Date: November 9, 2005

The largest crowd ever to attend an event at Oklahoma City’s Ford Center — 19,123 — turned out to see the National Basketball Association (NBA) Hornets play the Sacramento Kings Nov. 1.

The occasion marked a political coup for the city, which stepped in to host the displaced New Orleans Hornets for most of the 2005-2006 season. But it was a lot of preparation in a short time for the building management. “There was everything,” said Gary Desjardins, who manages the Ford Center and nearby Cox Business Services Convention Center for SMG. “From getting the contract signed to finalizing dates, moving the events we had already scheduled and finding alternate dates.”

This has been emotional for Desjardins on more than one front. Originally from New Orleans, he watched his hometown flood on Aug. 30. “I watched the levee breaking on TV,” he said. “I had tears in my eyes.”

The next day, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett made the first call to the NBA. With the help of the state government, five key corporate sponsors and the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, a deal that should have taken months was struck in a matter of days and finished in about five weeks.

The city guaranteed a profit for Shinn, with a chance to reclaim some expenses through a 50/50 revenue split after the team passes $40 million in revenue. The city finalized its deal with the Hornets Sept. 20 at 2:30 p.m. and the city council approved it the next day. That left just 40 days until the NBA made its regular-season debut.

“The original Hornets schedule had them opening up Nov. 3, which was the move-in date for Women of Faith and they were over the capacity for the convention center, so the NBA changed their opening night schedule,” Desjardins said.

The Central Hockey League Blazers, who had six conflicting dates scheduled at the Ford Center, agreed to play those games across the street at the convention center.

VEE Corp.’s Sesame Street Live also agreed to move its show to the convention center and Stars on Ice moved its performance by a day. “We had to move the [AF2] Yard Dawgz out of their locker room, which we just completed in April,” Desjardins said. “We bought a new basketball floor, which normally takes about six months, and that was done in about three-and-a-half weeks. The NBA was very instrumental in making that happen.”

Desjardins also had to order new goals, wire additional cable for broadcast, and help hammer out a deal between Tickets.com, which handles Ford Center ticketing, and competitor Ticketmaster, which the Hornets use.

“On the ticketing end, the Hornets were familiar with Ticketmaster and using their platform, but we have an agreement with Tickets.com,” said Desjardins. “When the Hornets came up, Tickets.com was great and gave us a waiver that let the Hornets use a system they were familiar with. Ticketmaster also bent over backwards to get extra [bar code] readers in.”

Venue One got a wireless ordering system set up for courtside food and beverage service while Desjardins tore out a standard concession stand and replaced it with one featuring New Orleans style food. He also had to get a 500-square-foot Hornets team store built.

Desjardins had plenty to cope with at the Ford Center — but in that 40 days he also had to ensure that the convention center was prepared for the events he’d had to move. That meant new Plexiglas, scoreboard servicing, locker room game clocks and safety nets for hockey, and a lot more staff for both venues.

“The city spent some money to do a major service on our second ice chiller so we were certain we could make and maintain ice,” Desjardins said. “We had to ramp up our entire staffing levels because we were going to be hosting events in both arenas. We’ve hired a tremendous number of people and trained them in a very short amount of time.”

Desjardins was confident his staff could pull it off. They’d had only a month to prepare when the Davis Cup was played at the Ford Center and they’d done a lot of big concerts since the $89 million arena opened in June 2002. Prior to Nov. 1, a George Strait concert held the attendance record at just over 19,000 patrons.

“It’s been an interesting time, but it’s nothing compared to what the Hornets have experienced in their professional and personal lives,” Desjardins said. “It went very well. There weren’t any major issues, certainly none from the public side. Internally there were some things we have to flush out, but it was a great night for Oklahoma City. There was a lot of electricity in the air. It reminded me of the first major concert we had in the Ford Center, which was the Eagles. Everybody was in a good mood. It was just a great night.”

Tom Anderson, City of Oklahoma City projects manager, oversees the SMG contract. There were a few minor bumps, but Anderson was happy with SMG’s effort. “Gary [Desjardins] and SMG’s local staff outdid themselves,” Anderson said. “They rose to the challenge of the NBA arriving under truly extraordinary circumstances. We’ve received international recognition as one of the top concert facilities, but to seamlessly make all the adaptations and scheduling changes required to meet that same standard with an NBA team was no small task.”

Anderson credited much of the success to personal interaction. “I’d say the good relationship we’ve developed with the Ford Center staff since the facility opened was a significant factor in pulling it all together,” he said. “That and the dedication of the people involved — Operations Director Teddy Faulkinberry, for example, was one of the many unsung heroes who made it happen.”

The surprise to Desjardins and Anderson, as it was to many observers, was how quickly a project so big — and involving so many entities — came together. “I’m not aware of anything that big happening that quickly and coming off as smoothly as it has,” Anderson said. “I don’t think anyone who was there at that game opening night was aware of anything that went wrong. It was nothing short of unbelievable.”

The Hornets, who will play 35 home games at the Ford Center and six in Baton Rouge this season at the Cajundome, have an option to return to Oklahoma City next year. Business and civic leaders very much want that to happen and are hoping, albeit quietly, that Hornets owner George Shinn will make the move permanent. The city doesn’t want to appear opportunistic in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which forced the Hornets out of the New Orleans Arena, also managed by SMG. But after 10 years of downtown revitalization efforts, Oklahoma City sees the Hornets’ presence as proof that it’s finally become a big-league town.

Interviewed for this story: Gary Desjardins, (405) 602-8700; Tom Anderson, (405) 297-2550