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Zion Can Make It Anywhere, but Can He Win Over New Orleans?

The Duke phenom is one of the biggest celebrities in college basketball history, but fitting in with the NBA’s most singular market hasn’t always been as easy as the city’s pace of life. Will New Orleanians put the early departures of their three previous basketball stars behind them and embrace their new large, adult human highlight reel?

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When Lance Broussard Jr. grew up in New Orleans, Chris Paul was always around. The Hornets of Broussard’s youth were defined by the point guard’s grit and precision. Broussard played pickup basketball on courts refurbished by Paul’s foundation and marked with CP3 logos. But now Paul was gone—traded to Los Angeles at his request—and New Orleans had a 13.7 percent chance of landing Anthony Davis, a Kentucky freshman who had led the Wildcats to an NCAA title at the Superdome in early April.

So on May 30, 2012, Broussard, then 19, invited two friends over to his home in Algiers on the West Bank of New Orleans: Kaleb, a childhood friend who had left the city after Hurricane Katrina and recently moved back, and Keith, a former classmate at St. Augustine High School. Kaleb sat on the left. Broussard sat in the middle. Keith sat on the right.

“I remember when we jumped Charlotte,” Broussard says. “I will never forget that moment. That was exciting as hell.”

NBA: NBA Draft Lottery
NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum and New Orleans Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin at the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Seven years, five losing seasons, two playoff appearances, and one tumultuous breakup with Davis later, Broussard invited the same friends over to his home, now on the East Bank of the city, and implored them to be on time. When they settled in, he insisted everyone take the same spot as 2012: Kaleb on the left, Broussard in the middle, Keith on the right. New Orleans had a 6 percent chance at the top pick this time, but the reward was unprecedented: Zion Williamson, a player so dynamic he had already taken on one-name status, joining the ranks of LeBron, Kobe, Magic, and Bird, without ever playing in a Final Four.

“It was as if lightning struck twice,” Broussard says, remembering Memphis popping up on the screen in the second slot and leaving Zion all to New Orleans. “But this is way more sweeter, especially given what we went through.”

Broussard identifies as “one of the biggest Pelicans fans out there.” Given that New Orleans is one of the smallest markets in the NBA and a town preternaturally preoccupied by its football team, he may not be far off.

He speaks fondly of Paul and wistfully of “Pistol” Pete Maravich, the city’s first basketball star. He was less effusive when I brought up Davis. On the evening we spoke, reports had emerged that Davis was angling for a move to New York or Los Angeles. This proved what many had suspected, Broussard says: Davis is less concerned about winning and more intent on a bigger market. A few days later, Davis was dealt to the Lakers.

Davis’s public trade request earlier this year damaged his relationship with New Orleans irreparably. But he had never quite clicked anyway, Broussard says. He lacked the hometown appeal of Maravich and the ferocity of Paul, and couldn’t will the team anywhere past a four-game series in the conference semifinals (Paul at least lasted seven games a decade prior).

New Orleans’s relationship with its basketball team and its stars has never been exceptionally passionate or conducive to success. Davis, the city’s latest basketball headliner, drew national praise and consideration for the NBA’s best honors. But despite his trademarked eyebrow and six All-Star appearances, he never raised the profile of the team to capture the casual fan, or to remotely compete with the city’s love for the Saints, LSU football, or even local college baseball.

New Orleans is insular, at times provincial, exceedingly quirky, and overwhelmingly proud: For outsiders from either coast, it’s a great place to get blotto on fruit juice and rum, but a trying place to play professional basketball.

But now comes Zion and his 3 million-plus Instagram followers. He breaks through Nike shoes, brings Barack Obama out to a regular-season college basketball game, earns LeBron comparisons, and is heralded as the best college player in at least a decade. His star power is unprecedented. His talent is unquantifiable. The question, however, is whether he has what it takes to turn around a long-struggling franchise in a city that values personality just as much as performance.

Bob Remy, 81, was there practically from the start of New Orleans basketball. He watched the ABA expansion team, the New Orleans Buccaneers, play their first of three seasons in 1967. He was the official scorer for the Jazz in their five-year stint in the city, and then for the Hornets for nearly a decade.

Remy, a New Orleans native, remembers feeling as if he had “died and gone to heaven” when the Jazz traded to snag Maravich, a college superstar at nearby LSU, from Atlanta in 1974. Maravich was a shy, down-to-earth player, Remy remembers, referencing a time the shooting guard invited Remy and his son over to his home. There were no winning seasons with Maravich, but he was immensely popular with the fans and his teammates, both for his dazzling play and his commitment to the city. He left when the franchise did, which allowed Maravich to part on genial terms.

When the Jazz moved to Utah, Maravich told Times-Picayune reporter Jimmy Smith: “I’ll say one thing: if in fact this team does anything, if I’m in a situation like Seattle and Washington for the championship, anything I do, I’ll do for the city of New Orleans.

”Whether the team’s in Salt Lake or not, I’ll do it personally for the city of New Orleans.”

When Maravich died in 1988 from a heart condition, Times-Picayune reporter Marty Mulé credited him for having “turned a state and a region onto basketball.”

Remy returned to the scorer’s seat in 2002, when Baron Davis and the Hornets relocated to New Orleans. Back-to-back playoff appearances came the first two seasons, as did back-to-back first-round losses. Then came Paul. Drafted no. 4 overall in 2005, he was the first superstar New Orleans ever drafted. Paul didn’t play with the same flair as Maravich, but he was a gamer; Remy says his instinct was immediately palpable from the scorer’s table.

Chris Paul during a New Orleans Hornets game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 6, 2011
NBAE/Getty Images

“You could see where he was a true competitor,” Remy says. “He loved to win, he loved to fight. You can’t spot that on a lot of players. ... You could see that he had that fiery attitude about him, and the people took to him.”

While many players lived out in suburban Metairie, Paul lived within city limits, a move favored by Saints icons such as Steve Gleason and Drew Brees. He also fixed up local playgrounds and funded after-school programs: At Clay Park, in the city’s Irish Channel neighborhood, the court was painted to mimic Paul’s high school, and at Hardin Park, in the Seventh Ward, the court is painted to look like Wake Forest’s court. Those sorts of decisions matter. New Orleans is not that big of a place, in comparison with other NBA markets, both geographically and in the way in which someone usually knows someone who knows someone. Establishing a presence can turn a player from a celebrity into a New Orleanian.

Paul’s departure was disappointing but understood, given the volatility of the franchise during his tenure. Because of Katrina, the Hornets split their home games in Paul’s rookie season among Oklahoma City; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Norman, Oklahoma; and New Orleans, finishing with a 38-44 record. The next season brought just one more win and another year displaced. It was later reported that owner George Shinn wanted to stay in Oklahoma City for good.

The first season back in New Orleans, in 2007-08, was a success—it ended with a second-place finish in the West and a seven-game second-round playoff series against the Spurs. But things unraveled quickly. Injuries struck. Head coach Byron Scott was fired (a decision Paul said should have been run past him and David West), and the NBA bought the team from Shinn in 2010 to prevent the city from losing its basketball franchise. Paul asked out a year later, but who could blame him?

Davis’s uncoupling from the city, however, won’t be looked upon as fondly.

Jeff Duncan, a sports columnist for the Times-Picayune since 1999, references a French term when talking about Davis: esprit de clocher. The literal definition translates to the “spirit of the clocktower.” The saying comes from small towns in France, Duncan explains, and protecting the integrity of one’s home. Anywhere within earshot of the clocktower’s bells is meant to be defended by the townspeople. Or, in simpler terms, you stand for your city until you’re out of it, and you certainly don’t make a public trade request with more than two months left in the regular season and make a fool out of an entire franchise in hopes of booking a one-way ticket to Los Angeles.

“Davis did all the right things, and he bought into the city, but I don’t think he had quite the dynamic personality to capture the casual sports fan,” Duncan says. “That’s where he fell short. And once the trade request came out, it was over. Once you turn your back on New Orleans, New Orleans is never going to bring you back into the fold.”

Beyond New Orleans natives who root for the home team regardless, there’s also a subsection of Pelicans fans who are post-Katrina transplants who quickly bought in to the city’s sports. Two of my neighbors fit that bill: They were sent to the city via Teach for America in 2014 with no relationship to New Orleans, stayed, and have no plans to leave anytime soon. They are six-year Pelicans season-ticket holders who have missed games only for work and Mardi Gras, and one, Justin Perez, says that had Davis handled the situation differently, he’d still root for his success with the Lakers.

“I’m not going to burn my jersey or anything, ’cause that’s expensive, but I’m not going to wear it out to games or anything either,” he says. “If this trade didn’t go down the way it did and he ended up traded to the Lakers without giving up on New Orleans and wasting the second half of our season, I probably would have bought an AD Lakers jersey and still liked him and rooted for him to get a ring.”

Davis was appreciated, of course, but perhaps never adored. He was billed as “the first step to us winning it all,” by owner Tom Benson. Then–general manager Dell Demps called the 2012 draft lottery “a great day for the city of New Orleans” and the “start of a new beginning.”

Anthony Davis in his infamous “That’s All Folks” t-shirt before a game against the Golden State Warriors in New Orleans on April 09, 2019
Getty Images

But Davis never emerged as an athlete who could lead a team to the postseason consistently, nor a player who could change the perception of a franchise. He did not have the “charisma” to hook casual fans, Duncan says. Remy used the word “magnetism” to describe Maravich and Paul, and what Davis may have lacked. Personality came up a lot when fans described Davis’s shortcomings.

Take DeMarcus Cousins as a counter, Broussard says. In 2017, both he and Davis were named grand marshals for Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club, the city’s largest predominantly black krewe and the marquee event on Fat Tuesday. But Cousins, then just a week into his New Orleans tenure following a surprise trade, was the one to put a pair of neon-yellow women’s underwear on his head, dangle another pair out for the crowd, and drink Hennessy straight from the bottle.

“He has that outgoing personality. He’s galvanizing,” Broussard says. “When he put the panties on his head for Mardi Gras, people fell in love.”

When Cousins rejoined the team during the Pelicans’ 2018 first-round series against Portland in Game 3, Broussard remembers the entire arena chanting “Boogie” emphatically. AD is unlikely to ever get such a warm welcome on his return. In his first game after the trade deadline, he was booed during introductions, and again when he got the ball in the first quarter.

Another prime example is Saints running back Alvin Kamara, a player who has the city hooked on not only his All-Pro play, but also his tendency to ride his scooter around the Central Business District, his insistence on leaving the float during the Endymion parade to take photos with fans, and his four-word summation of his first Mardi Gras: “I’d fuck with it.”

“I think New Orleanians appreciate eccentricity, and he’s an eccentric personality,” Duncan says of Kamara. “He’s his own person. But he did dive in. … He’s very down to earth in a way even Reggie Bush was never embraced like that. Bush came from Hollywood, so to speak. … He was wearing sunglasses in the locker room. That’s not New Orleans. New Orleans is not L.A.”

A player who wants big-market amenities and branding isn’t likely to jell with the city, which makes sense, given that someone who’s more comfortable living in New York or Los Angeles probably isn’t going to be happy in a city of fewer than 400,000 with shoddy infrastructure and oppressive humidity. But it’s the type of place where Kamara, with his piercings and his willingness to ride a garbage truck for a local commercial (without payment) thrives. There’s an appreciation for a slower pace of life and an openness to the off-kilter. In Davis’s defense, Duncan says, it takes a few years to figure out New Orleans.

“This is maybe the most unique city in America because of the history, because of the cultural influences here, that it takes a while to understand all the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the city and the population here,” he says. “And you can’t expect a 19- or 20-year-old kid to understand that right away. And by the time they probably figure that all out, they’re ready to move on.”

The hope is that Zion is different. Broussard is optimistic that he can succeed where Davis faltered, both in winning seasons and local favor. He’s been preparing for Thursday’s draft by watching several Zion highlight videos a day, he says.

2019 NBA Draft - Media Availability
Zion Williamson speaks to the media ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

“I think he’s going to be one that resonates with the city,” Broussard says. “I think he’s going to be the one that really changes things around here.”

Zion is already more marketable than Davis. Stephanie Kauffman runs Mose Mary and Me, a custom saint candle company whose goods are found in boutiques that stock New Orleans–centric goods like gold fleur-de-lis necklaces and backpacks printed with king cakes. Kauffman also sells candles of the city’s most popular figures—Davis, Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, Big Freedia. In the two weeks she’s had a Zion candle in stores, she estimates she’s already surpassed the lifetime sales for the AD candle.

Zion is transcendent, Duncan says, with the potential to change the face of the franchise and the profile of the organization almost immediately. The Pelicans have barely had national television coverage in recent years and have routinely struggled to draw fans to the arena. Williamson could be one of the top-five viewing draws in the league, the type of must-see player who can help lift a leaguewide ratings slump and fill all of those empty seats at the Smoothie King Center; according to The New Orleans Advocate, the Pelicans sold more than 2,000 season tickets on the night of this year’s draft lottery. If Zion can raise ratings for one of the most high-profile programs in college basketball, he can certainly help fill some seats at the Smoothie King Center. Zion has a built-in following, small-town Southern roots, and a commitment to signing every single autograph he’s asked to (in part because of a time he was snubbed by Davis).

Remy and Broussard are New Orleans basketball fans from two very different generations. It’s quite likely they have little in common besides their hometown and their adoration for its teams. But when asked about the keys to winning over the city, their sentiments were eerily similar: This is a town that appreciates a player who embraces the city, despite its flaws and its small-market identity. It’s also a town that will pick up pretty quickly on whether a player is going through the motions or wholeheartedly buying in.

“Either you get the city or you don’t,” Duncan says. “I have family members [who don’t]. We all have friends like that. I think it takes a lot though, to understand at a young age, to appreciate the history.

“It will be interesting to see how Zion adapts. I think everybody’s different. It doesn’t really matter where you’re from, it’s more about your joie de vivre. It’s about, do you understand how the city ticks? It’s unlike any other place in the country.”

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