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A Brief History of New Orleans Basketball, According to Voice of the Pelicans

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A Brief History of New Orleans Basketball, According to Voice of the Pelicans
Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

For the second time in six years, New Orleans will host the NBA's All-Star Weekend, with one of the city's own making his debut as a local ambassador for the festivities. In 2008, Chris Paul played the part for the Hornets at New Orleans Arena. This time around, it'll be Anthony Davis filling that role for the newly renamed Pelicans at the also-newly renamed Smoothie King Center.

The triumphant return of the sport's biggest spectacle to the Crescent City is just the latest chapter in the tangled tale of basketball on the bayou. The NBA and New Orleans have always been somewhat strange bedfellows, from the birth and departure of the Jazz in the late 1970s to the arrival of the Hornets in the early 2000s to the emergence of the Pels today and everything in between.

John DeShazier is intimately familiar with that history. DeShazier spent 20 years as a sports columnist and reporter with The New Orleans Times-Picayune before becoming a writer for the Saints and the color analyst for the Pelicans' radio broadcasts. He recently spoke by phone to Bleacher Report about all things basketball in the Big Easy, from the arrival of the Hornets and the city's lingering connection to the Jazz to the All-Star Games held there and the resident talents who've participated in them. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

 

BR: How has the franchise’s injury history—from Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn in Charlotte to Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler with the Hornets and up to now with Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans—affected its outlook over the years as a potential contender?

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

JD: The injuries that they’ve had curtail any hopes that you have of being a legitimate contender. 

Generally, they’ve played through and kind of rebounded, and fortunately for them and everybody else involved, the fans have been pretty supportive. It helped tremendously, to be honest, when Tom Benson bought the team. That kind of stabilized it and I think that made fans a little more receptive to the team.

Unfortunately, guys keep getting injured through, obviously, no fault of their own. It’s not like they’re home fooling around in the kitchen and somebody slices a hand. Jrue Holiday had the stress fracture from playing ball. Ryan Anderson gets a herniated disk playing basketball.

For the most part, fans have been supportive. Hope is pretty high and, for the most part, this team has shown, the few times it’s been together intact, that it’s not just competitive but pretty good. It’s just a matter of getting everybody on the court and being able to get that synergy together.

 

BR: How has the fan support for the team changed over the years?

JD: There have been times where it’s fluctuated. It came in at a pretty good high because you get a new team and everything’s looking good. And then it dipped for a portion because the team, Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn were the stars of the team, but both of those guys got injured and then they kind of left, and they bottomed out and had an 18-win season under Byron Scott.

Then hope jumps back up because you draft Chris Paul, he’s the Rookie of the Year. They get David West, who’s an improving young player at power forward. You get Tyson Chandler coming over. All of a sudden, everything looks bright and they make the playoffs and win a playoff series and come within one game of the Western Conference Finals, losing to San Antonio in the Western Conference Semifinals.

Everything looks great, then next season, you come back and it levels off because Tyson Chandler gets injured and they aren’t able to recapture that magic. Then he ends up getting traded and Chris Paul gets injured and it takes another dip. Then George Shinn can’t financially sustain the team, and then the NBA basically takes over receivership, so there’s another dip because there’s uncertainty from the players’ perspective, from the fans’ perspective, from the community’s perspective. Nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen with the team.

Then it jumps again this past offseason or last year because even though they’re a 27-win team, they get the No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Davis, who is an obvious budding star.

 

BR: Do the recent injuries and losing hurt any more than normal given that the All-Star Game is coming up in New Orleans?

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

JD: Well, I don’t necessarily know if it hurts. I think that expectations weren’t sky high, but certainly moderately high. You’re talking about a team that won 27 games last year and the hope, obviously, was that they’d maybe jump up to 38, 40 and contend for that No. 8 or No. 7 seed in the West. And even if you don’t get it, at least be in position to challenge over the last few weeks of the season.

Unfortunately, the brass has seen these guys go down with injuries, so now, all of a sudden, you have to readjust your expectations because you can’t realistically expect this team to beat your Oklahoma City’s and your San Antonio’s periodically and things like that. You would hope that they could hold their own against teams that are their caliber, so to speak, and then jump up and get one of those upper-tier teams from time to time, but those upper-tier teams that are extremely talented. And if they don’t have the same problems that you do, that tilts the scale even more so.

I would assume that the management is not necessarily disappointed, but maybe the word I might use would be wishful. You just wonder what would happen or what could happen if you had all your pieces intact.

 

BR: How does the excitement in the community for Anthony Davis compare to what Chris Paul evoked when he was first establishing himself as a star?

JD: I don’t think that it’s quite the same. I think Anthony’s budding into it. Chris was immediately the Rookie of the Year. Not only that, but by the time Chris actually really got to New Orleans—because his first couple years, the team was half Oklahoma City’s, it was after Hurricane Katrina—so when he came to New Orleans for those few games, everybody kind of liked him, loved him. But once the team moved back permanently, then it was more like a full-blown love affair because it was like, “Okay, now the conquering heroes are coming home.” You see them with rose petals and those kinds of things.

I think AD’s reception hasn’t been quite like that, but then again, Chris already had a couple years in the league before he was back, before he came back full-time, and he was really a full-blown star by the time he came back, whereas AD came in, missed some games last year with injuries. You could see the potential. You could see what he’s going to become, but he’s not the full-blown star that Chris was when Chris started full-time, but I think he’s going to get to that point.

But, again, Chris was a full-blown star. Chris was personable—and AD really is a personable guy once you get to know him. He seems shy, but he’s a funny kid. He’s 20 years old and he’s got a lot of kid qualities to him, but Chris is one of those guys who just can fit into any situation, and AD’s kind of learning that. He’s 20 years old and he’s learning that, whereas Chris, if you tried to plan a guy, he’d be the guy you plan to build a franchise around, to build a brand around. He’d be that guy, so AD’s kind of learning the ropes in that. Even though Chris left college early, he was one of those rare guys who was mature beyond his years and really grounded, and he was a ready-made star when he stepped into the NBA.

 

BR: How much of a difference in reception between the two in New Orleans comes down to their different roles on the court, with Anthony working off the ball and Chris always having the ball?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

 

JD: For the people who are genuine basketball fans, they understand that what AD does is actually probably as difficult, if not more. Chris came in and obviously played one of the more difficult positions in the league as a rookie and really blossomed immediately at point guard. But AD, what he does, as you said, it doesn’t require the ball, so he has to work at it, and he’s a work in progress. And even while he’s a work in progress, he can get 20 and 10 per game. He’s a rare talent, and so I think the more that fans see him and they recognize how high a skill level he has and how much it requires him to do what he does, gain a better appreciation for him. You see him at the schools with kids now and they understand who he is and, for the most part, they understand and appreciate.

But it’ll take a minute because, again, like I said, I kind of reflect on Chris, but, the more I think about it, he did have two prior years where the team was relocated temporarily to Oklahoma City, but he was able to really kind of build up a fanbase back here, even though he wasn’t here because folks saw him. They saw him representing New Orleans. They loved everything about him, and he always had great things to say about the city. By the time he got back here and we had the All-Star Game, he was a superstar by then.

AD has had that two-year buildup to get to be a superstar. It was great when the Pelicans ended up with the ping pong ball because the fans were really giddy. It was great in terms of drumming interest back up because everybody saw hope for the future. The consensus on that draft was that if there was a star in that draft, it was going to be Anthony Davis. He hasn’t disappointed one bit from that standpoint. He has drawn his fair share of support, and fans here have been pretty much behind him.

 

BR: How does the feeling around the organization now compare to what it was two or three years ago, when it was owned by the NBA and Chris Paul was pushing for a trade and things seemed a bit bleaker?

JD: Well, I think it’s much more hopeful now. I think everybody understands now that, again, you have direction. Not that the NBA didn’t provide direction, but you need that one person to be able to answer to, one person pulling the trigger, and you need to be able to do things for the long-term benefit of the organization.

You talk to people around the NBA and they recognize that, okay, this team really, if you look at it, has a young point guard at an affordable price in Jrue Holiday. It’s got a power forward, Anthony Davis, who’s going to be a superstar. You’ve got a shooting guard, Eric Gordon, who, when he’s healthy, was one of the top guys, one of the budding guys at his position, and when he’s healthy, as we’ve seen lately, he can still do some things. You’ve got Tyreke Evans, another young guy at a nice price, who, a couple of years ago, was the Rookie of the Year. And then there’s Ryan Anderson, who’s 25 or 26 years old, he might be the elder statesman on this team in terms of experience. When you mix all those things together, you see a great future for these guys if you 1) stay healthy and 2) keep them together, and everyone’s under contract so that shouldn’t be a problem, and 3) get them to gel together.

It’s almost just a matter of time. You feel like there will be a significant jump if they can all get on the court together at the same time for an extended period of time.

 

BR: Do you feel like this is the team that could finally cement pro basketball’s place in New Orleans and, perhaps, turn New Orleans into a basketball town?

JD: Yes, because what happens is, if all these guys are under contract and they’re all healthy—one out of two right now—they have some guys who can grow together and who can be together. That way, now when you start a string and you get consistency in terms of making the playoffs, that’s when your fanbase, to me, truly grows.

I mean, we’re talking about New Orleans. Let’s be frank: The Saints have New Orleans’ heart, so you’re trying to carve out your own niche, and the best way to carve out your niche is to put W’s on the board, and when the Pelicans have been successful is when they’ve received the most support. This season has been wonderful in terms of support, but a lot of that was built on the fact that you came in with a young guy and a young team, and people believe that this team was probably going to be able to contend for the playoffs.

But if they can hold them together and they can stay healthy, then this core should be together for seasons. And if you have a core like this, kept together for seasons, they should be able to get into the playoffs, and that should certainly drum up even more support than they have right now. And that’s where it all starts. If you’re a consistent contender, then now you’ve got something that you can really, really sell and really stick to.

 

BR: What’s the relationship like between the Pelicans and the Saints in New Orleans, especially being under the same ownership?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
Mickey Loomis (L) and Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson

 

JD: Well, I think that’s been beneficial. Basically, the training facilities for both teams are within a stone’s throw of each other. I don’t know how much interaction the players actually get with one another, but I know that it’s pretty routine to look up at a Pelicans game and see a handful of Saints players.

When you’re talking about leadership, Mickey Loomis, the general manager of the Saints, he’s pretty much the general manager and overseer of both organizations, so you’ve got some cross-interest there. Dennis Lauscha, the president of the Saints, is also the president of the Pelicans, so, again, you’ve got some cross-interest there. The resources that’ve been used to sort of put the Saints in the right direction and string them out over the years, since Tom Benson’s owned them, some of those same resources and some of those same thinkers and leaders are in place to help get the Pelicans on the right track and get them on the track to consistency—hopefully the same consistency that the Saints have had since 2006.

 

BR: What’s Tom Benson been like as an owner?

JD: From my knowledge, working at the paper before I came and worked for the organization, he’s generally been a hands-off owner. He will hire his people, and they will do the football and basketball decisions, and he will trust that those decisions are the right ones to be made. From everyone you talk to, those are the owners that most people love to work for: guys that will hire you and let you do your job, and he’s done that with the Pelicans.

 

BR: Do you get the sense that Tom Benson wouldn’t have gotten involved if David Stern hadn’t brought him into the bidding?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

 

JD: Well, I don’t know if he was looking to buy a basketball franchise. I mean, I don’t know if anybody’s looking to spend $340, 50, 60 million on a team. I don’t know if commissioner Stern made a personal appeal to him, but certainly, I don’t know if he was looking to buy a franchise. I think maybe there were some feelers put out to some to say, “Hey, how do you feel about this? Look over these numbers and look at the franchise and tell us how you feel about this” because, again, I don’t know if he was looking to own an NBA franchise, but I think once he looked at it, and I know he’s given his wife Gale credit for kind of saying, “She thought this was a good idea, so we went ahead and did it.”

 

BR: What was the reaction in the community once the news broke that Tom Benson was going to buy the team and keep it in New Orleans?

JD: It was universally well-accepted. I don’t know who could’ve or would’ve had a problem with it if you’re talking about solidifying the franchise’s future and you’re talking about ensuring that it stays in New Orleans and all those things. I mean, he was the guy who was willing to step up to the plate and buy the team, and he was the guy who was willing to put up the money to buy the team, so I don’t know that there could be any objections to him buying it. If there were any objections, I didn’t hear them.

 

BR: What sort of foundation was there for pro basketball in New Orleans when the Hornets first arrived, considering that there hadn’t been pro basketball in New Orleans since 1979?

JD: They rallied to the cause. They sold the requisite season tickets. They already had an arena in place that was, if not basketball-ready, could be made basketball-ready pretty quickly. They did all the due diligence to be able to piece it together.

 

BR: Is there any lingering connection between the Jazz and New Orleans?

Dick Raphael/Getty Images
Pete Maravich (No. 44)

 

JD: All the diehard fans surely remember. Nobody’s forgotten Pistol Pete. His jersey, his number’s on the Wall of Fame in the Superdome and his jersey hangs in the arena. He’s the guy who popularized basketball in New Orleans and maybe you could say popularized it in Louisiana from his days at LSU. He was one of the historic figures in basketball, college and pro, so yes, to have him play here was one of the main drawing cards, one of the reasons basketball was able to survive here in the early years.

When the Jazz left, they pretty much took their history with them to Utah, where Pistol Pete might’ve played a couple of seconds and had his jersey retired there also. They kind of took everything with them.

 

BR: How important was Chris Paul to cementing the Hornets as a fixture in New Orleans?

JD: He made them fun to watch. He made them a contender. Even though they didn’t get to the playoffs his first couple of years, you saw what could happen. When you get that kind of hope and you get that kind of direction and you get that kind of a player who’s a global-type star, then he can kind of rally everybody to the cause.

 

BR: What was the reaction in the community when the news broke that he wanted out of New Orleans?

JD: People were bitter about. That’s the love-hate relationship between fans and players. I think there was a minority of fans who understood that a guy has a finite amount of time in his career and he wants to pursue a championship, and sometimes it’s not going to happen where a guy plays his entire career in one city. Then there’s the majority who believe that guy’s got to be loyal to the franchise and remain where he is. He’s uplifted the franchise by himself and been able to rally people to come and help him out and do his bidding and play for his team.

A lot of people look at him as being selfish for wanting to go and pursue other opportunities and look for championships other places, and some get bored. It wasn’t LeBron-like hate, but there was some dislike about it, yes certainly, because they felt like they wanted him to stay and they wanted him to play his whole career here, and anybody’s who’s been here in person, certainly you understand what you’re missing if you don’t get a chance to watch him on a nightly basis.

 

BR: What do you think it’ll be like for the people of New Orleans to see him representing the Clippers in the All-Star Game this year?

JD: It’ll be fine. They received him warmly when he came back playing for the Clippers the first year. There was a nice video montage. True fans understand. He played six years in New Orleans. He gave New Orleans six great years, six All-Star-caliber years, MVP-level years. Even if they don’t like the fact that he’s not here anymore, they understand and appreciate what he brought to the city and what he was here, so there was a nice salute to him and nobody was booing him like he was the villain or anything. They appreciated what he brought.

 

BR: How are the people taking to the Pelicans nickname?

JD: Here, everybody understood it. It’s the national perception that, for some reason, people have kind of gone overboard about it and the mascot and this, that and the other. But, I mean, once the significance of the Pelican is explained and what ownership was saying was, “Look, we’re trying to grab a symbol and a mascot that’s more attuned to what New Orleans is all about."

Once it was explained here, everybody kind of said, “Oh, okay, I understand.” Once they were explained the whole color scheme and the entirety of it, everyone understood. But, you know, nationally, they just see Pelicans and it’s like, “Oh, it’s a joke.” To me, you win and everything is everything. You win games and people don’t necessarily care what your nickname is. They don’t care if you’re the Heat or the Thunder or the Knickerbockers or anything like that. People don’t care that there are no lakes in L.A. They don’t care that the Lakers moved from Minneapolis. They just care that the Lakers win, so I think it’ll pretty much be the same thing here once they’re winning significantly.

 

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