NEW ORLEANS – For one night, the people of this hurricane-battered city could forget about the trash that hasn’t been picked up, the power that hasn’t been turned on and the friends and family members still scattered across the country. There was a game to be played Wednesday at New Orleans Arena – the city’s first since Hurricane Katrina – as the Hornets returned home to face the Lakers, with an announced sellout crowd living and dying a little with each possession down the stretch. In the end, the Lakers spoiled the homecoming with a 113-107 victory as Kobe Bryant hit three sensational jumpers, each more improbable than the one before it, in the last 2 minutes and guard Smush Parker came up with a big steal with 46.9 seconds left. But it was a night bigger than basketball as the fans who stayed to the end stood and cheered at the final buzzer of a loss. The pre-game invocation (a Hornets tradition) mentioned the “long Katrina winter” and looking forward to a “spring of hope.” AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECasino Insider: Here’s a look at San Manuel’s new high limit rooms, Asian restaurant “It’s a testament to the character of this city,” Bryant said, “and to the people that reside here, about their resiliency, their ability to bounce back, and to move on from a very difficult situation, seemingly impossible situation.” More than the 17,744 in attendance, NBA Commissioner David Stern hoped to send a message to the tens of thousands of evacuated residents of this city now living elsewhere. Like the people of their city, the Hornets had to relocate after the hurricane – to Oklahoma City – and will return to play three more games this month in New Orleans. An additional six are scheduled for next season and the team hopes to return for good in 2007-08. “To be playing in a sold-out building,” Stern said, “and attracting the media attention so that people can see what’s going on here, and indeed displaced people can see that this is a place that can support community, is important to us.” The game was played in New Orleans Arena, next door to the Superdome, where tens of thousands were sheltered in the storm’s aftermath. The arena reopened last weekend, with the smell from fresh paint filling the hallways by the locker rooms. But the NBA was back in business in the Big Easy, no small feat considering that many of the stores on Canal Street still haven’t reopened and fewer than half of the city’s former residents have returned home. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who made a dismissive comment in January about the mud and termites in New Orleans when the NBA decided to return this season, gave the arena his approval at the morning shootaround. “Seats look clean, floor is dry, everything looks pretty shipshape here,” Jackson said. “We’ll be the only ones with the mud. The way we’ve been playing, our feet have been in mud.” After their shootaround, the Lakers sent a contingent of players – Brian Cook, Devean George, Devin Green, Ronny Turiaf, Luke Walton and Parker – to take part in a Habitat for Humanity event in the city’s St. Roch neighborhood. Habitat for Humanity is building two homes on a formerly vacant lot in the neighborhood, which is stirring back to life after the hurricane. The players pounded a couple of nails, posed for some pictures and tried to take in as much as they could. “It looks like things are getting back to order,” Cook said. “There’s still a lot of trash around. To see the aftermath of what has happened here, I just feel for these people because they’ve been through a long struggle. It looks like there’s a sign of light at the end of the tunnel.” “There’s houses as far as you can see that are vacant right now,” added Parker, who saved his hammer as a memento and brought it to the game. Stern also attended the Habitat event, part of a day spent meeting with local officials. With the league negotiating to bring the 2008 All-Star Game to New Orleans, Stern was briefed on everything from the condition of the city’s hotels to its ports. He even got a firsthand look at one of the city’s hardest-hit areas. With President George W. Bush touring New Orleans on Wednesday, Stern ran into a roadblock on his way to the house-building and got out of his sport utility vehicle to walk with a couple of NBA staffers. Stern said he heard from people whose homes were under as much as 14 feet of water in the flooding after the hurricane. “Frankly, for me, Anderson Cooper’s been doing a good job,” Stern said of the CNN host. A couple of blocks away in the lower Ninth Ward, row after row of abandoned houses still bear the “X” scrawled by search and rescue teams that went door to door. Except for the scattered crews in fumigation suits clearing debris, the streets were desolate. “The thing that you just can’t get away from,” Stern said, “is when you walk through the lower Ninth Ward, it’s just the notion that one moment you had a house and a neighborhood and the next moment you had nothing, if you were lucky enough to get away with your life.” Stern reaffirmed that the Hornets would return for the 2007-08 season, the simplest reason being the team has a lease with the arena that runs through 2012. More than that, Stern sees the potential in a city that could receive $100 billion in new investment. But the commissioner was almost philosophical in talking about the return of the people in New Orleans; only an estimated 189,000 out of the city’s 465,000 residents before Katrina have returned. “There’ll just be some interesting questions on the human scale,” Stern said. “If your lot here wasn’t so good in the first place, and your car and home and your job were taken away from you, and you have all three someplace else, you’ve got your own personal decision to make about what you’re going to do with your life.” Bryant, meanwhile, reflected on the magnitude of playing in the game afterward. “It was just a special moment,” Bryant said. “We’re honored to be a part of it, really. This is truly a historical event and we felt like we came out here and gave them a good show.” Ross Siler, (818) 713-3610 firstname.lastname@example.org 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!