For sports fans, hope always springs eternal this time of year. Neither the Saints nor the Tigers has played a game that counts, so both remain officially undefeated. Disappointment may or may not lurk around the corner, but right now, optimism and excitement abound.
Louisianans are used to feeling this seasonal spirit when it comes to football. But to be pumped about the coming NBA season, which doesn’t kick off until October? That’s new.
And that’s how remarkable this Cinderella of an offseason has been for the New Orleans Pelicans, a franchise that has historically struggled to win the full devotion a gridiron-obsessed region. The team’s history in New Orleans, including its early years as the Hornets, has amounted to a series of stops and starts, with occasional triumphs followed by lackluster stretches and not one but two superstars, Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, departing for the bright lights of Los Angeles. Following a brief but exhilarating playoff run in 2018, Davis’ failed gambit to force a trade to the Lakers in the middle of last season set off the latest downturn.
That the lucky bounce of a ping-pong ball gave New Orleans this year’s coveted top draft pick and sent another acclaimed rookie New Orleans’ way is only part of this summer’s remarkable turnaround. Even before the Pelicans managed to land Zion Williamson, the most anticipated rookie since LeBron James, owner Gayle Benson had set a new course by attracting the widely admired David Griffin as new executive vice president of basketball operations.
Other marquee front-office hires have followed, and a message has been sent. This team is rebuilding smartly, investing for the long term, trying to become the sort of operation where a Williamson-caliber player and his young, appealing colleagues might want to stay.
One note of confidence has come from the Saints; Williamson and coach Alvin Gentry have been visible presences at training camp, and 40-year-old Drew Brees has made a big show of passing the team leader baton to Williamson, who just turned 19. Benson also owns the football franchise, of course, but has won praise for finally separating out basketball operations.
Another boost has come from fans who have reportedly flooded the phones to buy tickets to an arena that hasn’t always been full. And the big one came recently from the league, which scheduled the Pels to open the season in Toronto versus the defending league champions, and the national television networks that will air a franchise record of 20 games.
That doesn’t mean quick success is guaranteed, or even realistically expected, and the team is trying to control expectations by talking about slow and steady development.
Still, anticipation is clearly through the roof. That alone amounts to a big victory this offseason.
Now let’s see about winning some games.