Monty Williams says chemistry will be key for Pelicans' season _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Layne Murdoch Jr. photographs New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps, New Orleans Pelicans head coach Monty Williams, Vice Chairman of the Board of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans Rita Benson LeBlanc, Dennis Lauscha, president of Saints and Pelicans, Saints GM Mickey Loomis, and New Orleans Pelicans and Saints owner Tom Benson and his wife Gayle Benson at Pelicans Media Day in Metairie, La. Monday, Sept. 29, 2014.

You’ve seen them in numerous pictures and perhaps in person, although much less frequently of late.

Tom Benson, Louisiana’s richest man and owner of the state’s two major professional sports franchises, flanked by his wife, Gayle, and his granddaughter, Rita LeBlanc.

But rarely just the two women, rarely side by side without Benson between them and rarely, if ever, engaged in conversation.

Such, apparently, was the relationship between Gayle Benson and LeBlanc, who are now embroiled over the future ownership of the Saints, the Pelicans and Tom Benson’s other business holdings after he announced he was transferring them from his granddaughter to his wife.

Renee Benson and Ryan LeBlanc, Rita’s mother and brother, also have been cut out of the ownership picture.

But the public’s focus — especially now that Rita LeBlanc and her family have filed a civil petition to declare Tom Benson mentally incompetent and thus unable to make such a decision — is Gayle versus Rita.

Heir apparent versus step-grandmother.

Such is the depth of their division that LeBlanc’s attorney, Randy Smith, has asked that the Benson portion of her name be dropped, saying it was added by her grandfather and has no basis in fact.

“No matter who you support, this is truly sad,” one person with knowledge of the situation said on Thursday. “No matter how it comes out, people are going to be hurt.

“They’ve already been deeply hurt, most of all Tom Benson.”

It’s easy so see why. Benson has long expressed his love and gratitude to both.

From the time she was a teenager, LeBlanc, who turned 38 on Jan. 11, had been groomed to be her grandfather’s successor.

He proudly took her to NFL owners meetings, introducing her to one and all.

And in 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina drove the Saints from New Orleans for a year — and for a time, it appeared perhaps permanently — to San Antonio, near her hometown of Johnson City, Texas, LeBlanc was named owner/executive vice president of the club.

Her title was changed to owner/vice chairman of the board in 2012, when Benson purchased the Pelicans, then the Hornets, making him the only person in the country to own both NFL and NBA teams located in the same city.

In a world where female executives are still few and far between, LeBlanc was viewed as a rising star who would be a driving force in sports for decades.

“She’s young, she’s vibrant, she’s smart, she’s warm, she’s good-looking and good-hearted,” is how New Orleans real estate developer and philanthropist Roger Ogden described LeBlanc in a 2009 newspaper profile.

But in the same story, Ogden added, “It’s not easy being Rita Benson LeBlanc.”

Apparently not.

In 2012, the same year she gained the title she held until Wednesday and during the time Benson purchased the then-Hornets from the NBA, LeBlanc was on what was described as an unofficial paid administrative leave because her grandfather disapproved of her lifestyle, which tended more to enjoying the luxuries of her family’s wealth than working to maintain it.

But after her return to work, LeBlanc apparently was in good graces enough to be the co-chairman of the NBA All-Star Game host committee last year as well as to take a lead role in the development of Champions Square and Benson Tower, although there were complaints about delays she supposedly caused.

And according to sources, LeBlanc had both reverted to that previous lifestyle while also being abrasive toward Benson’s other executives. That, the sources added, had the potential to prove embarrassing to her grandfather.

It also apparently was the last straw for Gayle Benson, who since her marriage to Tom Benson in 2004, the third for both, had worked hard to improve the image of a man who was the most vilified person in the state following Katrina because he supposedly wanted to abandon New Orleans for San Antonio or Los Angeles.

“I told him, ‘Tom, all you have to do is smile, wave and let it be known you are trying to do the right thing, and the people will love you,’ ” Gayle Benson, who is 19 years younger than her husband, said in an interview last year before her husband’s induction into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.

Obviously, the Saints unexpectedly advancing to the NFC Championship Game in their emotion-filled 2006 return to the Superdome and winning Super Bowl XLIV three years later helped.

So did purchasing the Hornets when the team’s future in New Orleans was uncertain.

On top of that, Benson’s rehabilitation has included numerous charitable donations, most notably to Catholic institutions such as Loyola University and Incarnate Word in San Antonio, which helped earn them the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, the highest papal honor Catholic laypeople can receive.

Additionally, he endowed the Tom and Gayle Benson Cancer Center at Ochsner Jefferson, and at Tulane, where Gayle Benson is now on the board of trustees, the playing field at Yulman Stadium is named in their honor.

A similar donation to the Pro Football Hall of Fame will result in Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio, being renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.

Not that Gayle Benson is giving away all of her husband’s money.

Known for her enjoyment of the finer things in life, she and her husband live in a $4.4 million mansion on Audubon Place with appropriate furnishings she chose herself.

That’s appropriate because the former Gayle Marie LaJaunie went from graduating from the long-closed Behrman High School in Algiers, in 1964, to working as a receptionist in a dentist’s office to managing a home-sales jewelry company to becoming an interior designer after taking college correspondence courses in the 1980s.

Among her projects were two of Benson’s auto dealerships in Metairie, although the two never met before 2004, when he asked her out after seeing her at an early Mass at St. Louis Cathedral.

The two were married later that year in San Antonio but later had a wedding party in New Orleans for more than 1,000 guests.

Confessing to having little interest in sports when they met, Gayle Benson has been a fixture at her husband’s side at virtually every Saints and Pelicans game since, usually holding his hand as they sit together.

It was her idea to approach Mercedes-Benz about the long-dormant quest to sell the naming rights to the Superdome, and she played a major role in the rebranding of the Hornets to the Pelicans.

But until now, she was not listed as owner or future owner of the teams.

When and if she does take that role, Gayle Benson is expected to lean heavily on team President Dennis Lauscha and General Manager/Executive Vice President Mickey Loomis along with the rest of the management team in the decision-making process.

“She was born in New Orleans,” Benson said of his wife in a statement released on Thursday. “She has been a businesswoman in this city for many years and is actively involved in many charitable organizations.

“She is the most logical and natural person closest to me who will ensure the continuity, the stability and the success of our Saints and Pelicans in the city of New Orleans for a long time. The future is bright and secure for both teams here in New Orleans.”


But Rita LeBlanc has not had her final word on the subject.