It happens almost every year. Pundits, podcasters and sportswriters start spreading rumors that the New Orleans Pelicans franchise is on the verge of packing its bags and moving to another city. The reasons are always the same. The fan base “on the bayou” is weak. The market is too small. The lease on the Smoothie King Center runs out soon. The Benson operation can only handle one professional sports team. Louisiana is football country.
There was chatter of relocation last year after the Pelicans flamed out in the Orlando bubble. New Orleans had high hopes for a late season comeback, but for Alvin Gentry, Disney World is apparently where dreams go to die. He was fired shortly thereafter and replaced with Stan Van Gundy. Then, after Van Gundy’s embarrassingly short tenure as head coach, and whiffs of unhappiness from Zion Williamson’s camp (but not Zion himself), the pundits performed their annual ritual, making baseless claims that the Pelicans were set to evacuate.
To be perfectly clear, there haven’t been any statements from the organization to suggest a franchise move. There haven’t been any named or unnamed sources attributed to these rumors. The reason they regurgitate this nonsense year after year is because they think basketball doesn’t belong in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Sadly, when it comes to attention-seeking predictions about the Pels’ imaginary departure, this year is no different. Just two months ago, there were “reports” that the New Orleans Pelicans franchise faces “existential implications” going into the 2021-22 season. This is in spite of the fact that Gayle Benson has repeatedly expressed her commitment to the franchise.
The popular opinion is that the Pelicans are an afterthought. That the Pelicans exist in the shadow of the Saints. This is football country, where the Saints are a religion, and every Saturday people sit on the edge of their seats, giddy with excitement, waiting for Ed Orgeron to utter the words, “Go Tigers”. No one is arguing that basketball is more popular than football, including me. But the notion that Louisiana has no basketball pedigree runs counter to the state’s history.
One could argue that second to James Naismith — the inventor of basketball — the most important figure in basketball history is Bill Russell. Russell was born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934. Although his family moved to San Francisco when he was a young boy, his ties to Louisiana are central to his identity. When Russell was born, there was a well-known educator in Baton Rouge who would later become president of Southern University. His name was Felton Clark. Bill Russell’s full name is William Felton Russell, his middle name given to him by his mother as a constant encouragement to strive for a college education. Russell earned his B.A. from The University of San Francisco, then competed in the 1956 Olympics where he led the U.S. to an 89-55 gold medal victory over the Soviet Union before joining the Boston Celtics.
In 1957, Russell’s rookie season, the Celtics played the St. Louis Hawks in the NBA Finals. This was Russell’s first Finals appearance, but not Boston’s. The team had made it there several times under Bob Cousy’s leadership but never prevailed due to lack of size at the center position. At one point, the 5’8’’ Cousy led the team in rebounds. This was an era in which 7’1’’ Minneapolis Laker, George Mikan – the original big man – ruled the league. Deficiency in size during the Mikan era was a death sentence so Celtics coach, Red Auerbach, brought in Bill Russell. Auerbach had never seen Russell play basketball (not even on tape), but Celtics forward Tommy Heinsohn vouched for him. Heinsohn testified to Auerbach that Russell once blocked every single one of his shots in a college tournament. Russell, they hoped, would be the answer to their rebounding problems. As it turns out, he was so much more. He would become an 11-time NBA champion, a civil rights leader and the first African American head coach in the NBA. But first, there were the 1957 Finals.
The series went to seven games. The final contest could have gone to triple overtime. Boston was ahead by a point with several seconds left on the clock in the second overtime period when Bob Cousy was fouled. He went to the line and made the first shot. Now he had a chance to put the Celtics up by three points (at a time when there was no 3-point line in the NBA). The second free throw attempt? Airball. Now the Hawks had a chance to force another extra period. Only problem: there were only a couple of seconds on the clock and they had to inbound the ball from under their own basket. So Hawks player/coach Alex Hannum drew up an outrageous play in which he would throw a pass the length of the court and ricochet the ball off the backboard into the hands of a Hawks player who would be standing at the free throw line, poised to sink the game-winning basket. Hannum took the ball from the ref at the baseline, threw it the length of the court, bounced it off backboard and placed it in the hands of a Hawks player. The Hawks player shot a wide open mid-range shot … but missed. Boston won its first title, launching an unparalleled dynasty. The player who missed the final shot for the Hawks? Baton Rouge native and LSU alumni, Bob Pettit.
Pettit’s career was hardly defined by that one unfortunate moment. He was an icon in the formative stages of the game, famous not only for his skill but his toughness. At one point, he played with a cast on his arm which he used to bludgeon opponents. He split his eye open during another contest and asked the doctor, “What if this gets split open again?” The doctor replied, “I’ll sew you up again!” He was a champion, an MVP, an All-Star and his jersey hangs in the rafters of the Hawks’ arena. His face will not be found on basketball’s Mount Rushmore, but it is chiseled in the nightmares of everyone who played against him.
Pettit graduated from LSU in 1954. He was a first team All-American. His senior year he averaged 17.3 rebounds and set an LSU record of 31.4 points per game. That record seemed unbreakable until a skinny kid, who legendary Times-Picayune sportswriter, Peter Finney, once referred to as “the sad-eyed Serbian,” arrived in Baton Rouge. They called him Pistol Pete.
Pete Maravich was an icon for countless boys growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, who emulated him by growing a floppy, Beatles-like haircut and allowing their tube socks to fall down at the ankles and bunch up on top of their Converse All-Stars. He was an artist and a magician. The basketball was a mere extension of his hand — he could do whatever he wanted with it. In fact, his ball-handling tricks were so mesmerizing that they often upstaged his scoring ability. After four years at LSU, Pistol averaged 44.2 points per game, setting a NCAA record which has never been broken.
Pistol went on to play for the New Orleans Jazz, a franchise that was unceremoniously moved to Utah despite having a passionate and rapidly growing fanbase in Louisiana. (As we all know, “Utah Jazz” is an oxymoron and balance in the basketball universe will never be restored until the name is returned to its natural habitat, but that’s for a different story.) After moving to Utah, Pete Maravich was never the same. He retired, disappeared from public life for several years, and then reemerged a born-again Christian. In January of 1988, Maravich was in California playing a pickup basketball game with Evangelical leader, James Dobson, when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 40 years old.
Without a doubt, Pete Maravich would have been impressed with what was about to happen at his alma mater. LSU Coach Dale Brown had successfully recruited a 7’1’’ army brat named Shaquille O’Neal. LSU became a top contender in the NCAA with O’Neal, and Coach Brown guided the future Hall of Famer to an Associated Press College Player of the Year award, but their relationship went much deeper than basketball.
In 1991, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke was the Republican candidate for Governor in Louisiana. Duke wanted to make a campaign stop on LSU’s campus which prompted controversy around whether or not the school should allow him to speak. Shaq, unaware of who David Duke was, much less the controversy surrounding his visit, was asked by a reporter if he would object to Duke’s presence on campus. Shaq responded with indifference and David Duke bragged publicly about Shaq’s statement, disingenuously representing it as a show of support. Once Shaq realized who David Duke was, he was despondent. It was at this point that Shaq realized he had more than just a basketball coach in Dale Brown. Brown told the administration that if they allowed David Duke on campus, he would tell Shaquille O’Neal and the rest of the LSU basketball team to transfer to another school. He wasn’t bluffing and David Duke was not invited to speak. Today, a giant bronze statue of Shaquille O’Neal stands in front of LSU’s practice facility, and many include Shaq’s face on basketball’s Mount Rushmore.
Louisiana basketball players can be many things. They can be big, tough and hardnosed like Karl Malone, Willis Reed and Elvin Hayes, or they can be graceful and mesmerizing like Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. They can be founding fathers, like Bill Russell and Don Chaney or trailblazers like Teresa Weatherspoon. The state has contributed some of the all-time greats. It is home to some of basketball’s most powerful stories. And it should remain home for the New Orleans Pelicans.
It would be one thing if Gayle Benson had ever indicated interest in selling the team, but she has always done the opposite. Predictions of the team’s departure are inspired by a bias that New Orleans, Louisiana, is a bad place for an NBA franchise. But when you look at the richness of Louisiana’s basketball history, there is ample justification for a bright future. So, for the sake of our franchise, our new coach, our players and ourselves, let’s rise up in unison and remind the pundits and the cynics that the New Orleans Pelicans aren’t going anywhere.
Louisiana is basketball country.