Perhaps it was a coincidence. Perhaps not.
But on Wednesday afternoon before Judge Kern Reese’s ruling that Tom Benson is competent to conduct his business affairs, Saints coach Sean Payton gave a ringing endorsement for the man he called “a tremendous owner.” And shortly afterward, Eric Gordon officially opted in for the final year of his contact with the Pelicans.
Those weren’t the actions of people worried the potential consequences of a traumatic ownership change, even if it could be years away.
In other words — it’s still business as usual at 5800 Airline Drive. And, as far as we know, that’s the way it’s been for the past six months when this whole sad family feud first came to public light.
In fact, Benson’s statement after the ruling had been made included the fact that Alvin Gentry will be officially introduced as the Pelicans new coach Monday, something the team had not announced. Obviously the boss is still in charge.
Hopefully Mr. B — and Mrs. B — will be there Monday.
It would be a good sign to the public that Judge Reese’s judgment was the right one.
There’s no reason to think that the Bensons won’t be there.
Since back in mid-December when the effects of medication he was taking recovering from his second knee surgery in less than a year made it, physically, in the words of prosecuting attorney Randy Smith “his worst day,” Benson has made a steady recovery, an impressive accomplishment from an 87-year-old man.
In public, Benson has gone from someone confined to a wheelchair and, frankly, somewhat glassy-eyed, to progressing to a walker and becoming a constant presence at Pelicans games, to conducting a clear-minded discussion with local media at the NFL meetings in March, to viewing OTAs from his familiar golf cart to walking into court with a cane, albeit with assistance, a progression that even his estranged family members must have noted, hopefully with good feelings about it.
He also was meeting daily with Dennis Lauscha and Mickey Loomis, the top executives for both teams.
The clincher for Benson’s side seems to have come April 20 when Reese conducted a Watermeier hearing in Benson’s office in which the judge did all of the questioning.
That made Benson’s testifying in the actual hearing unnecessary and prevented Benson from being cross-examined, something that at the least would have proven stressful.
Thus, precluding a successful appeal, which legal authorities give even less a chance of success than the original suit, this issue is settled. There are still matters about the irrevocable trust Benson established for daughter, Renee LeBlanc, and grandchildren, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, but that may not change the fact that Gayle Benson will ultimately inherit both Benson’s teams but the rest of his financial empire which has made him Louisiana’s richest man.
So, where do things go from here?
Well, although Benson is very much still in charge, Gayle Benson is being fast-tracked for her eventual increased responsibilities as her husband’s successor with increased involvement now.
Lauscha and Loomis are firmly entrenched in running the day-to-day operations, as they have been for some time.
And eventually there will be an expanded board of directors that includes local business interests ensuring the teams’ long-term stability, including remaining in New Orleans.
Since Gayle Benson has no children, a minority owner, who could eventually become the controlling partner, has been discussed. Of course, that precludes the idea of reconciliation with Renee, Rita and Randy.
And that’s the sad part of all this.
From the time she was a teenager, Rita was groomed to one day own the Saints, and, since 2012, the Pelicans.
This is what Benson said in 2000: “I have a granddaughter who’s very interested in owning the team, but she’s only 23. Hopefully I will live long enough that she could take over.”
Over the years, Rita was at her grandfather’s side at NFL meetings, especially the one in 2008 at which New Orleans was awarded Super Bowl XLVII.
Only a year ago, she was the co-chairperson of NBA All-Star Game host committee and was a very visible presence at the weekend’s events.
And we all know how often she was seen with Gayle flanking her grandfather.
But there had already been a paid administrative leave for Rita in 2012 supposedly because her grandfather disapproved of her lifestyle.
Even those who considered Rita a friend conceded she could be difficult to deal with — something that had many concerned about her eventual capability of being an NFL/NBA owner.
So she’s out, after dedicating her life, at least to date, to becoming what could have been the most powerful woman in sports.
That has to hurt. And there’s no reason to think the LeBlancs’ statement about continued to be concerned about his well-being isn’t heartfelt.
Hopefully all concerned will someday find at least a partial path back to each other.
Meanwhile, for Tom Benson, it’s back to doing what a year ago Rita said was her grandfather’s passion — conducting business in the “comfort zone” of his office.
“I don’t plan on retiring,” Benson said back in that interview from 2000. “I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t do this.”
And after Thursday’s ruling, Benson can pretty much be assured that it will be business as usual — for now and also for down the road.