Shortly after landing in his new home, Zion Williamson arrived at his new office on Airline Drive and found a gym packed with media and Pelicans employees. None of them seemed to mind that he was over an hour late, as they welcomed him to the family with a standing ovation.
The first word of Zion's introductory press conference went to Gayle Benson. In her role at the presser, she reenacted her contributions to the franchise's recent facelift.
Benson opened with a written statement, thanking the fans on Fulton street, praising David Griffin, Zion, and his family, and paraphrasing a comment Saints DE Cam Jordan made to The Ringer: "if you genuinely love New Orleans and learn to experience this city, it will love you back many times over," she said.
She kicked off the press conference just as she ignited an organizational overhaul by firing Dell Demps and hiring Griffin. Walking back to her seat, Benson affectionately rubbed Zion's shoulders and sat in silence for the rest of the conference, just as she stepped aside to let Griffin stock the front office and medical staff and make basketball decisions unimpeded.
Benson's presence was a welcome sight, an affirmation of ownership's renewed commitment to the Pelicans' side of Airline Drive.
Before Griffin stepped to the podium, copying Benson, he patted Zion's broad shoulders, maybe to show warmth and replicate familial interactions, maybe to test his shoulders' capacity to carry the weight of a franchise.
Griffin is a strong communicator whose eloquence is effortless. He usually wears a steely countenance but does not hide his emotions, such as when he excitedly grabbed the phone from Alvin Gentry to speak with Zion minutes after the first pick was announced in a video posted on Pelicans' social media, or when he claimed to have teared up watching Zion's emotional interview with his mother, Sharonda Anderson, or when he laughed with the crowd at the presser after a few of Zion's quips.
Griffin's commanding presence reinforces his reputation as a respected basketball mind. His flashes of emotion allow him to connect with his staff and build a strong culture and a family within the team.
The most striking aspects of the evening were the stark differences between the Pelicans of old and today's team, from Benson's commitment to Griffin's leadership.
But perhaps the most memorable moment of the press conference was one that was seemingly unscripted. As the crowd began to disperse, Zion's stepfather, Lee Anderson, stood at the podium and fought through tears to address the assembly.
"I'd like to take this moment just to say thank you to the city of New Orleans. Mrs. Benson, Mr. Griffin, Coach Gentry, masters of ceremony today, we are thrilled to death," he said. "Zion and I had this conversation about playing in New Orleans before the lottery. Nobody in the world knew that, but we had this conversation. I'm so thankful I told him then that I thought, this city would be a great place to go and God worked it out. So, on behalf of my family, I just want to say thank you to all of you who had anything to do with it and Zion's stay in this city will be well worth it."
Anderson's speech was another welcome sight.
Anthony Davis, on the other hand, was not happy in New Orleans. His trade request caused Pels fans to question if any superstar could find contentment in the Crescent City.
Zion's embrace of the city is consistent with his previous actions, from his decision to stay at a small high school rather than join an elite basketball factory, to his determination to return to the floor for Duke after spraining his knee, risking further injury and his concrete status as the first overall pick. He was raised to be loyal, to accept the hand he's been dealt, and to make the most of it.
Zion's attitude contrasts with that of Davis and his new teammate LeBron James, who began the decade by launching the league's era of player empowerment and ended it by taking the era to its current peak with the Davis trade. A small market team failed to build a contender around Davis, so he joined forces with James and his super-agent Rich Paul of Klutch Sports to drain his own trade market, leaving the L.A. Lakers and James as the only suitor for Davis's talents. Klutch clients are proud to act only in their own self interests, using their power and leverage to control their own destiny and work where they want to.
Zion, on the other hand, seems content riding the waves of his destiny. James and Davis likely deem his outlook youthful and naive, one that he will eventually grow out of.
Is Zion's thinking antiquated? Can he reach his full earning potential in a small market? It's hard to find a more marketable athlete than Zion, so it'd be a shame if a tiny market inhibited the growth of his public profile. After all, he is only 18 years old. His bright smile could harden as he advances in age, and his time in the Big Easy could be merely a layover for a star of his caliber in search of broader marketing and business opportunities.
The Pels fans who bore oppressive heat and humidity to cover every inch of Fulton Street the night of the draft did not seem to harbor these burning questions. After all, Zion will be a Pelican for at least seven years, and they seem to trust Benson and Griffin to build a team that Zion wants to play for during that time.
As ESPN's Marty Smith surfed the crowd during a live shot, they did not feel like fans of a small-market team disrespected by other owners, by some national media coverage, by fellow New Orleanians, and by its brightest stars on their way out of town.
They did not seem to care that Klutch sports shrunk Davis's trade market, pulling players off the table who are sharper shooters than Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, who will struggle to provide space for Zion in his rookie year.
Like the press conference, the party on Fulton Street was different.
It was a joyful gathering to celebrate the arrival of a superstar who embodies the city he now calls home in his loyalty, in his love of family, in his fun, happy, carefree personality.
As the draft rolled along and the crowd thinned, a man old enough to remember when Pistol Pete Maravich dazzled crowds in the Superdome played a saxophone down Fulton.
There was a time not too long ago when, had he blown his horn in the Smoothie King Center, its song may have bounced off the walls, echoing through the sparsely populated seats. He would have played a sorrowful melody, lamenting another stain on the franchise in another lost year.
But his horn instead played a joyful tune, rendered faint by the night's commotion and excitement, to welcome Zion with the Big Easy's favorite music, celebrating the dawn of a new era.
Photo Credit: Keenan Hairston, (cropped), source