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2018 NBA Playoffs: The day the Pelicans finally became New Orleans’ basketball team

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A weathered and feathered story about the important date of April 19, 2018 in franchise history.

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Since the day Donald Trump became president, Portland native and comedian Megan Amram (writer for Parks and Rec and The Good Place) has religiously sent out the following tweet.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a political post — it is just that for years the Pelicans/Hornets fans that were still clinging to the wreckage of brief moments of basketball fever, bobbing helplessly in a sea of Saints diehard fandom choking on the salty indifference of their friends, families, lovers and coworkers...even their local media — have been waiting for their city to embrace this franchise. After Thursday’s Game 3 sweep eve of a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, I do believe that day was the day that the Pelicans finally became New Orleans’ basketball team.

Initially, when Tom Benson changed the name from the Hornets to the Pelicans, I thought I’d see more Pels gear around town and especially at Port of Call (the bar where I work), but that assumption proved to be false — I’m not sure if it was more of a disinterest in the team or if it was just graphic design faux paus. However, it became very evident that it was overwhelmingly a lack of interest.

On the rare occasions that I don’t take off so I can watch an away game (I always take off for home games), it was often a struggle to keep the Pelicans games on that single TV in the corner of the bar — even as recently as the early parts of this season. I’d get requests for a Monday Night Football game featuring the Ravens and the Texans or some super unsexy matchup like that. If anything LSU was on that was demanded — people will hover around the glow of our single television in the corner like space-hobos around a burning trash can in a disaster sci-fi film set in a dystopian future when anything LSU is on — sometimes a nationally televised NBA game would be requested, but I’ve even been asked to turn off a Pelicans game for American Ninja Warrior, WWE — even curling.

Pelicans gear was scarce, yet an uptick was noticed on the heels of the DeMarcus Cousins trade...but then there was a decline as the team faded down the stretch and was a bit Jekyll and Hyde earlier this season. During the 10-game streak the Pels hats were out in force, but again only the diehards had them during that brief yet painful 4-game collapse. Still, there was an uptick in Pelicans conversation at the bar post-Nikola Mirotic trade. People were excited. Even my general manager, who has always intentionally expressed his distaste for basketball, stopped throwing little playful jabs at me each morning after a loss while I set up the bar and actually wanted to hear about what was going on with the team. He once famously asked, “Who is Chris Paul?” when CP3’s people contacted him about renting out the backroom for a private dinner during last season’s All-Star Weekend. While he claimed to not know who Paul was — my GM now knows the name of the Bird Writes editor — Oleh Kosel — from listening to sports talk radio all day and not tuning out the basketball segments. He makes sure I have the TVs set to auto-switch to the Pelicans games before I leave for the day. Over French Quarter Fest weekend, I saw as much Pelicans gear in the bar in the two days I worked than I had seen combined in the pre-Boogie era of Pelicans basketball. I was feeling a spark in the city, but I hadn’t seen the explosion...until Thursday night.

April 19, 2018: The day the Pelicans finally became New Orleans’ basketball team.

Let’s take a trip through that date through my eyes:

I started it off with a swamp tour to keep my mind off of the game and to appease the girlfriend, who is very much getting neglected right now and these past few weeks if I’m being honest — she’s currently eating popcorn on the sofa and staring at her phone post-having me takeover the living room by hopping on a celebratory The Bird Calls Podcast and now ignoring her to write this. On the tour I may or may not have dabbled in some Cajun-country hocus-pocus involving snapping turtle skulls, baby alligators and a zydeco version of, “The Summer of ‘69.”

Don’t worry, the music discussed in this post is about to get much better, I just needed to make more people know that this existed. Anyway, I polished that experience off with a very New Orleans lunch — 2lbs of boiled crawfish for an appetizer, the best oyster poboy in the city (if I take you there it means I really like you) and a Barq’s red cream soda.

I tried to stay off Twitter, but would glance every once in a while. I was happy to see the excitement over DeMarcus Cousins attending the game, but then I saw a tweet suggesting that he lead a, “Who Dat?!” chant and it bummed me out a little. I get the author’s intent, and I know for a fact that he’s a diehard Pelicans fan — but for me — I’m tired of the Pelicans being the Saints little brothers. Keep all those Saints rituals for Sundays — this team needs and deserves its own unique identity and culture.

Then, while I knew the game was sold out and I expected there to be a great crowd, Twitter continued to try to bum me out — even the network on which I podcast tried to bring me down.

To add to my want for a Pelicans Independence Day — the NFL scheduling gods tried to steal some of the Pels shine by releasing the Saints schedule Thursday afternoon, leading to a citywide sidetrack.

Anyway — just like all of you I’m sure — I was super antsy when I got home. Tried to nap. Couldn’t sleep. Drank way too much coffee — my skin could have been called for traveling. The lady was sleeping like a baby so I fired up the PS4 to play myself into a decisive virtual victory state of calm. It just so happened that the next game in MY Career mode was the the final regular season matchup against Portland in New Orleans — I took this as a great sign. Started off with DJ (my virtual basketball doppleganger) banging two corner threes in transition then tossing a sweet alley-oop to Cousins, whose Achilles is still intact. However, three immediate glitchy turnovers made me turn off the game in case this was some sort of matrix level programming that was going to ruin my night.

After pacing the floor and constantly staring out of my window at the Juan’s Flying Burrito below me, I shoved in the earbuds, hit play on the recent Lowe Post that features much Jrue Holiday love, grabbed my old Pelicans warmup jacket and walked around the neighborhood nodding at fans decked in head-to-toe Pelicans merch — some homemade like the crudely designed hard hat perched on the head of an already wobbly Pels fan — two hours before opening tip. It seemed like even the homeless guy outside of the Rouse’s that once tried to tip me for cashing in his change at the Coinstar for him was rocking fresh as hell gear. Every restaurant in the CBD was filled with blue, red and gold.

On my walk to the arena, I witnessed what would have been a terrible excuse for a tailgate on a Saints’ Sunday, but was probably the first tailgate I had ever seen at a Pelicans game in Lot 3. An hour and a half before tip, the block party outside of the Smoothie King Center was live. The Swoop Troop was leading the crowd in line dances, the Senior Dance Squad was dropping it like it was IcyHot and then the Pelicans drum line did what it always does in the shadow of stilt walkers. There was also a weird table set up where you could touch oppossum hides if you were into that kind of thing (says the person who was recently holding a turtle skull).

As soon as the doors opened, I made my way inside wanting to see the arena empty with all of the red shirts.

The serene scene above would dissolve into madness shortly, but even the quiet seemed to have electricity. I was in attendance for both games in 2015 against Golden State as well as the season finale that year against the Spurs that sent us to the postseason, and while the energy was incredible then, I felt like this was going to be a monumental fan experience.

In 2015, we scraped our way into the playoffs with a team that was totally dependent on Anthony Davis doing everything. We were facing what was clearly a team of destiny. No one was expecting us to make noise — even though we did have a few moments to hang our hats on. This is no knock on the New Orleans crowds then, but it was clear that we were all just happy to be there...even if that happiness would lead to huge expectations going forward — expectations that would not be cashed in until years later when Nikola Mirotic shaved his beard and became a versatile defender who hits shots that are tougher than being a contestant on The Old Game.

Earlier in the season, Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis had clearly established themselves as an elite big/guard combo, but with DeMarcus Cousins down — this team had finally formed an identity that was quickly snatched away — and with Nikola Mirotic struggling, it was hard to have faith that the Pelicans would be able to make any noise in the playoffs if they even made them at all. However, after a great stretch of basketball to close the season — including a season-defining win over the Golden State Warriors — a new identity was forming. We were playing extremely fast basketball while also playing stifling defense, anchored by Jrue Holiday, who went from elite defender to the level above elite defender.

The Pelicans fans got the matchup they wanted — as did the Portland Trailblazers fans who are surely being more careful about what they wish for — a team we felt could be beat if things played out right.

Then came and went Game 1.

We saw a formula for success and had every reason to believe we could steal Game 2 as well — even if I still expected Portland to grab that one. However, following that contest, anyone who was in, “just happy to be here” mode was as rare as, “the Pelicans are a playoff team” predictions from the national media this offseason. Blood was in the water — a boil water ordinance should probably have been in affect for today. Pelicans Island was looking like an all inclusive resort with an 100% off groupon if you hopped on now. Most of us spent the last 48 hours either complaining about or welcoming the national media and local fair-weather fans to the bandwagon.

The diehards felt like they were getting vindication for their years of watching Greivis Vásquez run point or Greg Steimsma do whatever you want to call what he did, but also felt a little like their favorite indie rock band or SoundCloud rapper had just performed on Jay Leno. I remember having that feeling in 1993 — I had ridden from the Westbank in the trunk of my friend’s car that was overfilled to capacity to a record convention in Metairie where I’d grab a promo cassette tape for Green Day’s forthcoming album, “Dookie.” That promo broke my heart with the news that they had left Lookout! Records and signed with a major label. I knew they were no longer my little pop-punk secret — the thought of sharing them with my high school’s football team or the kid that reminded the teacher that she forgot to collect the homework I didn’t do was a real bummer. I was too obsessed with the underground at that age and I didn’t want to lose that connection — the ability to see them in a 200-person capacity venue, or just losing being ahead of the curve on something — however, I believe for those of us who dropped our out of state allegiances as soon as Baron Davis was flinging headbands in celebration in New Orleans it’s good for us to let go of our ownership some and welcome in the basketball hipsters who now want a stake in our squad. It is good for the team and good for the basketball landscape in the city.

While popularity makes accessibility more difficult — I’ll gladly take the success even if it leads to higher ticket prices, waiting lists, or hurdles for credentials and writing in a media market that is suddenly saturated with a lot of new voices from the outside. These Pelicans aren’t a select few’s darlings anymore — they are New Orleans’ team and are one more win away from cementing themselves as professional basketball’s latest Cinderella. The hardest part will be swallowing back the vomit when a newcomer — some Christopher Columbus face mouth ass — tells you a stat that their first day on earth eyes just discovered that you’ve tweeted about, published articles about or just told them about repeatedly when they didn’t care as if they were the first person to discover it. But swallowing back the vitriol is worth it for this team to finally get its due.

But let’s get back to the scene — fans began flowing in around me like I was a tiny, but sturdy tree in an avalanche.

Soon the crowd scattered around like ants whose pile had been stepped on scouring their rows for any shirts smaller than XL. I was lucky enough to already have a medium waiting for me at my chair. Soon a sea of variant colors turned completely red and all conversation turned to basketball analysis and fan-to-fan recaps of the last two games.

Oleh sent me a Twitter DM to look up at section 306 to see him and fellow bird writers and callers Andrew Smith, Trevor Ritchie and David Grubb waving at me. No one was recognizable in all of that red so I waived blindly in that general direction, pretending I saw them.

There was a reluctant moment of silence for Barbara Bush — not due to any political reasons, but even in respectful silence you could hear 17,000 lips humming, trying to hold back some praise for Jrue Holiday’s defense, or how amazing it was that Anthony Davis didn’t even score a point in the 4th of Game 2. Then the Smoothie King Center and the New Orleans Pelicans opened a night that would be filled with the entertainment equivalent of how New Orleans’ my lunch was with the queen of New Orleans’ soul, Irma Thomas performing the National Anthem. I wanted her to slide right into “Ruler of My Heart” but we can’t get everything we want.

The crowd remained on its feet following the anthem as Wendell Pierce had the city foaming at the mouth for player introductions.

It was nearly impossible to stand still. My spine tingled.

By the time the MC got to Anthony Davis, it looked like a scene out of the Netflix Documentary, “Wild Wild Country” a cult draped in red exploding with joy for our guru.

Except this time, the state of Oregon didn’t get what it wanted.

If you are reading this, then you likely know that there’s an old tradition brought over from the days of The Blender being The Hive that requires those in attendance to stand until we score. However, after Nikola Mirotic broke the seal on the basket, we weren’t ready to sit. Some crouched over their seats, others lowered themselves so that they rested on the top of their upright seats ensuring to not put enough pressure for the seats to fold down and others stayed perfectly erect until Damian Lillard answered.

However, everyone quickly sprung up again as Rondo found Mirotic cutting to the rim.

Mirotic’s hands would be all over the first quarter and our hands were as red as our shirts from clapping as a result. Nikola’s freshly shaven face was on sticks — in homage to the classic Peja heads — and were bullet train ushered the length of the court by the Swoop Troop. I don’t think Threekola has missed since the first burn of aftershave.

In the regular season, the crowd would often save its biggest cheers for Pelivision screen footage of Saints players.

Last night, Cam Jordan and Alvin Kamara were drowned out by reacts to oop after oop to Anthony Davis, and every shot of DeMarcus Cousins on the bench.

Speaking of Saints in the building, we even witnessed — a recently confused about the Pelicans color schemes — Bobby Hebert dancing like a madman on the big screen.

For the first time in a long time, New Orleans had a monumental home court advantage.

As the first half drew to a close, the energy was only building as New Orleans was finally getting what it wanted and deserved after years suffering through Benny Grunch and the Bunch Christmas halftime acts and the guy who spins the cubes. The upgrade was installed (sorry to Sweet Crude and your friends and families).

Cash Money Records finally took over the Smoothie King Center for nine-nine and two-thousands nineteen years later.

Better late than never may be a cliche, but it’s time we celebrate the Pelicans in-game production team for getting it right — as well as celebrate those former Kenner Cavs and Westwego Warriors that are now home to roost wearing Pelicans gear. Today was the day that The Pelicans became New Orleans’ basketball team.

The shine of this postseason run and first round performance after so much adversity should pump blood through even the most cynical of hearts.

I can almost understand what my other editor — forgive him, he edits a music/culture/political magazine — is saying in this tweet as I watched my grandfathers live and die on Sundays, but I do believe this team has had enough suffering from concentrate to prove as resilient as the city itself — as if it was the inspiration for a Ronnie Lamarque, “Ronnielogue.”

As the score got out of control and the Meyers Leonard flags were waived and the Jordan Crawford prank victory cigar exploded from the parking garage, the energy never faded. The crowd was still on its feet — and they went into a frenzy when Jrue and AD checked out but yet Jrue frantically urged the crowd to erupt again. They groaned with every Starbage Time dunk from Leonard as if it still mattered. Only a handful of fans left early; practically everyone stayed to the end to celebrate and to cheer. Man, it’s going to be a long time — if ever — I forget those cheers.

On my walk back home, a trombonist got the crowd going again with a solo rendition of “Second Line” using the natural reverb under the rib cage of what was once The New Orleans Center.

Speaking of traditions, it’s time everyone acknowledges the fact that the Pelicans are in the midst of forging an identity: They’re a talented, yet fiercely loyal bunch to one another who is quickly proving they’re better than you on both sides of the ball and will punch you in the mouth if you don’t have your guard up.

  • They have an MVP-caliber player who continually professes his love for the city and his loyalty.
  • They have the best defensive guard in the league who has blossomed into an offensive force.
  • They have a versatile defending big man that hits the toughest of shots, sets up teammates and allows Alvin Gentry to Gentryfy the opponent up and down the court.
  • They have a veteran champion point guard that is playing his best basketball in years.
  • They have the most dominant center in the game, who is rehabbing his leg, when he’s not busy bear-hugging his assistant coaches on the bench and dying to get in the game — a misunderstood and underappreciated star.
  • They have a brilliant coaching staff that has painstakingly molded all of the individual parts into a highly effective machine, who is peaking at the right time and sending chills down the backs of opponents across the league.

The Pelicans no longer deserve to be in the shadow of the Saints and all of the rituals and chants that echo throughout the Superdome, thank you very much. Thursday served as their independence day as they proved they warrant their own individual platform. These are proving to be the best days of New Orleans’ basketball, so the date of Game 3 of the Pelicans-Trail Blazers first round series — April 19, 2018 — will be remembered as the day that the Pelicans finally became New Orleans’ basketball team.