There’s a certain resiliency in New Orleans. There has to be, in a city so decimated by mother nature that locals and transplants alike still refer to places as “pre-Katrina” and “post-Katrina.” Reminders of the chaos come no bigger than the Superdome, home to tens of thousands during Hurricane Katrina. And in its shadow, the Smoothie King Center, home to the New Orleans Pelicans.
Smoothie King Center opened a few years pre-Katrina, though the Pelicans name did not go into effect for the New Orleans franchise until eight years after the hurricane. In the time since, New Orleans has swept the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the 2018 Playoffs, but otherwise, the Pelicans have been a fringe playoff team. Last year, they fell from that uneven plateau, undone by the trade request of a star they never were able to properly surround with a championship-competitive supporting cast.
Anthony Davis still looms large in New Orleans. As much as the fans clung quickly to the prospect of a new star in Zion Williamson, their former cornerstone still has jerseys dotting the streets and inside the stadium. Fans talk dismissively of the seasons past and hopefully about what’s to come. Yet, there is an unspoken current below the surface, that perhaps this town will again fall short of pacifying a star player and number one overall pick.
Zion Williamson must wait to truly carry the mantle of the Next Big Thing in The Big Easy, but he is not the only new addition in NOLA. The results of the Davis trade led to a remade team, with a front office led by General Manager David Griffin extracting the best of the Los Angeles Lakers’ assets. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were both second overall picks in the NBA Draft, now jettisoned, in Ball’s case by his hometown team. Josh Hart is the type of player that does the little things, and is appreciated by home fans for it. The accompanying picks have already multiplied and resulted in Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, along with a stash of Showtime selections in the years ahead.
The positive spin on a negative situation is typical of the attitude in New Orleans. “We’ve all got our things,” said one resident. “But nobody is trying to move anywhere else.” The attitude means that those who stayed or came back after Hurricane Katrina made a conscious decision to live their lives while constantly being reminded of what once was. And yet, there is no exclusivity to the tag of resident, with long-term occupants of NOLA quickly embracing new transplants as “from there,” no matter the length of their domicile.
The attitude of the city was reflected in the New Orleans Pelicans hashtag for the season. Mysteriously rolled out as #WBD, the Pelicans adapted a positive refrain of “Won’t Back Down” to characterize their team and the season ahead. The phrase was blared in the stadium before their first home game, and carried on by the fans in attendance long after the initial crowd prompting had ended — the sound of a public relations success story with the feel of a city motto pouring in up to the opening tip.
The cheers would be loudest that opening home game during introductions for franchise favorite Jrue Holiday, though Lonzo Ball’s penultimate intro received a respectful roar of approval. Fittingly, the two UCLA-bred guards would share ball-handling duties throughout that first night — their first of four straight losses — and each game since. While it has been Ingram who has proven most efficient and aggressive through the early going of the season, it was his fellow Duke-bred reclamation project in Jahlil Okafor who led the team in scoring during their first victory, and their fifth game. The four lottery picks are all emblematic of the identity this franchise is working to form for itself, mirroring the attitude the town they play in has epitomized.
The “Won’t Bow Down” chants filled the arena again during the Pelican’s fifth game and first victory of the season. A 12-0 fourth quarter run gave the team that had battled in every game to that point the breathing room to appreciate their first win, and allow the crowd to appreciate their hustle, fortitude, pace and new identity up-close. It took five games for the New Orleans Pelicans to win their first game with this new identity, but each defeat helped pave the way for that comfortable first win of the season. And that victory is another step in the rebuilding process that a team of reclamation projects and hopeful franchise cornerstones alike will face together. A victory for the team, and for the town, both refusing to bow down.