Last season was the most successful season in a decade for the New Orleans Pelicans. Their sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round marked the first time since 2008 that the team had advanced past the opening round of the playoffs.
But Pels fans did not stop watching hoops after their team fell in five games to the eventual champion Warriors. According to ESPN Communications Director Ben Cafardo, New Orleans was the second-highest-rated local market on ESPN during 19 playoff broadcasts in 2018, with a 6.7 metered market rating. The Big Easy’s 6.0 metered market rating also ranked third in 42 playoff broadcasts on TNT, according to NOLA.com.
Only Cleveland, which housed LeBron James and the Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers, and San Francisco, home of the Warriors, registered a higher rating. New Orleans’s ESPN rating was the highest reached since the then Hornets came within one game of the conference finals in 2008.
Our football town was riveted by basketball long after its hometown team was eliminated.
Perhaps the most unexpected news in a season filled with surprises, the ratings raise a compelling question: Is the football town finally ready to embrace its basketball?
The NBA gifted an expansion team, named the Jazz, to New Orleans in 1974. After splitting home games in the Municipal Auditorium and now defunct Loyola Field House in its first season, the team moved into the Superdome in 1975. During their time in the dome, the Jazz never finished above .500, yet still managed to draw crowds.
The magnet for the masses was Pete “Pistol” Maravich, the former LSU star for whom the Jazz sold the farm, acquiring him from Atlanta. The hefty price for a sharpshooter with a tight handle and strong finishing ability was two number one picks, two second-round selections, and the option to swap two other first-rounders with Atlanta. The team’s strategy of mortgaging its future was disparaged, universally deemed a poor recipe for winning games. However, Maravich’s highlights electrified the crowd nearly every night, and the fans supported the team anyway.
In 1975 the Jazz set a new NBA single-game attendance record when 26,511 fans flocked to the dome to see Pistol Pete and the Jazz pitted against the Lakers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The following season, a crowd of 35, 077 shattered the single-game mark when Julius Erving’s 76ers visited New Orleans.
The Superdome finished 1978 eighth out of 22 NBA venues in attendance, as an average of 12,000 fans attended the Jazz’s home contests.
Though Jazz games at the dome provided hoops fans with an adequate venue to enjoy watching NBA stars of the 70s, scheduling conflicts and an 11 percent amusement tax proved detrimental to the team’s ability to remain in the dome long-term. Local ownership folded, and the team was playing in Utah by late 1979.
The Jazz’s five brief years in New Orleans fueled the narrative that there was little room in New Orleans for a professional basketball team. On the contrary, though it was short-lived, the attendance numbers of the Maravich era are proof that New Orleanians will support hoops, if you give them a star. And those impressive attendance numbers were instrumental in the decision by majority owner George Shinn to move his Charlotte Bobcats to New Orleans over 20 years later.
Basketball returned to the Big Easy in 2002. This time, however, the team was named the Hornets and had a venue all to itself: the New Orleans Arena.
After earning a playoff berth, but exiting the postseason in the first round of the team’s first two seasons, the Hornets plummeted in the standings in 2004. The 2005 draft yielded a star on Maravich’s level, point guard Chris Paul.
But the fans would have to wait to see Paul play in New Orleans, as Hurricane Katrina forced the team to move Oklahoma City. After the move, the Hornets surged from last in attendance to 11th, wholeheartedly embraced in Oklahoma. Again, New Orleans basketball was endangered, for many reasoned that the Hornets should remain in a market that valued them and not return to the Saints-obsessed Gulf South. However, the NBA then announced that the team would not only return to NOLA, but host an All-Star Game in 2008.
By the time the Arena was ready for operation, the Hornets were ready to win. Their 56-win season in 2007, led by All-Stars Paul and David West, when the team fell only one game shy of a Western Conference Finals appearance, remains a franchise-best. That successful season prompted the team’s front office and Paul to agree to terms on a 3-year extension. For the first time, a New Orleans basketball team was in contention.
After the return to New Orleans, the team fell to 26th in attendance. The fans rewarded their 56-win season by rising to 19th in 2008, when the Hornets finished a disappointing season with a first-round playoff exit. After a slow start to the following year, head coach Byron Scott was canned, and the media awarded Paul a dreaded title: disgruntled superstar. Attendance fell each year after.
It had been over 20 years since the city had basketball, so generations of fans lived their formative years without local hoops. Reacclimating the Gulf South to basketball was a tall task, and the decision to do so was met with horrendous timing.
It seemed as though Katrina blew the team to Oklahoma City before the paint even dried on the new arena. When the Hornets returned after the storm, they found a fanbase captivated by the sudden, long-awaited success of the Saints in the first couple seasons of the Brees-Payton era, literally playing in the shadow of the Superdome. It was difficult enough to make a football-crazed south embrace basketball, and outside factors only hurt the team’s chances of success.
The Hornets’s triumphs were over, and Shinn entered financial turmoil; he needed to sell the team. With no obvious candidates to buy the squad, fans began to wonder again if basketball would leave, this time forever. The NBA then made the unprecedented move of buying the team, once again saving basketball in New Orleans. Paul was a Clipper before 2012, and the team landed in familiar, trustworthy hands soon after, for the rebuild. A clean slate.
A self-made billionaire and the beloved owner of the Saints, Tom Benson purchased the Hornets and quickly stumbled into the third reincarnation of Maravich: the long, athletic big-man from Kentucky, Anthony Davis.
Charged with the task of building the team from the ground up, Benson rebranded the Hornets: He adjusted the color scheme, crafted new logos, and changed their name to the Pelicans, hoping to replicate the birds’ resiliency after the BP Oil Spill.
The changes were met with little on-court success until Benson’s death in the sixth year of his ownership, when Davis had blossomed into an MVP candidate with the help of fellow All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and point guard Jrue Holiday. With the rebuild in the rearview, the team appeared ready to compete until Cousins tore his achilles tendon, effectively ending any chance the Pels had at upsetting the Warriors or Rockets and entering the team into an offseason of uncertainty.
That offseason is upon us. The most hectic month of the NBA calendar year, July will be a time when teams continue the league’s arms race to topple the dynasty of the Golden State Warriors. New super-teams composed of multiple All-Stars will arise, existing super-teams will be strengthened, and teams who do not improve will be left in the dust.
With Cousins approaching free agency and with ample doubt that he will return to form after the injury, the Pelicans need him back on the team and back to his old self. Otherwise, with their heads scraping the ceiling of the salary cap, the team will enter the final two years of Davis’s contract as presently configured, with not enough talent on the roster to compete with the best teams in the league.
Will the fans who came to see the improbable playoff run stay if the team fails to win? Will Davis, unsatisfied, then follow Chris Paul out the door? Could New Orleans basketball survive another rebuild?
We have again reached the crossroads of the rugged, bumpy path that is New Orleans basketball.