Taking the scenic route: the winding road of pro basketball in New Orleans


Paul Trujillo | Sports Layout Editor

Professional basketball in New Orleans has been quite the rollercoaster. The city got a team, lost it, gained another, lost it, reclaimed it and finally renamed it. This story of the New Orleans Pelicans has been complicated to say the least, but its effects have had a significant nationwide impact.

The city of New Orleans first had an NBA team from 1974-79, when it hosted the New Orleans Jazz. The Jazz, despite being led by renowned guard and Louisiana State product “Pistol Pete” Maravich, played five mediocre seasons and moved to Utah, where they became the Utah Jazz.

New Orleans’ second basketball team, the New Orleans Hornets, was founded in 1988 as the Hornets of Charlotte, North Carolina. This newly-founded franchise got off to a hot start. After only a few years of play, the team featured a stellar lineup of 5-foot-3-inch Muggsy Bogues, Dell Curry (father of Stephen Curry), Larry Johnson and Alonso Mourning. The team had its first postseason berth in the 1992-93 season. Following its first playoff run, the team made the postseason three more times in the ’90s, having an unusual amount success for such a new team.

Though the team continued its success in the 2000’s, controversy began to take a toll on the team’s attendance numbers. After Hornets owner George Shinn was charged with sexual assault, the team seemingly couldn’t get anything to go its way. After Charlotte rejected a plan for a new Hornets arena, Shinn decided to pack up and move the team to New Orleans, only to be replaced by the newly formed Charlotte Bobcats in 2004.

The Hornets started off with decent seasons in New Orleans, making the playoffs in both the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons. The following seasons, however, did not go according to plan.

When Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005, the Hornets had no choice but to begin play somewhere else. As part of a temporary relocation, the team played the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons in Oklahoma City as the Oklahoma City Hornets. This move sparked the beginning of professional basketball in Oklahoma City. Following the Hornets successful return to New Orleans, the Seattle Supersonics relocated to the city as the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After their return to New Orleans, the Hornets won their first division title behind guard Chris Paul and forward David West. Though this play was not replicated in the following seasons, since Paul was traded and West left in free agency, the team remained mediocre up until 2012, when it was purchased by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson.

Benson, wanting to make the franchise more original to the community, decided in 2012 to rename the team the Pelicans after Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican. This corresponded with Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan’s 2014 decision to take the Hornets name, thus recreating the Charlotte Hornets and bringing the story back to present day.

The Pelicans have definitely not had the easiest road to existence. This journey, however, was one of the most important courses of NBA history, as the Utah Jazz, Charlotte Hornets and Oklahoma City Thunder’s existence all depended on this journey. While complicated and bizarre, the unsung story of the New Orleans Pelicans is an important story for NBA fans both here in New Orleans and across the nation.

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