LeBron James’ homecoming to Northeast Ohio was the sports storyline of the summer, but his admirers are ubiquitous.
No matter which NBA arena James appears in, throngs of well-wishers in his replica jersey are sure to follow. At 7 p.m. Friday, when James and his Cleveland Cavaliers come to New Orleans, the Smoothie King Center is merely the latest stop on the tour.
For Pelicans employees, there’s no need to look at the schedule. It’s obvious who is coming to town.
Text messages from long-lost friends and slightly connected acquaintances start appearing on phones with ticket requests. Email inboxes of anyone connected to the Pelicans are jammed up, with people hoping for a chance to see the “King.”
“You know, when people start asking for tickets weeks in advance, that it’s someone like LeBron coming in,” Pelicans television analyst and former NBA guard David Wesley said. “It gets kind of crazy.”
Even the world’s most famous couple — Britain’s Prince William and Kate Middleton — cashed in on an opportunity to see James in person, sitting courtside in Brooklyn on Monday night.
Not that the Pelicans are opposed to taking advantage of the hysteria. A ticket priced at $62 in the upper reaches of the arena on Friday can be had for $12 four days later when the Utah Jazz come to town.
Yet the cost won’t slow down the masses, who are expected to tally the team’s third sellout of the season.
(James did sit out Thursday’s game at Oklahoma City, though coach David Blatt said before tipoff he didn’t think James’ soreness was anything serious.)
The result is an atmosphere resembling something between a concert, political rally and revival. As experienced Pelicans’ employees attest, an hour before tipoff, fans rush toward the lower rows with phones in hand, screaming praises at James in hopes of getting an up-close shot — worthy of sending to friends or posting on social media.
Then, during the starting lineups, after an eerie quiet greets the first four Cavs, before thunderous ovation is unleashed as James high-fives his teammates and removes his warmups.
The real issue becomes when the game begins. The Pelicans’ typical home court advantage starts to trend into a neutral site or sometimes topples over into the feel of a road game for the team with “New Orleans” written across its chest.
“It’s interesting over the past 10 to 12 years with the NBA back in the city, that there have been times when a superstar comes to town and that players’ support and jersey have been very prominent in the arena,” said Sean Kelley, Pelicans’ radio play-by-play announcer who has been with the franchise since the 2005-06 season. “Then there are times when a superstar comes in the building and you get the feeling that people in New Orleans want their guys to beat that guy.
“It kind of goes up and down. But now with Anthony Davis emerging, you’re starting to see people really connecting with the team again. It will be interesting to see how it plays out in the stands.”
Pelicans third-year guard Austin Rivers said it’s an atmosphere the players relish either way. It’s an opportunity to win over fans by showing what their capable of and do it in front of a playoff-level crowd.
“Superstars bring that to the table, and it’s fun to play in those games because every game they play is in primetime and national TV,” Rivers said. “You didn’t see the Cavs on TV, ever. Now, he gets there and they’re on every night. It’s well-deserved.”
The effect isn’t limited to LeBron and it certainly isn’t unique to New Orleans. The NBA, more than any other sport, creates legions of fans for individual players that defy the boundaries of proximity.
During Tuesday night’s 104-93 victory over the New York Knicks, dozens of blue-and-orange clad fans applauded for Carmelo Anthony in the same fashion.
“I’ve been all about Carmelo since he was in college,” Marrero resident and New Orleans native Daryl Washington said. “I pulled for him in Denver and definitely with the Knicks. I want the Pelicans to win most of the time, but not when they play Carmelo.”
It’s a phenomenon Pelicans television announcer Joel Meyers has seen in nearly every building during his distinguished career, particularly as the voice of the Los Angeles Lakers for eight seasons as Kobe Bryant ascendended to international stardom.
“There were many places we went where the MVP chants for Kobe were louder than anything happening for the home team,” Meyers said. “I haven’t seen anything like that in New Orleans, though. I think people here are so prideful of this place and their teams and they care too much about their own for it to get to that level.”
But BourbonStreetShots.com writer Jake Madison said he remembers when James scored 27 points in the Miami Heat’s 2013 victory over the Pelicans, where the crowd erupted during a scoring flurry.
“It’s just annoying,” Madison said. “I mean, it’s nice to get a full arena and see something special, but I see our own season ticket holders who show up wearing LeBron and Kobe jerseys, and I don’t get it.”
The answer is simple. It’s about stardom.
In turn, the Pelicans are counting on Davis, a budding All-Star and one of the league’s brightest new attractions, to turn home games from a showcase for visitors into one about its full-time tenants.
While fame is usually coupled with success in the postseason, the Pelicans are starting to notice a buzz for Davis in opposing arenas. Meyers referred to it as a “quiet admiration”, but also highlighted a group of fans during Sunday’s victory over the Lakers in Los Angeles, dressed in New Orleans jerseys and adorned with eyebrows painted to resemble Davis’ trademarked look.
“I see it with Anthony,” said Pelicans color analyst and former NBA guard David Wesley. “You do know pretty easily that he’s relevant. You do walk around the cities and people are talking about him, and if they know you’re with the team, he’s the first thing that comes up. Around the hotel, the autograph hounds are out there with their big posters and pictures that they want to get signed. That’s all part of it.”