SB Nation

Nick Weldon | November 5, 2014

A Streetcar Named Basketball

New Orleans has a cursed pro hoops history, but finally the region has a team on the right track


New Orleans has a cursed pro hoops history, but finally the region has a team on the right track

by Nick Weldon

Bill Walton. A near-empty college gymnasium in New Orleans. Mardi Gras 1975. The giant, injured Trail Blazers rookie sits alone in a third-row seat at the Loyola Field House, his torch of hair pulled into a ponytail. It's two hours before tipoff. If the gym reaches its capacity of about 6,500 the draw will amount to about half of what Walton sees on good nights at Portland's Memorial Coliseum or used to turn out regularly at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The hosting Jazz have been exiled from the city's Municipal Auditorium for the bacchanal season which, for the rest of the country began and ended on Fat Tuesday nine days ago, if it had been observed at all, but down here has dominated the civic calendar since December. The Mardi Gras Krewes booked the Auditorium for their balls, so the Jazz had to haul up to this crumbling Uptown gym.

Walton fixes his gaze on the court. Raised 6 feet off the ground, it's encircled by a trawl net that instead of snaring Gulf shrimp has been rigged to keep pro basketball players from plummeting overboard. He has to look up; the seating abuts the court from below like a boxing ring. The gridded structure of the low-slung ceiling — which has a leak — makes it appear as if the whole facility is a giant waffle iron about to snap shut. There's no air conditioning.

The question is all over his face.

"This is the NBA?"

* * *

Bob Remy shows off a pair of shorts Pete Maravich gave him. (Nick Weldon)

If Bob Remy's brain is a Louisiana sports encyclopedia (he's written one), there's barely room for the Walton image as a neurological footnote, and yet the veteran statistician remembers it as well as any dazzling Pete Maravich highlight. Remy, 76, is one of just a few of people to have worked for both the New Orleans Jazz and the New Orleans Hornets — he's also kept stats for the Saints for the last 40 years — and is as qualified as anyone to discuss the fickle relationship his city has had with pro hoops.

"It's a football town," he says. "That's just the way it is."

New Orleans may be a football town, but as its Saints have struggled out of the gate this season, it is the basketball team coming off of a league-best 19-percent attendance spike from a year ago, the basketball team that is building around its sport's next great superstar, the basketball team aggressively re-branding itself to be a symbol of regeneration for the entire Gulf Coast.

Of course, it took football to save basketball in New Orleans. When Saints owner Tom Benson swooped in to purchase the erstwhile Hornets from the NBA in 2012, it provided a timely moral counterweight to "Bountygate" — the cash-for-big-hits scandal that led the NFL to slap the Saints with a slew of punishments going into the 2012 season — but, cynicism aside, it also sent a message to the faithful: We're not losing basketball. Not again.

Pelicans team president and New Orleans native Dennis Lauscha had a vision. He saw the ubiquitous Facebook fan maps that circulated earlier this year, and recognized that the Saints had successfully colonized not just Louisiana, but Mississippi, Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, and even encroached upon the Cowboys' Arkansan stronghold. He hadn't seen the Pelicans map — he didn't need to. He had his mission. "We know how avid people in this region are for football," Lauscha says. "How can we own the Southeast in basketball?"

"One of the first things we did was look at the history of basketball here in New Orleans. It's been starts and stops. But we've had some remarkable stories."

Stories of classic performances, a haunted hero, too much bad luck, and lots and lots of water. In New Orleans, as it turns out, basketball is no different from anything else.

it also sent a message to the faithful: We're not losing basketball. Not again.

The evolution of the arena: Basketball circa 1975 in the 6,500-seat Loyola Field House; the Pelicans in 2014 in the 18,000-seat Smoothie King Center. (Getty Images)

* * *

Remy needs a minute. The College GameDay crew and two of the Duck Dynasty guys are in Baton Rouge about to make their Ole Miss-LSU picks. He sits in the media room of the Metairie, La., home he and his wife Micheline have lived in for 48 years. From the outside, it's a modest ranch-style house across the street from a modest ranch-style house and in between two more. Inside: a treasure chest. Lining the wall behind him are shelves of athlete figurines, a hundred or more, ranging from a vintage Hank Aaron to a brand-new Andrew Luck. The other three walls are adorned with memorabilia — an autograph from Muhammad Ali here, a photo with Archie Manning there, and the prize, framed: Pete Maravich's shorts from the 1979 All-Star Game, with the handwritten note,

To Bob —
The greatest
statistician ever — Thanks
"Pistol Pete" 7 Jazz

Those shorts have a story — everything in the room does — but first, Lee Corso has to put on the Tiger head.

The bet: Maravich would be enough to make the football town love basketball.

Basketball's only chance at surviving in New Orleans was Peter Press Maravich. Or so reasoned Sam Battistone, Jr., and Fred Rosenfeld, who led a nine-man group that bought the expansion New Orleans Jazz of the NBA in 1974, then dealt the Atlanta Hawks everything but King Rex's crown — two No. 1 picks, two second-rounders, and the option to swap two other first-rounders — for the four-year veteran scoring machine with The Beatles bangs and the drooping socks. Even then, four decades before pick hoarding became the mark of a savvy GM, the move was almost universally panned. The bet: Maravich, already a local demigod for his exploits just 80 miles upriver at Louisiana State where he set the NCAA career and per-game scoring records, would be enough to make the football town love basketball. Putting on a show mattered more than winning and The Pistol, having never played beyond the first round of the playoffs, had little experience with the latter but was, at the former, a known virtuoso.

The city's recent history with basketball may have given the Jazz management good reason to swing big. The NBA came to town four years after the ABA had left it. To date, the New Orleans Buccaneers are the only Crescent City basketball team to have played for a title, when they fell in seven games to Connie Hawkins' Pittsburgh Pipers in the inaugural ABA Championship in 1968. The unremarkable New Orleans Hurricanes of the Professional Basketball League of America and the New Orleans Sports of the Southern Basketball League predated the Bucs, but those teams and leagues debuted and folded in 1947 and 1948-49, respectively. More important than the birthdate of basketball in this most Catholic of cities was October 19, 1967 — the baptism.

"The unfortunate thing was that the Buccaneers came here the same year the Saints arrived," Remy says. "It was bad timing."

New Orleans had been football-drunk since the first Sugar Bowl held at Tulane Stadium on New Year's Day 1935, so when Congressional Representative Hale Boggs won the city the Saints for helping clear a legal path for the NFL-AFL merger, the team had little trouble filling the 81,000-seat shrine. A 1967 Sports Illustrated review of the new ABA, meanwhile, articulated the obvious challenge facing the Buccaneers (and the Dallas and Houston teams): planting roots in an area "where basketball is an interlude between January bowl games and spring football practice." The magazine was even less forgiving of their home Loyola Field House (and this was before the trawl nets): "It is a dinky little place (6,425 capacity) for a pro franchise, with three known parking spaces in the area."

Future NBA head coaches Doug Moe and Larry Brown led that 1967-68 Bucs team to the ABA Finals and were unceremoniously traded after the season. The team didn't draw well at the Field House, and in its third year moved to the even smaller Tulane Gym, almost literally overshadowed by the football stadium when the sun set somewhere over Lake Pontchartrain. With attendance flagging, the franchise rechristened itself the Louisiana Buccaneers ahead of the 1970-71 season and planned a statewide barnstorming circuit — upstream to Baton Rouge, across the Atchafalaya Swamp to Lafayette, and northward to Shreveport and Monroe — but before they could begin the grand tour, the team was sold and moved to Memphis.

Tulane Stadium hosted Super Bowl IV that year. It hosted Super Bowl VI two years later, in 1972. By 1974 the Saints had yet to post a winning record, but their neighborhood stadium was due a third Super Bowl the following January. The Ursuline nuns next door helped bankroll their convent by selling parking to the big games. While basketball was away, the NFL immersed itself into the community — which was already small compared to other pro sport markets, with a laissez-faire attitude all its own. Ignatius Reilly, novelist John Kennedy Toole's famous New Orleanian oaf, described his city as "a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive."

So what could have possibly made these people care about basketball?

"Two words," Remy says. "Pete Maravich."

* * *

(Getty Images)

"Pete had a storied connection to the Louisiana people. They knew him."

"New Orleans sort of has a natural parade tendency," former Jazz center Rich Kelley says. "And if Pete was in a mood to walk around, there would be a parade."

It was not impossible in the 1970s, particularly in New Orleans, for NBA players to mingle in public spaces sans entourage. Rosy's Jazz Hall was a popular New Orleans Jazz haunt. "Hot Rod" Hundley, who retired from a six-year career with the Lakers in 1963 and began a long career as the radio and television voice of the Jazz in 1974, held down a corner at the landmark French Quarter bar Pat O'Brien's, famous for inventing the hurricane cocktail. Kelley, small forward Aaron James, and Maravich would often join him, though Kelley clarifies that they maintained some anonymity: "It wasn't the piano bar — the smaller bar off on the left."

"There were many, many occasions where Pete and I would go out to dinner or have a few beers, and people would just stop and talk to us," says Kelley, a Stanford alum who now runs his own investment firm in California. "Pete had a storied connection to the Louisiana people. They knew him."

Indeed, if the Chicago Bulls had extended their first-ever player contract to an actual Pamplonan bovine, it would have still been less fitting than the Jazz making Pete Maravich their first signee. To a younger fan, his YouTube résumé (a search of "Pete Maravich Highlights" returns more than 13,000 results) reveals some sort of gangly Iverson/Ginobili hybrid, but even that doesn't quite nail it. With his floppy hair and socks, unholstering shooting form for which he was nicknamed, and sheer imagination, he was an original, an artist. Maravich wasn't in competition with Erving, Frazier and Havlicek; he was in concert with Armstrong, Prima and Marsalis.

Maravich, who followed his coaching father to LSU, was a ready-made New Orleans sports icon, but tragedy marred his arrival and the debut of the Jazz when his mother killed herself just days before the start of the season. The event was a glimpse into the troubled, complicated lives of the Maraviches; Pete's father, Press, developed his son into a prodigy through intense and bizarre drilling, and their relationship is central to many biographies written about the capricious star. Maravich was also miffed at being traded by Atlanta. "The crowds were behind him, but Pete was kind of going through the motions," says Remy, who started keeping stats for the Saints and Jazz that same year.

The team lurched to a 0-11 start before Maravich nailed a 20-foot game-winner to beat the Trail Blazers at the Municipal Auditorium. As most observers expected, the Jazz were the worst team in basketball going away, though they turned things around when they moved to the decrepit Loyola Field House during Mardi Gras season. But not before the NBPA forced the team to install the $5,000 worth of trawl nets; union president and Detroit center Bob Lanier, all 6 feet, 11 inches and 250 pounds of him — wearing size 22 shoes — came down for a test, taking a running jump into the net. The Pistons' payload held, and the Jazz played on. Opponents, like Walton, may have groaned at the amateur digs, but Maravich admiringly referred to the Field House as the "snake pit," and the Jazz won more than they lost there (8-7) in a season where they lost nearly three out of every four games.

An exterior view of the Loyola Field House in the '70s. (Courtesy Loyola University)

But pro basketball's full potential in New Orleans didn't reveal itself until the following season, Maravich's second in New Orleans, specifically on the night of Nov. 5, 1975. All it took was the opening of the largest fixed domed structure on Earth, $1.50 tickets, and — naturally — a flood.

"The Jazz," wrote The New York Times two days later, "... are turning football-minded New Orleans to pro basketball." The largest crowd in NBA history at the time — 26,511 fans, nearly a third of whom had purchased $1.50 nosebleed seats — came out to the new Louisiana Superdome to see Pete Maravich lead the upstart 5-1 Jazz against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Lakers. It almost didn't happen.

"It was the night of a fairly intense, short, but powerful rainstorm," Kelley says. Eight inches, reportedly; a genuine toad-strangler. "Pete lived out in the suburbs and got flooded out. A half an hour before the game, Pete still wasn't there."

Here, the story diverges like the Mississippi Delta, depending on the source: Some accounts have it that it took a boat to get The Pistol out of his Metairie home; Kelley remembers a "police escort situation." Jazz VP Barry Mendelson told The New York Times that the Sheriff's Department sent three jeeps and a diesel truck, but that Maravich was already gone by the time they got to his house. The irrefutable facts: Maravich made it in time to throw on the Mardi Gras green, purple and gold, drop 30 points, and lead the Jazz to a 113-110 victory.

Jazz management prioritized putting on a show, and the cheap Terrace tickets in the dark corners of the stadium that could house more than 70,000 fans for Saints games were just a part of their 1975-76 overhaul. It was the first full year for bombastic journeyman coach Butch van Breda Kolff, who had replaced the outmatched Scotty Robertson early in the previous season. A six-piece jazz band serenaded the starting lineups. At the center of it all, Maravich.

The Pistol performed to expectations — averaging nearly 26 a game and making the All-NBA first team — but the team came down after a hot start, finishing 38-44 and missing the playoffs. And yet, a few months after the season ended, management doubled down on the future-mortgaging strategy that brought them Maravich and acquired 11-year veteran guard Gail Goodrich and a first-rounder from the Lakers for the small price of four picks, including three No. 1s - one of which would become Magic Johnson.

Still, in the second game of the '76-77 season, the Jazz broke their own NBA attendance record when Julius Erving, then with the Philadelphia 76ers, came to town. The Jazz would lose that game and by January, Goodrich, too, to an Achilles injury. The season took a familiar shape: The Jazz lost more than they won and Maravich was an All-Star. Rinse and repeat. But then "68" happened.

Bob Remy still holds a grudge against referee Dick Bavetta because of 68.

"Even though I didn't play much in that game," Rich Kelley says, 68 was the highlight of his 11-year NBA career.

New Orleans basketball fans hadn't ever seen a performance like it — they still haven't. Maravich scored 68.

"Pete always liked lighting up the Knicks," Kelley says, "because he knew it would be televised back there."

New Orleans basketball fans hadn't ever seen a performance like it — they still haven't. Maravich, noted for his long-range accuracy, scored 68 against Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe and the Knicks — without a three-point line, which the NBA instituted three seasons later. Had there been a three-point line, it's hard to say how many he might have scored that night.

"And he should have had 70," Remy says, lamenting a late charge Bavetta called against Maravich that took away a made layup. Maravich's next foul, another charge, was his sixth, and ended his mesmerizing night with 1:18 left in the game.

No matter how much Maravich scored, though, it was never enough. The Jazz missed the '77 playoffs and yet the following fall broke the NBA attendance record again — a colossal crowd of 35,077 came out for a tilt with Dr. J's Sixers. All of those big numbers, it turned out, came with a catch.

"Pete was certainly a magnetic personality," Kelley says, "but there were plenty of times his magnetism only drew 7,000 people to the Superdome."

It wasn't a coincidence that the Jazz crowds set those records when the big names came to town. Attendance peaked during the 1977-78 season, with an average audience of 12,862 — sixth in the NBA, but not reflective of the ballyhooed outlier games. And as Maravich deteriorated, so did the crowds — so did the franchise. In the 1978-79 season, the team missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year, and attendance plunged. In June of 1979, the NBA's Board of Governors approved Sam Battistone, Jr.'s request to move the team to Salt Lake City, Utah. The owner cited ongoing scheduling conflicts at the Superdome — among other things, the team was forced to endure long road trips during Mardi Gras — but he was also a native Californian with business interests out West.

But the spiritual end came earlier, on a January night in 1978, and it ended by way of the very thing that convinced Battistone, Jr., to stake the future of New Orleans basketball on Maravich in the first place — his breathtaking improvisation.

Rolling to a ninth straight win and with the playoffs in sight for the first time in franchise history, with four minutes remaining in the matchup against the Buffalo Braves, Maravich tried to give the New Orleans crowd a little extra. Looking ahead to a streaking Aaron James, he launched a half-court, behind-the-back, between-the-legs outlet pass — and crashed to the floor.

"He landed awkwardly," Kelley says, "and destroyed his knee."

Remy, seated at the scorer's table just steps away from the groaning Jazz star, had seen Maravich embellish a few injuries over the years. "I knew this was different," he says. "It was over. That was it."

The music stopped.

* * *

(Getty Images)

Remy pulls down the large picture frame containing Maravich's shorts. As a team statistician, he got to know the players when he traveled with them for preseason exhibitions, often while sitting around in airports.

"Pete was so easy to talk to," Remy says. They'd rarely talk basketball; Maravich preferred discussing the latest episode of 60 Minutes. When Remy published his "Louisiana Sports Encyclopedia" in 1977 he asked Maravich for a jacket quote, "and he said, ‘Bob, anything you want to say. It's the greatest book since the Bible. Anything.'"

Maravich's career didn't end when he injured his right knee making that inconceivable fast-break pass; in fact, he gamely came back in late March to try and help the Jazz make a playoff push, but had to shut it down again, and the team missed out by two games. After offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus and sporting a gaudy steel brace he returned less effective. He never was very efficient; and running his numbers through the statistical prism of today's all-in-one Player Efficiency Rating (PER) metric shows that, in his last New Orleans season, his performance dipped below league average for the first time in his career. Ironically, that was the same season he considered embracing what were then advanced analytics at the time: shot charts.

"I was in the dressing room after a game — and it wasn't that big — and at the far end was Maravich, and he's looking at the stat sheet," Remy says. "He yells across the room, ‘Bob!' Everything gets still. You could hear a pin drop. I'm not gonna repeat what he says, but the gist is, ‘What the hell is this? No way I shot 29 times!' He's screaming."

"I'm thinking, No, you didn't shoot 29, you probably shot 39. You know, we ain't out here to hurt these guys."

"He says, ‘Let me tell you what I want. I want a shot chart after every game. Where I shot from, blah, blah, blah, everything.'"

For the next home game, the team brought in an architect — a proto–Kirk Goldsberry, pioneer of modern basketball's spatial analysis revolution — to produce "a beautiful shot chart, showing exactly where Pete shot from, what he made," Remy says. "I said, ‘I'll personally bring it to Maravich.'"

"He looks at it for about 10 seconds, rumples it up, throws it away, and walks away. Next home game, I bring it again, he takes about five seconds. Looks at it, throws it away. Next home game, I bring it to him, and he says, ‘Bob, forget about it.'"

Fortunately for Maravich, PER didn't exist in 1979, and he made his fifth All-Star Game. After the midseason showcase in Detroit, a person from the front office told Remy he had been summoned to Maravich's Lake Pontchartrain home, giving him The Pistol's home number.

"I took my son with me, and Pete's wife Jackie lets me in, and Pete's in his empty swimming pool, cleaning it out. I'm like, ‘Why am I here?'"

"Finally he says, ‘Jackie, can you get what I have for Bob?'" She left, and came back with the shorts.

In Remy's media room there's another frame, a smaller one, lost in a sea of frames and autographs from seemingly every notable athlete from the last hundred years. There's a black-and-white photo in it, with four geeky men in collared shirts posing for the camera, dated 1978. At the bottom, a quote:

"Real statisticians didn't need computers."

* * *

It's as if basketball were some voodoo hex, wrought in the sweltering underbelly of the old Loyola Field House, that New Orleans couldn't break.

The exterior of the Superdome in 1975 and 30 years later after Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. (Getty Images)

A lot has changed, for the NBA, for New Orleans. Maravich dropped dead of heart failure in a pickup game 26 years ago. The NBA returned to New Orleans 12 years ago. The costliest catastrophe in American history struck the city, forcing the team to leave — but it came back. Then the deadbeat owner put it up for sale — but once more, the team stayed put.

It's as if basketball were some voodoo hex, wrought in the sweltering underbelly of the old Loyola Field House, that New Orleans couldn't break. The year after the Jazz skipped town, New Orleans gained the Pride, an expansion franchise in the Women's Professional Basketball League, but the league folded in 1981. Ahead of the 1984-85 NBA season, Mendelson, the old Jazz veep, paid for the city to host the Atlanta Hawks for 12 games, setting up the Lakefront Arena at the University of New Orleans as one of the all-time great NBA trivia answers — as the location where Larry Bird famously lit up the Hawks for 60 points. (Remy has the stat sheet to prove it.) But after the Hawks dalliance, pro basketball appeared to leave for good. In 1987, Loyola demolished the Field House.

Then, a series of improbable events, seemingly ordained by some impish spirit, sent basketball hurtling back to New Orleans. In 1999, Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn became the subject of a sexual assault trial that was broadcast nationally on Court TV; the judge ruled in his favor, but the lascivious details that emerged about his personal life — among them, Shinn's admission of two extramarital affairs — and Shinn's subsequent retreat from the public eye, destroyed his local reputation. Attendance crashed and — further antagonizing fans — Shinn began exploring relocation options. The same year of Shinn's trial, New Orleans opened a new multipurpose arena next door to the Superdome as the payoff to a political gambit ex-mayor Sidney Barthelemy made to eventually bring basketball back to the Crescent City. By the time Shinn and Charlotte had had enough of each other in 2002, New Orleans was ready.

That's how, on Oct. 30, 2002, Pete Maravich's number 7 jersey came to be raised to the rafters by a team for which he never played. Maravich's family — his widow, Jackie, and two sons — attended, as well as several of his former Jazz teammates. So did Remy, reprising his Jazz role as official scorer for the Hornets. "The feeling was, basketball is back."

Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn helped deliver New Orleans its first NBA playoff games that season and the next, though the Hornets couldn't advance beyond the first round in either year. The team bottomed out the next year, but the 2005 draft brought Chris Paul, the city's first organically acquired franchise player — and with him, hope that a lasting winner in New Orleans could be built, and built to last — a sturdy streetcar, rather than a Carnival float.

And then Katrina hit.

* * *

"Would Oklahoma City have a team right now if it hadn't been for Hurricane Katrina?" Remy wonders aloud.

Among Remy's losses in the inundation that followed the terrible storm were 12 filing cabinets worth of catalogued magazine articles, newspaper clippings and books, some materials dating to the 1950s; the meticulous collector tells people who ask, "Half of my C's and most of my T's." A pittance, certainly, compared to the overall destruction rendered by Katrina and its aftermath — $148 billion in damages, 1,833 lives. But it's a reminder that everybody lost something.

As far as basketball went, the city temporarily lost its team again. Oklahoma City, clamoring for pro basketball, hosted the Hornets for all but four home games in 2005-06, and mustered crowds unbefitting a sub-.500 team. The club vaulted from dead last in NBA attendance to 11th in Oklahoma City.

"I'm sitting back here saying, ‘Darnit, this team might not come back,'" Remy says.

No less than the team's head coach, Byron Scott, was campaigning for it. "I would love to stay here and play in Oklahoma City next year," he said in January 2006. "I think our guys are at home here."

When the NBA announced that the Hornets would remain in Oklahoma City another year, it came with a caveat: The plan would be to bring the team back to New Orleans for good in the 2007-08 season — as well as the 2008 All-Star Game.

The sinking feeling that came next was all too familiar for a city teetering on rapidly eroding silt.

As much animosity as the Seattle SuperSonics faithful have built up for David Stern for the loss of their team, it could be said that he earned nearly as much gratitude from New Orleanians for his commitment to keeping basketball in their city. The knife twist for Seattleites, of course, is that if Scott's wish had been granted to keep the Hornets in Oklahoma City, they might still have their Sonics. Whether the former commissioner will be remembered as a savior or scoundrel is wholly dependent on the market.

"If Stern would've been commissioner back in the '70s," Remy says, "the Jazz would have never left."

The Hornets returned to New Orleans to weaker crowds, but managed to win 56 games and advance to within a game of the Western Conference Finals behind All-Stars Paul and David West. To date, it is the best NBA season the city has ever witnessed, and that summer the team inked Paul to a three-year, $68 million contract extension, ostensibly securing its future as a legitimate threat in the West. But the team regressed the next year, losing in the first round, and after a slow start in 2009, team executives fired Scott.

The sinking feeling that came next was all too familiar for a city teetering on rapidly eroding silt. The move made Paul a dreaded "disgruntled star," the team missed the playoffs, and then the bottom fell out: Shinn, their lingering specter of an owner, found himself in briny financial waters and needed to sell. Well, it seemed like the bottom: With Shinn unable to find a buyer who could keep the Hornets in New Orleans, the NBA made the unprecedented move of purchasing the team in December 2010 — with hopes that a suitable candidate would emerge. Not long after that, rumors began swirling that Paul might be traded before the next season. The inevitable was delayed by the 2011 lockout — and Stern's controversial veto of a deal that would have sent him to the Lakers — but Paul was a Clipper before New Year's 2012.

Once again, New Orleans' basketball faithful were without a star, without hope. Worse, their team remained a ward of the league, stuck in pro sports purgatory. But then the Saints, long the problem for the business of basketball in New Orleans, became a solution.

* * *

The evolving face of New Orleans basketball: Pete Maravich in the '70s; Anthony Davis currently. (Getty Images)

Mr. Benson — or Mr. B, if you're Anthony Davis, but never "Tom Benson" — didn't quite ride to the rescue like Gen. Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, but the longtime Saints owner nonetheless delivered a sizable victory to the city when he bought the Hornets from the NBA for what now seems like a bargain-bin price of $338 million in April 2012.

If you ask Lauscha, Benson's right-hand man, the decision came down to financial prudence. "When we came back from our evacuation from Katrina, we really dove into this community and invested heavily in it," he says. In the years following the storm, Saints' management helped renovate the Superdome, bought up neighboring blighted properties, and purchased a local Fox television affiliate. In 2009, 10 months before the Saints would win their first Super Bowl, Benson and Co. secured a lease extension to keep the football team in the Superdome through the 2025 season. "There was concern by Mr. Benson that someone outside would buy this franchise [the Hornets] and try to move it and, to be quite honest, that was not what we wanted to do because we had invested so much in this community."

Lauscha grew up a Saints and Jazz fan and currently lives the dream of every kid who's ever taken a deep dive into the franchise modes on Madden or NBA 2K, overseeing the finances of his hometown's two current major pro sports teams.

"I remember going to Jazz games. I remember getting Rich Kelley's autograph after a game. I was a small kid, and I remember walking up to him, you know he's 7 feet, and saying, ‘Oh my God, he has tree trunks for legs!'"

"Yeah, I take a lot of pride in the fact that I had a part in keeping this basketball team here."

As for the name — Pelicans, adopted before last season — Lauscha hopes it can unite not only New Orleans, but help management achieve their vision of growing their fan base. "A big part of Mr. Benson's inspiration with the pelican was after the BP oil spill," he says, noting the ecological havoc the disaster has wreaked upon local wildlife. "They're very resilient birds. That's reflective of the Gulf Coast community."

(Remy — it must be noted — disagrees with management's other assertion that the re-branding pays homage to the old minor league baseball club that went by the same name: "It's despicable. Leave that alone, Mr. Benson. That's a baseball team.")

the fans showed up and the team had the biggest attendance surge in the league.
Owner Tom Benson announces the team's name change in 2013. (Getty Images)

The early returns: In the first season as the Pelicans — highlighted by an All-Star appearance by the sophomore Davis — the fans showed up and the team had the biggest attendance surge in the league.

For the first time in the history of pro basketball in New Orleans, the ownership and management of the franchise have financial and personal incentives to keep the game in town — and the muscle to ensure that it does. Today, the NFL Saints are worth an estimated $1.1 billion. It's possible — with the recent sales of the big-market Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion and the small-market Milwaukee Bucks for $550 million — that Benson's two-year-old investment in the Pelicans, née Hornets, has already close to doubled in value. Entering the 2014 season, the team is nearly finished with $50 million worth of publicly funded renovations for the arena — including the dedication of "a big area of the building" to chronicling the area's hoops history. And in February, the building got a new name: Smoothie King Center, after the team signed a 10-year, $40 million naming rights deal with the local smoothie chain, the first in the arena's history. On top it all are the economies of scale achieved by bringing the two teams together: Among other efficiencies, they're neighbors in the city's Central Business District, and the Pelicans and Saints also share a practice facility in the suburbs.

"We share the same cafeteria," Davis says on a phone call a week before the new season tips off. "We're always eating lunch with one another. At the end of the day, we're all one big family. They have tickets to our games, we have tickets to their games. We watch them play, they come watch us."

In one sense, Pelicans fans must hope a sibling rivalry emerges out of this new family union: The Saints have delivered New Orleans something basketball never has — a championship.

* * *

Two promises.

"Anything I do, I'll do for the city of New Orleans."

"New Orleans is a great city. When I came in, whatever I had to do to make everything go positively, I was more than willing and happy to do."

The first vow came from Maravich, in a Times-Picayune interview after news broke that the Jazz were being relocated to Utah. "Whether the team's in Salt Lake or not," he continued, "I'll do it personally for the city of New Orleans." By then, unfortunately, it was too late for Maravich; he was cut by January, picked up by Boston, and then retired at the end of the season at age 32. He spent the rest of his days in a state of rising paranoia, up until the sudden heart attack that killed him. A tragic hero for a city that knows the genre too well.

The second quote came from a phone conversation with Anthony Davis, already on a trajectory to becoming the NBA's next megastar and among the best basketball players to ever wear a New Orleans uniform.

Aside from having signature looks — Maravich with the hair and socks, Davis with his unapologetic embrace of the unibrow — the pair couldn't be more different: The Pistol, a ball-handling, shot-making savant; Davis, an impossibly long, shot-swatting dynamo with a burgeoning post game.

Their situations couldn't be more different either. Forty years ago, the NBA arrived in New Orleans as a sideshow to the Saints, an experiment of promotions, a curiosity to be seen in a musty gym from the other side of a fishing net.

There's a certain audacity to the word the Pelicans use now, a word that dares to defy the conventional wisdom in New Orleans that everything can change with a shift in the wind.

"The number one thing," Lauscha says, "is stability."

"That stability," Davis says, "is great. It's great for the city. It's great for both teams. Mr. B's here for us for the long haul."

Basketball in the Crescent City is finally on firm, level ground. The long prelude has ended and it's time to draw up those nets — the real show is about to begin.

In New Orleans, jazz will never die.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout
Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Nick Weldon is a writer based in New Orleans. He was previously a senior editor at Runner's World. Follow him on Twitter at @NickWeldonNOLA.