Orrin Henry spent his childhood splitting time between New Orleans and Alabama. When he was asked if he knew any Pelicans fans who grew up with him, he thought about it for a few seconds. Then a sheepish grin crossed his face as he prepared to admit the truth.
“Actually, I’m a Laker fan,” said Henry. “I’m going to the game tomorrow.”
He loved Kobe Bryant growing up and had plenty of opportunity to see him play.
Jasmine Louis talked about wanting to get Pelicans tickets for her young son because they were often inexpensive. She grew up in Gretna, La., playing basketball and once thought she’d be a basketball player.
Oh, and …
“When I was little I thought the Lakers were for us,” she said, laughing at the memory.
New Orleans is well-established as a Saints town. The polar opposite of Los Angeles, where the Lakers dwarf the Rams, most native New Orleanians care more about the Saints than most things in their lives ... including the Pelicans when they remember to do so. The Pelicans’ small but passionate fan base sometimes finds itself outnumbered in their own arena.
It’s a dynamic that created complicated feelings last season when Anthony Davis demanded a trade in the middle of his seventh season with the organization. On Wednesday he’ll return to New Orleans for the first time since the Pelicans traded him to the Lakers. He is expecting to be booed, but whether he will be is questionable. Not every Pelicans fan is still angry with him. Those that are might have to fight to have their voices heard.
“I don’t think AD’s gonna get booed like people are saying because it’s gonna be hella Lakers fans in there,” said Josh Pichon, a Pelicans fans and New Orleans native. “He was a spectacular talent so I appreciated being able to watch him the years he was here. I’m not going to boo him. I booed him last season, so I got that out of the way. I’m good. To be honest, I like the trade too.”
Seven years of history
The New Orleans Hornets drafted Davis in 2012 and had been a franchise familiar with having stars, and losing them. Chris Paul had been traded to the Clippers the year before Davis arrived and the franchise hit the reset button.
They made the playoffs twice while Davis was part of the team, and he grew from a spindly 19-year-old to a broad-shouldered MVP candidate.
During his third season, he began trying to help in the community. Though he never started a foundation, he held monthly events in conjunction with the Pelicans for a program dubbed AD’s Flight Academy.
“We miss him,” said Keith Liederman, the CEO of Kingsley House, which claims to be the oldest settlement house in the south. “… He was great in our community but really just an awesome part of Kingsley House.”
Davis held events at Kingsley House, treating students there to pizza parties and Q&A sessions in the center’s historic gym, where the ABA’s New Orleans Buccaneers had practiced. He once donated a car he won for being the All-Star MVP to the mother of a Kingsley House pre-school student whose transportation was unreliable. Often, he asked Liederman questions about the organization’s history, which dated back more than 100 years.
He and his family served meals at the New Orleans Mission for Thanksgiving, and he held Christmas-related events.
“I have a lot of love for the city,” Davis said. “Have so many ties to the city, got so many friends and family there. Did so much for the community. I have personal ties there.”
The problem was the basketball.
Davis wanted to contend for a championship and the franchise took a step backward after making the playoffs in the 2017-18 season, when they swept the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.
Davis changed agents from New Orleans-connected Thad Foucher to one of the league’s most powerful men — Rich Paul. Then Paul worked to get Davis out of New Orleans, first by requesting the Pelicans trade Davis, then by making that request public.
In Davis’ next home game, he got some boos and also some cheers. Some fans had convinced themselves that perhaps it was just Davis’ agent pulling the strings. Then Davis did an interview in which he said 29 teams were on his list.
“Literally anywhere but New Orleans,” said Mark Balfe, a 31-year-old partial season-ticket holder who moved to New Orleans three years ago. “This city, they protect their own but once you say anything bad about the city it’s like, all right, we never wanted you to begin with. … As soon as Davis said he wanted to be literally anywhere but New Orleans, he was dead to the city.”
His team staunchly insisted they weren’t giving in, but after a front-office change they found something that worked.
Ultimately, the Lakers gave up their future to get Davis, sending three first-round picks, and the right to swap a fourth pick, along with Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart to the Pelicans.
“I don’t even look back,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “The thing about it is, it was never about AD. AD has a right to ask to be traded. I just think it was the way the process played out. AD is a good kid. Nobody is ever going to make me think anything differently.”
That Ingram has played so well this season softened the blow of Davis’ departure for many Pelicans fans. So did the draft lottery.
Henry was bartending at the Sheraton the night the Pelicans won the draft lottery and the right to select Zion Williamson first overall.
“You would have thought they won the Super Bowl,” he said of the people who gathered to watch the production. “He was like LeBron coming here.”
Balfe said he has been to only five Pelicans home games that felt like true home games — four playoff games in 2018 and a preseason game in which Williamson, their new superstar, was playing.
“I bought a Zion jersey,” said Sean Collins, a Pelicans fan who has lived in Louisiana for 16 years and New Orleans for three. “There was a really good turnout for the open practice, which I guess they do every year. I had no idea, but apparently they do.”
Williamson is expected to make his NBA debut next month after knee surgery.
For how long?
Davis’ teammates hope he gets a warm reception.
“Before he wanted to get traded? Before that they loved him,” said Lakers guard Rajon Rondo, who played for the Pelicans alongside Davis when they upset Portland. “I still think he should get a hell of a standing ovation when he comes back. He’s done so much for that organization, that city. Not just on the court, but off the court. All the kids in the community. He’s a great person off the court as well so they should embrace him. They just didn’t do what they needed to do to keep him.”
That’s at the crux of the problem.
In two short sentences, Xavier Brumfield explained his own lukewarm attachment to the Pelicans.
Who is Brumfield’s favorite Pelicans player?
“My favorite?” he said, as he worked security outside the Kingsley House. “Well, he’s not here anymore.”