The Pelicans were born in 1887. That's the New Orleans Pelicans, the minor league baseball team, which fizzled out by the late 1950s. Shoeless Joe Jackson got one of his professional starts with the team, which played in City Park and in its own Pelican Stadium on Carrollton Avenue. But by 1960, New Orleans was one of the largest U.S. cities without a baseball team. A few years later, football's New Orleans Saints were born, and in 1975, the Superdome became the Holy Ground Zero of New Orleans.
But the year before, the New Orleans Jazz made its NBA debut, with LSU star "Pistol" Pete Marovich. The team went from the NBA's worst to the NBA's not-so-bad. A few years later, the financially struggling franchise moved to Utah — and kept the Jazz nickname.
Then, in 2002, Charlotte, N.C.'s Hornets — another cash-strapped team and seemingly run out of town — relocated to New Orleans. It was only a matter of time before billionaire Tom Benson lassoed the team into his stable of New Orleans institutions. There's his media empire — he owns WVUE-TV and the New Orleans Saints and is a partner of The New Orleans Advocate (it's his team's official newspaper) — and then there are his two towers, the Superdome and the New Orleans Arena, two massive sports complexes housing the Super Bowl-winning, legacy football team and the brand-new basketball franchise —the other Pelicans, the newly rebranded NBA team that will make its debut Oct. 5 in an away game against the Houston Rockets (see schedule, p. 20).
While the Saints are among New Orleans' most treasured and revered objects of affection — alongside stereotypical "local" traditions like parades and po-boys — the Pelicans enter the Arena as a sort of basketball equivalent of a reboot. Benson has full faith in his Pelicans becoming what the Hornets were never: a team not just from New Orleans, but of New Orleans — something a city can get behind not just because it's what you do if you're a basketball fan and there's a basketball team in your town, but because we're sports fans, and we're rooting for our team in our town.
General Manager Dell Demps and head coach Monty Williams have put in several seasons' worth of work securing (and paying top dollar for) excellent players. This season is no exception. Anthony Davis returns as a young veteran and Team USA Olympian. His unibrow is trademarked, as is "Fear the Brow." And he loves New Orleans. Now it's up to fans to embrace him, and the Pelicans.
I've often wondered if New Orleans is a "basketball town." Does the sport thrive in the South? The careers of countless NBA legends were launched in the Midwest, from Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois and yes, in the South by way of Kentucky. Davis and Darius Miller are Wildcats from the University of Kentucky — where basketball reigns supreme. But deeper South, football is religion. High school and college football attract thousands of fans in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. So does basketball — but football sits at the head of the Southern sports table.
Benson and Co. have wiped the slate clean with a kind of blind trust that New Orleans will love and care for the team in the way a parent trusts his or her son or daughter with a new puppy. They may have tested the kids with a goldfish or a hamster; now it's time for them to learn to care for the family dog.
Team honchos could've dumped the naming and branding to some kind of consulting guru and let the Pelicans be an ad agency's problem. Instead, there was a gentle, almost reverential approach to crafting the Pelicans' new image. The naming itself wasn't just, "It's a cool bird. Let's run with that." Sure it's sentimental and goofily earnest to expand the name from the state motto and flag (the red stands for blood, which represents union, etc.), but the intent is for Louisiana to make the team in its image.
And it looks really, really good. The white home uniforms will make a dramatic pop from the wood, which is flanked by deep navy blue. At center court: the team logo, which boldly says "New Orleans" underscored by "Pelicans." The team got a gentle ribbing from sportswriters when players revealed the uniforms — lots of white space, small lettering — but on the front of the jerseys is "NEW ORLEANS." Only two other NBA teams feature the name of their home city on their uniforms (the Oklahoma City Thunder and Brooklyn Nets being the others). It sends a message that the team belongs in New Orleans. The franchise logo and uniforms tell the NBA, and New Orleans, that the city comes first.
As for the team's nickname, why not The Pels? Our Pels. Maybe even The Pellies, if you want to get all Northeastern about it. The rebranding opportunities are endless, from the cheerleading squad to the gift shop's name and the free game program you get at the door of the Arena. Hugo the Hornet was a big, dopey, kid-friendly mascot, but he was a great reminder around town that, "Hey, New Orleans has a basketball team."
Now Hugo is gone — but what about a pelicanized Hugo? New Orleans and pelican mascots go together like red beans and rice. A goofball pelican named Seymour D. Fair was the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition mascot, and a gray pelican named Riptide appears on Tulane University's Green Wave sidelines.
How good is it that we can already speculate about the names Pelicans haters will use when they taunt the team? All great teams have a "villain" nickname (think "The Aints"). To our opponents, we're the Peli-can'ts, or even basketball's version of the Dirty Birds. Embrace the haters, Pelicans.