Out on 5800 Airline Drive, it’s the time of year when anything seems possible.
The football Saints are in the middle of OTAs, and everybody’s saying that the problems that led to last year’s disappointing 7-9 finish have been resolved, or at least will be by September.
The basketball Pelicans have a new coach, and all of the optimism that comes with that.
But down at Loyola and Poydras, just a couple of blocks from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the Smoothie King Center, where the Saints and Pelicans play, there’s a different mood.
The Tom Benson competency lawsuit trial went though its fifth day Friday behind closed doors in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. And no matter how things come out, there won’t be any winners in this step of what promises to be a long and grueling process of determining the future of New Orleans’ two major professional sports franchises, which are the only NBA and NFL teams located in the same city and owned by the same person.
While the testimony of family members, others involved on either side in the case and expert witnesses will remain sealed indefinitely, having to say and hear what has to be deeply wounding things about people whom you’ve loved your entire life must be brutal.
These are rifts that may be beyond repair, especially when the laying open of your differences is being done by attorneys.
“Anybody who has been on that (witness) stand for a few hours is probably happy it’s done,” Randy Smith, the attorney representing Renee Leblanc, Benson’s daughter, along with Rita and Randy LeBlanc, his grandchildren, adding that Renee’s testimony was “grueling and emotional.”
And those are the younger plaintiffs.
Imagine the physical, mental and emotional toll on 87-year-old Tom Benson. And that’s before he may or may not be called on to testify.
Since in a civil trial whether the defendant testifies can be taken into consideration by the judge in determining his verdict, Benson’s testimony would seem vital.
This current trial isn’t the end of things, either.
No matter how it comes out, there will be an appeal. And beyond this stage of things, there doubtless will be more legal maneuverings. And more after that.
Meanwhile, the public’s interest is focused on how it’s going to affect their favorite teams.
Seems sort of out of whack but also understandable.
We don’t pretend to know which side will or should prevail in this. But we do have a good idea of what it will mean.
If Benson, who purchased the Saints 30 years ago this week, is found competent, he will be allowed to pass along ownership to his wife, Gayle, who has been uncharacteristically absent from her husband’s side this week.
Gayle Benson wouldn’t be doing it alone though. Besides Dennis Lauscha, president of both the Saints and Pels, and Mickey Loomis, the vice president of operations, plus other current executives, there would be a board of directors representing local business interests.
A minority owner who would eventually move into controlling partner status is a distinct possibility.
If it goes the LeBlancs’ way, they eventually would control the teams through an irrevocable trust Benson set up in their names before changing his mind early this year.
The implications beyond the certainty that both the business and competitive leadership of both teams who have gone all-in for Benson would be removed are unclear.
The NFL and NBA would certainly weigh in on the succession plans, and the possibility that the heirs would sell or move one or both teams is a decade away.
Besides, who would want to sell or more an NFL franchise that’s worth more than $1 billion and has a 77,000-name waiting list — that’s right, 77,000 — for season tickets?
Or to get rid of a basketball team whose value has doubled in the three years Benson has owned it and who boasts a player who just three years into his career is one of the NBA’s best?
Maybe that’s why Mr. B’s edict this week has been business as usual.
Pelicans General Manager Dell Demps completed his coaching search with the hiring of veteran Alvin Gentry, a choice that looks better with each passing day, especially after the addition of highly-regarded defensive wunderkind Darren Erman, plus New Orleans native Robert Pack as the first two members of Gentry’s coaching staff.
This team’s leadership obviously intends to become a title contender in the near future. A highly-regarded coaching staff whose philosophy fits Demps’ vision is the first step towards convincing Anthony Davis of that.
If the outcome of the Benson trial was a concern for anyone on either side of the coaching search, it was certainly muted.
The signing of Cameron Jordan to a five-year, $60 million contract extension, the richest for a defensive player in team history, shows that the Saints’ brass is looking at winning both the here and now and down the road.
Rest assured that Benson would rather be signing off on the deals than having to go through this.
“Things are dragging a little bit here,” the famously impatient man said when exiting the courtroom Thursday.
Saints coach Sean Payton acknowledged Thursday that things are different without Mr. B around.
“We miss having him out here, obviously,” Payton said. “And I miss the opportunity to visit with him on a daily basis.
“But I know he is looking forward to getting back, and I am sure it will all be behind him.”
Were that it was that easy.
But for now, enjoy this summer of unlimited possibilities for the Saints and Pels.
And say a little prayer that the Bensons and the LeBlancs one day will find closure and somehow heal their wounds.