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Paul Flannery | February 26, 2015

The Special Man

Anthony Davis can make basketball work in New Orleans, but first he and his team have to become one with their new home.

Crescent City Books is one of those tucked away French Quarter gems that seems to have been around since Jean Baptiste Bienville took up urban planning. Piled high to the ceiling with new books, old books, rare imprints and out-of-print titles, it’s the kind of place one might have found Jack Burden doing research in All The King’s Men.

Located just a few blocks from the gypsies and fortune tellers who inhabit Jackson Square and a lifetime removed from the non-stop bacchanalia of Bourbon Street, Crescent City Books is of a piece of the Quarter and New Orleans itself.

You can find anything you want here in this city if you look hard enough. There’s the party, of course, but look deeper and New Orleans draws you in with an intoxicating mix of sinister vibes and spiritual longing. It gets in your blood, emboldening you to continue exploring every time you return with the understanding that you will never truly understand anything.

Here you will find art and music dancing alongside crushing poverty and mind-blowing crime. You will find laughter and hospitality amid sorrow and betrayal. You might even find traces of a basketball culture fighting to be reborn, in a bookstore of all places.

That’s where I found Michael reliving the Pelicans game against the Mavericks from a week earlier. More to the point, he was reliving the experience of watching Anthony Davis play basketball.

Davis is the perfect franchise player for a team that was essentially created out of thin air

Davis was everywhere in that contest, blocking shots, deflecting passes and raining jumpers as part of a frenzied fourth-quarter comeback. AD is the perfect franchise player for a team that was essentially created out of thin air. If you didn’t know anything about basketball, you’d wonder where the hell this kid came from, and even if you did, you’d have the same reaction.

We chatted for a few minutes. The Pelicans are catching on, he said, but they still haven’t locked in their rhythm with the city, which has yet to adopt the NBA’s own particular cadence. New Orleans is a football city, after all, operating on a calendar that catches its breath on Sundays for church and Saints. But Anthony Davis, man. Anthony Davis gets your attention. If the team can start winning consistently and he can be for the Pelicans what Drew Brees is for the Saints, they might just have something here.

I had variations of that same conversation with just about everyone I encountered. Among them: a musician, a restaurateur and an improv comedian who sits behind the visitors bench and heckles opponents with glee. They are not casual fans and their introductions had been arranged through a friend of a friend, which is basically how the city operates. This encounter was serendipity.  "Well," Michael said. "It’s New Orleans. You get that a lot around here."

I mentioned all of this to Davis when we talked a few days later. He has the innocence of youth on his side, which is no small thing. But even more importantly, he has an appreciation for the task at hand. This is a city that loves stars, but more than that it loves its own stars. To put it another way, no one loves New Orleans like New Orleans loves itself. "They want somebody who wants to be here," his coach Monty Williams says. "When you show that, it’s a wrap. You’re one of theirs."

History is not on anyone’s side. From Kareem to KG to LeBron, the NBA is littered with the tattered dreams of small markets who nurtured young players before they attained glory elsewhere. New Orleans has its own tortured past, having loved and lost superstars like Pete Maravich and Chris Paul.

AD nods.

"They love winning," Davis says. "They’ve seen winning with the Saints. They’ve seen a glimpse with the Hornets with CP. I’m just trying to bring that back here. If I have to be that guy, I definitely will. It’s more than basketball. I try to do a lot for the community and try to bring joy and excitement back to the city. I’m willing to step up and try to be that, to be that quote, unquote Drew Brees or Chris Paul.

"I don’t do it just so the fans will like me, or I have to show the fans that I really want to be here. Nah, I’ll do it out of the kindness of my heart because I’ve been in the situation that some of these kids have been in, growing up with nothing and trying to figure out how you’re going to make your next move."

It was during a brainstorming session when Ben Hales, the senior vice president of marketing and business operations for the Pelicans, heard the seven most perfect words: "I know we’d never do this, but …"

Behold the Special Man, an iconic character from a long-ago ad for a discount furniture store. Here’s the premise: A woman comes into the store with no money or credit. She is told to see the Special Man, who utters his catchphrase: "Let ‘em have it," which may as well be an unofficial city motto.

"Around New Orleans you hear people say, ‘Let ‘em have it’ all the time," Hales says. "It’s just become an expression. Someone would ask you something and you give em the ol, ‘Let ‘em have it.’ Everyone sat there for a second and said, ‘Man. That’s awesome.’"

The plan was to take the Special Man and spin it into a spot for a discount ticket package. The casting was sublime: Ryan Anderson as the jive-talking front man in an ill-fitting toupee, Tyreke Evans as the Special Man’s sidekick (with nooooooo problem) and Anthony Davis in the lead role.

"At first I’m like, ‘Why are you showing me this?’" Davis says. "They broke it down and it was cool. After they told me how much it meant to New Orleans, it was a pretty dope thing."

Winning over skeptical players was only part of it. Hales and his team knew they had to get the details right if the ad was going to fly with people who grew up with the original.

"The more this team can embrace local culture, no matter how weird, the better the chances are that they’ll be loved back"

"We watched that commercial 20 times that day," Anderson says. "We had a lot of preparation trying to get the costumes right. I didn’t realize how big a part of the city that commercial is. Everybody’s who’s born and raised here knows about that commercial."

The first time it aired in the arena, it drew a tremendous ovation. Chris Trew, who founded the New Movement improv theater and acts as a self-appointed team ombudsman from his seat behind the visitors’ bench, saw it for the first time when it popped into his Twitter feed. Finally, he thought. They finally got it.

"The more this team can embrace local culture, no matter how weird, the better the chances are that they’ll be loved back," Trew says. "I also thought that while the commercial was amazing and funny and executed well, the person I was most proud of was whoever gave final approval. More of that, please."

New Orleans may be a football town, but pro basketball embodies the city’s wayward spirit. The sport has never operated in a straight line. It lurches forward and stops abruptly. Like the trolleys that run along St. Charles, it’s often empty and filled with ghosts.

Its history belongs to a rogues’ gallery of vagabonds; some charming, some not. Its teams have been built haphazardly on longshot premises and forced to play in second-class arenas. Yet, after every disaster, it keeps coming back for more.

In 1967, the New Orleans Bucs of the ABA arrived. They were led by Doug Moe, who had been banned from the NBA over an alleged connection to a college-basketball fixer, although there was never any evidence that he was guilty. That alone qualified Moe as an honorary New Orleanian.

Moe and his sidekick Larry Brown made for a delightful pair. They played for a championship in their first season — still the only New Orleans team to make it that far — but they also came along at the same time as the Saints and moved to Memphis after only three years. It would not be the last time the football team eclipsed its basketball counterpart.

In theory, the Pistol was perfect

The first NBA franchise was the Jazz, which meant there was the Pistol. The then-owners bet everything on Pistol Pete Maravich, mortgaging a future in draft picks to acquire the LSU star. In theory, the Pistol was perfect. He was a beloved local showman with a knack for the spectacular. But the Pistol had demons and the Jazz never broke through. When it all fell apart six years later, the team moved to Utah.

(Maravich’s jersey does not hang in Smoothie King Center, where the Pelicans play. Instead, a giant portrait of the Pistol takes up space in Champions Square between the arena and the Superdome among blown-out photos of Rickey Jackson, Tom Benson, Drew Brees and LSU football coach Les Miles. Past and present mingle awkwardly, as ever.)

It took more than two decades for the NBA to return, leaving the basketball culture to be nurtured by the colleges. Tulane had some strong teams in the early 80s until a scandal involving drugs and point-shaving forced the school to drop the program for three years. Shaquille O’Neal and LSU stepped into the void, along with local prep heroes who fueled the hoop dreams of people like Robert LeBlanc, who played his college ball at Loyola.

"In the late 80s and early 90s basketball was omnipresent," LeBlanc says. "Randy Livingston was a legend. That was all we talked about and thought about. The culture of basketball in New Orleans ebbs and flows with the quality of the pro and college franchises."

The NBA returned in 2002 when George Shinn was effectively run out of Charlotte following an ugly sexual harassment lawsuit. The Hornets were competitive at first, but Shinn never did learn the most important lesson about his new home.

"The thing that’s really important about New Orleans is that it’s a different world," LeBlanc says. "There’s tremendous pride in everything: horn players, chefs, professional athletes. It felt with the Hornets original ownership that those guys just didn’t get New Orleans."

Enter Chris Paul, who possessed the talent and charisma to carry on the Pistol’s legacy. But then Katrina hit, exiling the team to Oklahoma City for two seasons where CP3 became a star. When they eventually returned, Paul made it part of his mission to become one with the city.

"I’m very much aware that Chris Paul saved the NBA in New Orleans," Trew says. "He gave a shit about the city and I don’t think too many people would argue with me about that. He was the right type of star for the city at the time. With him, it was, ‘Hey I want the city to be OK. What can I do to help?’"

"Chris Paul saved the NBA in New Orleans"

Like so many, Trew returned to New Orleans after Katrina with a renewed sense of purpose. He created a comedy scene where none previously existed. LeBlanc opened Republic, a nightclub that was a magnet for out-of-town celebrities. He’s now a co-owner in several restaurants, including the phenomenal Sylvain.

"You came back to be part of a cause," LeBlanc says. "You didn’t come back for an opportunity. You came back because you knew New Orleans needed to survive and thrive. It was a time where we needed people to stake their flags in the ground. That was a magical period in the history of the city because it truly broke down a ton of barriers."

And for a brief time, CP3 and the Hornets thrived in that environment. They won 56 games in their first season back in New Orleans and reached the second round of the playoffs. But trouble was always lurking. There was constant talk of relocation and an inevitable sale, which made them stand in stark contrast, once again, to the ascendent Saints.

The NBA stepped in when a local buyer couldn’t be found, creating an unwieldy mess. Paul wanted out. It was understandable, but it still cut deep.

"When I first got here, I had this team that was established, but it was under the radar falling apart because people knew certain guys were going to leave," Monty Williams says. "There was attachment, but it was, like, fear."

Paul’s legacy, like the Hornets’ existence, is complicated. He’s been booed and cheered since leaving and fans curse him while acknowledging he had no choice. He’s best understood today as a cautionary tale, a hedge against the hope that arrived when Saints owner Tom Benson bought the team mainly to ensure their continued existence. The Hornets were no more, but before they could become the Pelicans they needed a reason for people to care.

That spring, John-Michael Rouchell was sitting in the Superdome watching Kentucky win the national championship. A singer-songwriter who obsesses over pick-and-roll coverages in his spare time, John-Michael turned to his friend and said, "I’d give my left arm to have that guy on my team."

A few months later after getting off stage in Charlotte of all places, his phone started blowing up. It was lottery day. "Holy shit," he thought. "We’re getting AD. It’s real."

We need to talk about the name, but first we should let Ben Hales talk about Pierre and the King Cake Baby. It’s a long story and Hales has a lot to say.

"When we first rolled out the mascot, first of all, we shouldn’t have rolled out the first mascot," Hales says. "We were in this business of promising during this rebranding that we would do something at certain times. We felt that because of the past history of what had happened here of not always delivering on those promises, come hell or high water we would deliver something when we said we were going to deliver something. Even if it wasn’t right. We got rid of it, we fixed it, that was fine.

"That led to people rediscovering the King Cake Baby that we’ve got out there. That started making national websites where people didn’t understand that it wasn’t something new. It had been around forever. But it is weird and it is funny. Now we have more requests for that character to make appearances, which we never considered before. It was just something quirky that we used during Mardi Gras. The more people started pointing out — what is this weird thing they have? — the more people here wanted it.

"All we’re concerned about is appealing to our culture. We’re not worried about what anybody else says. What’s important is that fans understand as a team and an organization, we get it. We’re not marketing to people who come down for Mardi Gras. We’re marketing to the people who live here year-round, who never see the French Quarter except maybe twice a year if they want to go to dinner someplace. Once you get past tourist New Orleans, that’s the stuff people come back for. Mardi Gras is great, we all love it and we all participate in it, but it’s the rest of the year stuff that makes New Orleans so special."

And that, in so many words, explains the birth and rebranding of the Pelicans. It hasn’t always gone smoothly — the name is not universally loved in New Orleans — but there have been moments of genius that tap into the town’s aesthetic. (It’s worth noting that even if people aren’t enamored of the name, they will argue its merits if you express an objection.)

I was told by hardcore fans that supporting the Pelicans is a civic duty

The arena has been made over, from the team store to the floor painted in a garish design to the food in the concession areas. The team is rightly proud of its new practice facility in Metairie, which also houses the Saints. It’s the first time a New Orleans basketball team has ever had a facility of its own. "As players and coaches, that make a difference, but fans here see that it’s not going anywhere," Hales says. "The stakes are in the ground."

All of this takes some getting used to. Over and over again I was told by hardcore fans that supporting the Pelicans is a civic duty. That if they don’t show up, and help turn on others as well, it can be taken away again. Hales’ first task is changing that perspective.

"I’m not blaming anyone for the reason anything was done, but the reality is from the time the team moved here there was always the threat of it moving," he says. "There was more written about how many tickets were sold than there was about how the team was doing on the court. Fans and people in New Orleans were told over and over again, if you want this team to stay it’s your civic duty to buy tickets.

"You are not going to hear about tickets from us. Ticket sales, that’s our responsibility to worry about that. Our job is to entertain you, make sure we put players on the court that represent you and make sure you have a great time. How many we sell is our responsibility, not theirs."

Really, all of this goes back to winning. If the Pelicans win consistently, everything else will take care of itself. That includes Davis’ long-term future in New Orleans. His prospects hang ominously over everything.

"There’s always a fear out there from fans that it will be like Chris," Hales says. "That he’s going to go away. By providing the right kind of environment, being able to win, the risk for that is a lot less than when you have a team that’s constantly in turmoil. The environment that we’re creating and the way he’s embraced this city, it’s made people less frightened that they’re going to be abandoned. That’s how they felt when Chris left."

There will be time enough to talk about all that. The day of reckoning is always looming for star players in small markets, and everyone in the NBA is keeping an anxious eye on developments in the Big Easy. But it’s not quite time yet. The rebirth has barely begun.

"New slate," Davis says. "We started all over. We kind of put the Hornets behind us. Now it’s time to build something with the Pelicans here in New Orleans."

The first time Anthony Davis came to New Orleans, he was unimpressed. His Kentucky team played in a conference championship and won a national title in the city, but he rarely ventured out and Bourbon Street isn’t his style. Now he sounds like a tourism official.

"When I got drafted here, people started showing me around and I’m like, this is pretty cool, pretty dope. So I fell in love with it," Davis says. "Most people think French Quarter, Bourbon Street, Canal but there’s way more to New Orleans than people realize. There’s so much history and culture that I still haven’t seen, things I hear about. It’s a cool place to be. If you haven’t visited, I highly recommend it, because there’s no other place like New Orleans."

Monty Williams can relate. He came here five years ago and made it his year-round home. A devout Christian who’s more at home fishing in the bayou swamps, Williams found his spot far away from the action in the Quarter.

"You just find this little niche and that’s where you are," he says. "Uptown is different than Midtown. Midtown is different than Metairie. New Orleans East is different than Mandeville and all of them are different than the bayou. The Cajuns in the bayou are in a different world. They could care less if they came to the city. They’ve got their own little deal down there. I like it just because it’s a little slower and that’s what I like. You find your little pocket and that’s where you reign."

Williams has been protective of his star player. He doesn’t want to push him too far, too fast. But he sees it happening. He sees the city warily embracing him and a player whose learning quickly what all of that means.

"I think it’s the perfect city for him to be the guy," Williams says. "They want him to be the guy and he’s more comfortable with it. It’s a good city for him to wrap his arms around because they certainly want to wrap their arms around him. The forgiveness of our city because of all the stuff that’s happened here, it’s perfect for a young guy. A young guy is going to make mistakes, he’s not going to be perfect all the time. They just want somebody that wants to be here and to adopt their culture."

During a preseason meeting, Hales asked Davis if  there was anything he doesn’t like about the city. Davis thought about it for a minute and said, yes, ‘We’ve got to fix our streets.’ Hales smiled.

"That’s the lament of every New Orleanian," Hales says. "He didn’t say fix your streets. He said fix our streets."

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.