While rain fell on New Orleans for the 10th consecutive hour, sealing Saturday’s distinction as the dreariest day of 2018, bars across the city began to fill.
The New Orleans Pelicans were tipping off their first playoff game since 2015, and at Fat Harry’s on St. Charles Avenue, bouncer Bobby Sullivan surprisingly reached for a second box of blue wrist bands.
“At most, there’s sometimes a dozen people who want to watch the Pelicans in here,” Sullivan said. “This is a lot different.”
Patrons filled the Uptown bar before a 9:40 p.m. tipoff, most standing shoulder-to-shoulder trying to catch a view of the numerous TVs. They roared when the Pelicans built a 19-point second-half lead and moaned as the Trail Blazers pulled within a point in the final minute.
Then, Jrue Holiday prompted cheers and a prolonged “Jruuuuue” filled the room as the guard short-circuited three consecutive Blazers possessions to secure the victory. It’s something New Orleans bars usually reserve for “Dreeeeeew”, Brees that is.
This time, however, fans toasted the Pelicans, celebrating their first playoff win under their Louisiana-centric moniker. In the process, an old adage was proven true.
Winning cures everything.
For years, strident Pelicans fans have bemoaned the citizenry’s lack of passion for its NBA team. Fans grumbled about placement in local media, and shared stories of asking annoyed bartenders to switch the TV from the NFL Network to watch a professional basketball game with “New Orleans” emblazoned across the scoreboard.
They have a point.
Too often, the general conscious of the city is unaware or simply uninterested when the Pelicans tip off one of 82 regular-season games. And operating in the league’s smallest market, apathy is simply not sustainable over the long haul.
But, this month, as the Pelicans hung around the Western Conference race and sealed a playoff berth, it captured some imagination and a glimpse into what’s possible.
“The past handful of weeks, there’s been an increase in interest with the Pelicans,” said Jake Madison, host of the Locked on Pelicans podcast. “You walk into a bar and see people grouped up watching the game on TV. Often, now, they’ll put it on without anyone asking.”
That’s an admittedly low bar. But Saturday night served as a reminder people are willing to care if you give them a reason to.
These are all baby steps on a path to prosperity.
No, the Pelicans aren’t the Saints. They also aren’t LSU football.
There isn’t a birth-given loyalty engendered by the franchise, passed down from generation-to-generation. Each game isn’t the focus of conversation for a week leading up to it and the results aren’t the chatter around the house, office or grocery story line.
But, this is the NBA, a league climbing its way toward the NFL’s stratosphere. National ratings for Saturday’s games grew by 17 percent from last year, a dramatic alternative to the NFL’s languishing audience.
And this is a city and state more than capable of sports devotion, proving it every June when they take over a Nebraska city 950 miles away for a college baseball pilgrimage. Certainly those same people can find some room in their minds to watch Anthony Davis cement his status as a top five player in the league.
This is an international game with a local tenant to pull for, but for some reason, the city and franchise have never found the ideal way to embrace each other. Much of it is due to deep scars, which include the Jazz skipping town in 1979 and Chris Paul demanding his way out in 2011.
The team has won one playoff series since arriving in 2002 and while the individual accomplishments of Davis are a point of fascination, they don’t elicit the passion of simply winning on a big stage. So, it places an even stronger emphasis on this exact moment.
A win in Game 1 lit a match, as experienced on Saturday night and into Sunday afternoon. Winning a series or more is what can create a fire.
New Orleans isn’t too proud to jump on a bandwagon. It just needs to find one rolling in the right direction.
“Over French Quarter Fest weekend I saw as much Pelicans gear in the bar in the two days I worked than I had seen combined in the pre-Boogie era of Pelicans basketball (prior to the middle of last season),” said Kevin Barrios, an employee at Port of Call restaurant and host of The Bird Calls. “The city is excited. It’s clearly engaged in this playoff run.”
The next test comes Tuesday night, when the Pelicans face another 9:30 p.m. tipoff for Game 2. And if the bartenders don’t know to change the channel this time, they are to blame, not the Pelicans.
“The last week in general was busy for Pelicans games,” said Patrick Winters, who operates Ale on Oak Street. “We had did have a jump in business when the game started. I'm also anticipating a busy Tuesday night because of the game.
“It hasn't been this way all season until now.”