted to deal Paul to the Lakers before shipping him to the Staples Center's second-tier tenant. That billboard was borne of last season's playoff run, of the fan attention it spawned and the success at which it hinted, but just months later, the Hornets' 2011-12 season is so close to being written off as just another worth forgetting.But not if Monty Williams has his way, and not if the team can do what it did on Saturday, bouncing back from a 128-103 loss to San Antonio with a 99-90 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.And despite the team's 15-41 record, a far cry from its 45-33 mark exactly a year ago, despite injuries and the NBA's sixth-worst attendance figure, this season still matters to the Hornets' coach. After five seasons as an assistant in Portland, he's accustomed to winning, to high standards. None of that seems to have changed, even in the most adverse of circumstances.Williams has been quoted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune saying that anyone who thinks the team's final games don't matter aren't the players he wants going forward. He's done everything he can to encourage his team, to demand a certain level of respect for the game and level of competition. Because the Hornets' situation isn't unique or even destined to continue. Plenty of teams have had winning percentages this bad. Plenty have gone on to success."The NBA can not force you but you have a tendency to lose your love for the game at times, and we try to talk to our guys about the privilege and blessing it is to play in the NBA," Williams said. "We try not to lose sight of that."Williams and six of his current players got a taste of that privilege last season, when the new coach pushed the Lakers to six games in the first round of the playoffs. Fans showed up, and New Orleans was proud of its basketball team. But nearly 10 years after the Hornets first arrived in New Orleans, they still haven't quite found their place. They're another city's team playing in an arena dwarfed by the dome that dominates New Orleans's skyline and hearts. The team's highest attendance numbers came in 2005-06 and 2006-07, when the Hornets played just three and then six of its games in the Crescent City after Hurricane Katrina. Even so, once this losing season ends, the Hornets will have gone to the playoffs in five of their 10 seasons since moving to New Orleans, and if Williams can find a way to build last year's success into something more permanent, the Hornets could become more than just the city's second thought.New Orleans is a place that takes emotion and dedication seriously. Once it claims a team, it's leery to relinquish it. The city saw the NFL's Saints through seven consecutive seasons without a playoff berth in the 1990s and another five from 2001-2005, each year swearing that things would change. Eventually they did, and the city responded with painted faces and open arms, with costumes that redefine garish in the best possible way dotting the Superdome stands. It's a city that's loyal to the end, and just a glance at the "Free Sean Payton" T-shirts or the more creative "99-cent Sean Payton, we shouldn't give him away for nothing" design will tell you that.So don't say the Hornets aren't playing for anything. They're playing for what the future promises: two first-round picks in 2012, a sale that should occur soon and keep the team in New Orleans, perhaps even a rebranding to better identify with the city. They're playing to create memories that define basketball in New Orleans, which is still best known for Michael Jordan's shot that clinched the 1982 NCAA championship for North Carolina and Keith Smart's game-winning score for Indiana in that same game five years later.Jordan is retired, and Smart is the head coach in Sacramento. Those memories are fading, the stuff of another generation, and there's no reason they shouldn't be eclipsed and even replaced. But that's big-picture stuff, meta thinking for a franchise that needs to take care of the little things. Williams knows that, and that's why things like draft picks and ownership and even proving that can win without Paul are really just peripheral thoughts. Williams wants his players to keep competing because that's their job, absent the loss of Paul and tough schedules and injuries. And if the Hornets can do that, the rest will follow.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.
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