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The hard knock life of New Orleans Pelicans fans

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In the Cyborg Anthony Davis era, staff writers Zachary Junda and Jonathan Harvey discuss the state of team fandom.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis has tallied 35.8 points, 12.5 boards, 2.5 blocks, 2.2 steals per game in the first 11 home games of the season.
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

So far this season I have covered the team twice as a credentialed media member and spectated twice as a fan. I covered the home opening loss (0-1) to the Denver Nuggets, then brought my Dad Pappy —I call him Paps— who had visited that weekend to witness the new and fully operational Death Star (0-2) from the San Francisco Bay two days later.

Paps is no basketball junky. Though he knows little about Xs and Os, he appreciates the fine nuances of “muscle guys” and exciting short, springy guards.

During the game, we had an interaction that went a little something like this:

Paps: I don’t get it, are these Pels good?

Me: I think it depends on your definition of good. I would be impressed if they made the playoffs.

[Tim Frazier tumbles by Steph Curry, punches in a layup, starts yapping in Steph’s grill.]

Paps: Oh! The little guy got it! Is HE good?

Me: Yea, he’s playing really well to start the season.

Paps: I can see that! [Proceeds to ask me roughly 45 burning questions about Fat Cal after re-aquatinting himself with The Brow as he had been on pace to finish the night with 45 points]. So then why don’t the Pelicans win much?

I started railing off between ten to twenty different problems and excuses for the team’s lack of success over the last two seasons: Injuries, Omer Asik’s hands, a lack of recent drafted players currently on the active roster (two: Anthony Davis and Buddy Hield), a lack of facilities and market for top free agents, Omer Asik’s hands, a lack of fan engagement, the owner splitting time between two professional franchises, Omer Asik’s hands two more times, and an evident lack of direction.

I later realized he processed little, as he asked several followup questions about how “the uncoordinated center” does not shower after games.

It then occurred to me that more than half the stadium had been repping the Warriors, and the most vocal home crowd of the season had barely been cheering for the home team. I sighed.

The next week I covered the overtime gut punch to the Phoenix Suns, the Pelicans sixth straight loss to open the season. The crowd had been engaged until the end. I watched as Anthony Davis sadly slumped into his chair in the locker room as he fielded questions he genuinely did not seem to know how to answer. I tried to stare at his head long enough for him to realize I’d be open to giving him a hug mid-interview, but I don’t think he received my telepathic message, and started to seriously wonder if he was a cyborg because—well, what else would explain our disconnect?

Between poorly timed night classes and the Thanksgiving holiday, it took a whole 28 days for me to step back into The Blender. I saw the Los Angeles Clippers as a fan for the cheapest tickets a man could buy, and figured fans would feel uplifted, maybe even reenergized after Jrue Holiday’s return. After all, New Orleans was strutting a 7-4 record since starting the season 0-8.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans won four games in a row after Jrue Holiday returned to the court Nov 11. Holiday missed the first 12 games of the season, and the Pelicans went 2-10 in his absence.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Last Friday I felt like I had spectated from an entirely different stadium than a month ago. A top Western Conference team came to the building, and relatively few Clipper fans could be heard. Chris Paul was in the building, an eery reminder that another superstar could leave the city after several meh seasons. I took the opportunity to experience the game in different sections of the upper ring, bouncing around to different spots to fully engulf myself in The Anthony Davis Cyborg Fan-Experience.

What I noticed most of all: fans knew Davis, and cared about very little beside him. That didn’t surprise me. It just felt as though everyone had cared more about the Star Wars themed promotions, than engaging in a sporting event. Polarizingly different than a Saints game next door (we will get to this later). The only ounce of care I noticed was a lackluster “WE WANT BUDDY” cheer after the No. 6 pick in the draft still had yet to see the floor at the six minute fourth quarter juncture in a lost game. (7-13).

It’s as if fans have come to grips with expectations of this team. Davis would entertain them; maybe Frazier, Jrue Holiday and Terrence Jones would swoon them while the thought of Buddy bucketing might tickle them, the demand for higher basketball play did not seem present. Though the Pelicans Twitterverse calls for major institutional shake ups frequently, the fans at the game surely weren’t vocal about it.

I felt a clear disconnect from fans Friday. Have you felt the same?

Junda:

Oh yeah, it’s bad. I was also at the Golden State game with one of my managers at work... I mean I don’t fraternize with my superiors outside of work that’s against the rules ha...

Anyway, while I’ve never been to California, that night sure felt like I was in Oakland with all the Warrior fans there. Fans is probably too generous a term, these people all just happened to be wearing Curry and Durant shirseys. My manager — whom I was definitely not hanging out with outside of work — lamented at how the Golden State crowd outnumbered the hometown fans. “I bet they only just started following the team after Durant signed,” he said to someone that definitely wasn’t me. And remember, this was the second game of the season, we hadn’t yet hit that miserable 0-8 start that probably ended the season before it ever really started.

I suppose this is the life of a fanbase for a team that’s never been great in a sport that the state kind of doesn’t care about. When New Orleans loses a franchise player like Chris Paul, nobody really blames him for getting out of town. When they have a player like Anthony Davis obscuring in mediocrity, or worse, all we think is which team is he bolting too when the time comes?

Jonny:

I went to a Saints game for the first time (yell at me in the comments) Sunday against the Lions. Stakes were high. Top guns in the NFC North battled with the box-of-chocolate Sean Payton-coached football team.

A father and son sat behind me in the nosebleeds. The son —maybe six or seven years old— knew everything about the team. His father swore and cursed every time Delvin Breaux didn’t mark his man, and the son basically pleaded with the football gods for Drew Brees to throw it anywhere that wasn’t near Coby Fleener. I think I heard the exasperated phrase, “WHAT ARE WE DOING” from both of them. The “we” in the plead stood out to me.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

But then a strange interaction in the second quarter surprised me more than the in-game play by play and color analysis. The interaction went something like this:

[Graphic labeled “Joe Horn 2000-2006” flashes on the SuperDome screen]

Cajun-sounding Father: Ah, Joe Horn. Everyone remembers his famous cellphone touchdown celebration.

[Though I didn’t remember it, I imagined he meant something like this. Though the amount of Joe Horn celebration videos lack on YouTube. C’mon Joe Horn-touchdown-celebration-nerds, we know you’re still out there. ]

Six-year-old child: Oh, yea absolutely I ‘member it was this goal post. [Points to the near endzone]

Dad who existentially questions time and space momentarily: Now son, how do you remember that touchdown? You weren’t even born!

Son who suddenly sounded like a 67-year-old Brooklyn Dodgers fan: Of course it was this goal post, I know it.

But you know what? Somehow, I believed the kid. I didn’t care if he couldn’t have been alive, I knew he knew what he was talking about. Whether an old cajun ghost momentarily took over his body, or if the kid had been made at Westworld and his programmed backstory made no sense, I could tell he “remembered” because he cared. The amount of pride this child felt for knowing Saints’ facts kept him sane throughout Sundays loss.

I can generally tell the collective vibe of a fanbase by sitting in nosebleeds — Though I’d never been to a football game where every fan reacted almost the exact same way to each play. I had underrated the dedication of Saints fans because my New Orleans experience has been covering Tulane Athletics and the Pelicans.

I left the stadium with five minutes remaining in a conceivably non-winnable 28-13 Lions stomping. Many walked out with me, though more than I anticipated stayed in their seats. As I walked down to the exit ramp, a fan repeatedly called out to those exiting, “FAIR WEATHER FANS! ALL OF YOU. FAIR WEATHER FANS!” At no time throughout my experiences in New Orleans have I felt such raw fandom.

Saints fans have expectations for the level of play they want to see on the field. Period. Success brings the city together. People wear Saints’ gear to church. It’s as if the fans give the team power. Oh, jeez: No wonder Mondays after a loss feel so gloomy!

It’s clear to me how Saints fans feel about their team. Winning is an essential part of this cities’ culture, and evidently important. What is important to Pelican fans? Winning? Transparency? Development? Entertainment? Does anyone know? Is the occasional cyborgian highlight all fans want?

But most importantly, does this even matter? Are we reading too much into this? Are we even asking the right question? SOMEBODY HELP ME FEEL SOMETHING.

Junda:

Thanks for not spoiling any Westworld for me. I haven’t started yet, but I’ve heard great things.

I wish there was something I can relate this particular Anthony Davis season to. A guy on a losing team is putting up out-of-this-world type of numbers but all it does is make national people wonder why the team isn’t winning more if this guy is putting up these numbers.

Oh wait, this was literally what happened last year at LSU when Ben Simmons was walking around on campus.

So a little bit of backstory to set the scene: I was in the school band so I got to travel with the men’s basketball team a few times. When the 2014-15 team went to the NCAA Tournament, I was lucky enough to be on that trip to Pittsburgh where we totally blew it against NC State. That LSU team was good, but I remember talking to some of the guys in the hotel after we had just lost and we felt that next year’s team would be good enough to make it to the Final Four.

Well, next season comes around: Simmons and some other hyped up recruits are enrolled and LSU’s ranked in the preseason for the first time since 2009. Leonard Fournette’s sensational sophomore season hadn’t yet face-planted, and there was legitimate conversation that LSU had the best football player and basketball player in country on campus at the same time.

The PMAC was electric the first few weeks of that season. Everyone knew how good Ben Simmons was. We knew he wasn’t going to be in Baton Rouge long so we were making the most of his one season at LSU. The Tigers played a bunch of nobodies to start the season and the Deaf Dome was full despite the level of competition. Games against Kennesaw State and North Florida are just as full as when Kentucky and Buddy Hield’s Oklahoma Sooners came to town. It was an awesome couple of weeks, it was like LSU was back in the Shaq days.

So what went wrong?

LSU didn’t win.

LSU landed the most talented basketball prospect since Kevin Durant and couldn’t make the NCAA Tournament. Hell, they couldn’t even make the NIT if you can believe that.

Flash forward to today and Simmons is gone, the fans aren’t showing up and LSU is picked to finish 13th in the conference. But don’t worry, Johnny Jones is still head coach.

Isn’t this pretty much the same thing that Pelican fans are dealing with currently? A once-in-a-generation star trying to carry a roster not nearly as talented as him to victory with a coach who looks in over his head and a fanbase that’s barely paying attention?

What does a typical Pelicans fan want? They want a reason to care. Anthony Davis is great, but what good is having him when you’re on the cusp of making it four years out of five missing the playoffs with the Brow? A movie starring Leonardo Dicaprio and your high school drama club isn’t going to win Best Picture and the Pelicans aren’t going to win a title with Anthony Davis and a bunch of average/below average dudes.

I feel like with the Saints winning their Super Bowl, it was one of the worst things to ever happen for the Pelicans franchise because now everyone thinks, “well the Saints were losers for 40 years, why can’t the Pelicans do the same?” It’s like if you’re a younger sibling and your older brother screwed around in high school but got a 36 on his ACT and now suddenly your parents expect you to do the same.

Jonny:

I requested to interview Alex Kline, the recently hired Basketball Operations Assistant for the Pelicans. This man created a renowned online —for lack of a better word—database for high school basketball recruiting, founded an extremely charitable fundraiser for cancer research, and has been on Forbes’ 30 under 30 all before graduating out of Syracuse last year.

When I heard that the Pelicans hired him I had three sequential reactions:

Wait, they hired who, as what now?

Why are we not best friends?

What in the Angry Wave would he help the Pelicans with?

The interview request had been denied. Unfortunately Pelicans team policy rarely permits members in administration to have formal interviews with the media.

This is an interview with his former school that Kline retweeted on his Twitter account weeks after my request.

Q. What does your position entail?

A. I love my job. I help with various aspects of the daily basketball operation and am fortunate to be working in my dream field right out of college.

Yes, he did just say his role as Basketball Operations Assistant is “operations.”

No, there was no further explanation what that entails.

That’s like when your teacher asks the class to define a word, and that one student uses the word in the definition. The ultimate cop-out.


SB Nation has a fan-skewed narrative. The Bird Writes clearly targets the die-hard Pelicans fans on this blog. I felt like the fans got slighted by not getting to learn about what actions the organization has taken to promote a clear direction. That’s transparency.

From coaching fires, to coaching hires, legitimate medical staff concerns, Omer Asik’s hands, the bitter family lawsuit drama that has lasted almost two years, bottom tier fan attendance numbers, an ill-defined strategy and path to attract top level NBA talent, and Omer Asik’s hands, transparency to fans has been almost non-existent.

Junda:

Ahh, I’m glad you mentioned the family lawsuit drama.

I hate that the Pelicans are trying to force a championship before Old Man Benson kicks the bucket. Championships are too hard, too catch-lightning-in-a-bottle-y. There’s so much that goes into getting lucky enough to win a title not counting all the, you know, actually being good enough to win one. Remember the Robert Meachem play against Washington the year the Saints won Super Bowl XLIV?

How many time does something like that happen? I’d bet 99 times out of 100 Kareem Moore is either touched down, tackled or doesn’t make the catch. But for Moore to make the catch, land on top of two guys, not be touched down, get up and have the ball stripped by Meachem who then runs it in for a touchdown? I mean how couldn’t have 2009 been the year for the Saints? They had the talent and they had dumb luck plays like that.

Winning a title is kind of like comedy: you can’t force either, it has to happen naturally. The Pelicans have moved well past “spending money to make money,” they’re throwing a whole bunch of shit against the wall and seeing if something sticks.

The Benson family and Dell Demps are trying to build a championship contending team around Anthony Davis. And it’s the reason why the franchise is in the mess they’re in currently.