- - Thursday, May 16, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When I was in New Orleans in late January for a few days, I was struck by the absence of any inkling that the city had an NBA franchise. Nothing — no hats, no T-shirts, no billboards, nothing.

It was as if the New Orleans Pelicans didn’t exist.

That appears to have changed with the bounce of some ping-pong balls.

Tuesday night nearly everyone knew that the New Orleans Pelicans existed when the franchise won the NBA draft lottery with the first pick, paving the way for them to select the savior, Duke superstar Zion Williamson.

ESPN reported that once the city learned it had an NBA franchise, they sold more than 3,000 season ticket packages with the news that Williamson — the biggest basketball star in America not named LeBron James — could be playing for that franchise next season.



It was almost like the second coming of Pistol Pete.

New Orleans‘ basketball history, like the city, has had its moments of fortune and failure.

It began as an expansion franchise in 1974 with the New Orleans Jazz. What soon followed was a trade that the league is believed to have engineered between the Atlanta Hawks and the Jazz to acquire the Big Easy’s favorite basketball son, Pete Maravich, the LSU star who had been drafted by the Hawks in 1970.

Maravich’s best NBA years were in New Orleans. He was an All-Star in four of his five seasons there, and led the NBA in scoring in 1977, averaging 31.1 points per game. He put on a show that was worthy of New Orleans. Back then, everyone knew there was an NBA team in town.

Then the franchise moved to Salt Lake City in 1979. When your NBA franchise moves to Salt Lake City in the 1970s after just six seasons in town, it would appear that professional basketball in New Orleans was a monumental failure.

It wasn’t that simple, though.

During that time, New Orleans‘ attendance was average by league standards — between 11,000 and 13,000 a game for four of their six seasons. In their last season in New Orleans, the Jazz drew about 30,000 fans for games against the New York Knicks, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Los Angeles Lakers.

They hit those numbers because they played those seasons in the Superdome — which turned out to be more a curse than a blessing. Instead of building up a strong season-ticket fan base in their own building, they played in a cavernous, unattractive location for basketball where the landlords treated them like second-class citizens in favor of the No. 1 show in town, the New Orleans Saints.

Ironically, the Saints owners — the Benson family — now own the Pelicans as well.

The Jazz got the home dates that were left after football, boat and car shows and other events. Sometimes the team would be on the road for three weeks.

Even Pistol Pete couldn’t overcome that.

Like most cities that lose sports franchises, New Orleans spent years trying to get the NBA back.

In 1995 they tried to get the Minnesota Timberwolves to move to the city, but the company vying to purchase the franchise went bankrupt before closing the deal. That group was led by former Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz, who was later indicted along with former Louisiana Gov. Eddie Edwards on influence-peddling charges in a case that included the Timberwolves deal.

The city built an arena in 1999 with the hopes of attracting an NBA team, and in 2002, Mayor Ray Nagin convinced Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn to move his team to New Orleans. Nagin is now in federal prison serving a 10-year sentence on bribery and fraud convictions. Shinn sold the team in 2010 to the late Tom Benson, who then changed the name from Hornets to Pelicans in 2013.

In between all that, Katrina came in 2005 and changed the city forever.

The population in the city has dropped from 485,000 in 2002 to 344,000. The Pelicans have still not gained enough traction in town to be a significant part of the fabric of a very closed and very unique community, and last season struggled with a 33-49 record, finishing 25th in attendance, averaging 16,000 per game, amid the drama of its last savior, 2012 top pick Anthony Davis, wanting to get out of town.

Now comes Williamson, the star that the Big Easy has been waiting for to finish the work that Maravich started.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

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