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Just How Tense Will Anthony Davis’s Return to New Orleans Be?

On Wednesday night, the Lakers star will return to the city he called home for seven years. Fans will almost certainly boo him—but how ugly will it get?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Earlier this month, Stadium released a video interview with Anthony Davis. He was wearing a blue and black Nike zip-up, a white KTH LA hat, and a hesitant smile. His interviewer, Shams Charania, brought up Davis’s return to New Orleans on November 27.

“I was talking with someone the other day,” Davis said, “and they were like, ‘You think they’re going to give you a tribute video?’” He shakes his head and laughs. “And I don’t know.”

“Should they?” asked Charania.

“That’s on them,” Davis said.

It’s unfathomable that the Pelicans wouldn’t give Davis a tribute video, though his first game back in the Smoothie King Center since the franchise granted him a trade will be the most tense homecoming since LeBron James’s infamous return to Cleveland in 2010. There will be anti-AD shirts and signs, as there always are for past superstars with bad endings, and the booing will be incessant. (Jimmy Butler was booed when he returned to Philadelphia last week, and he was there for only 67 games.) But the tribute video is something the Pelicans can control, and the bar for earning one has been significantly lowered across the league in recent seasons. The Hawks, for example, made a tribute video for Mike Scott back in 2017. (Scott started seven games total for Atlanta. The video was 15 seconds long. But sweet!)

Davis spent seven years with the Pelicans, long enough for the head coach, the owner, the general manager, and the mascot to each change. He fought injury after injury and gave the Pelicans an All-Star, an All-NBA player, and two playoff appearances. Davis even re-signed in 2015, despite little proof at the time that the front office could ever put a proper team around him. They didn’t. He nearly saw the contract through.

“A great six and a half years,” Davis said in the video with Charania, “and then that last half … .” He mashed his fists together as if to show conflict. Goodwill dissolves quickly in the NBA, especially for players who want out. Davis’s trade request last January was unprecedented and off-putting in how public it was, and it eventually resulted in the NBA fining Davis $50,000 for violating a rule that prohibits public trade requests. His agent, Rich Paul, had alerted the media outright that Davis would not be re-signing with New Orleans. It was scandalous and borderline disrespectful, worsened by the rumors that Davis wanted to team up with LeBron in Los Angeles. (Forced trades, superstar teaming up with superstar, LeBron, and the Lakers: It was a bingo card of things fans claim to be unfair.) Trade requests usually happen behind closed doors, even if the media is later tipped off to put pressure on one side. That summer, Paul blamed former Pelicans GM Dell Demps for the request going public, insisting that Demps wouldn’t call him back. Not long after, AD was dealt for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks, with Paul’s comments fresh in the public mind. The stink got stinkier.

The sense of betrayal festered through the offseason, even after New Orleans acquired the first overall pick. Zion Williamson’s arrival didn’t change Davis’s departure. Had Kyrie Irving been picked one draft earlier, LeBron’s reception in Cleveland probably would’ve still been just as hostile. (Though Irving wouldn’t be a Cavalier had their first LeBron-less season not been so terrible, and while extremely talented, Irving was also not the godly prospect Zion is.)

Davis has leaned on LeBron in anticipation of Wednesday, and there’s no teammate better to warn AD of what to expect. LeBron’s return on December 2, 2010, was the ugliest homecoming this century. Groups of people spelled out “BETRAYED” and “LeBUM” with their shirts; signs that said “witless” were held, a play on words to LeBron’s “witness” Nike campaign; fans demanded that former Cavaliers teammates “physically harm” LeBron; 9-volt batteries were thrown onto the court. The NBA’s security team wanted to call the game. “We were basically ducking behind the scorer’s table just to not get hit,” said one of the Heat security guards. “I remember saying, ‘This is the most hate I’ve seen. Ever.’”

There was no tribute video then. At least, I can’t find one. It’s hard to imagine that the Cavs would’ve shown one, both out of resentment and concern for their video equipment. (LeBron did get his tribute when he returned to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse for the first time as a Laker. Winning a championship earns certain privileges.) There was no tribute for Kevin Durant when he came to Oklahoma City in 2017 as a Warrior, but the Thunder claim that this is team policy: No one gets a tribute video. (It’s worth noting that OKC released one online for Russell Westbrook after his trade this summer, but Westbrook has yet to return to Chesapeake Energy Arena.) Durant’s first game back was nowhere near as violent as LeBron’s—I doubt NBA security will allow that to ever happen again—but it was angry. Cupcake shirts, signs, and chants filled the building, transforming cute miniature cakes into something cutthroat and callous. KD later called it a “venomous, toxic” environment. His mom, Wanda, said fans called her son a snake and a coward. “One guy even called him—I can’t even say it—the p-word. In my face.”

As vicious as both scenarios were, LeBron and Durant both moved teams in free agency, not in a trade. A situation more similar to Davis’s is Kawhi Leonard’s return to San Antonio as a Raptor in 2019 after he forced a trade that offseason. Before the game, San Antonio played a tribute video for Leonard and Danny Green, who was also involved in the trade to the Raptors. Each time Green was on screen, the crowd cheered; each time Leonard appeared, they booed. They booed him through warmups and each time he touched the ball, chanted “traitor” when he was at the free throw line, and cheered when he missed. When the game ended, Leonard hugged Gregg Popovich and walked off the court.

No one knows how bad it’ll be for Davis on Wednesday, but he’ll definitely get booed. It won’t be the first time, either. Last February, in his first active game after the trade request, he was heckled while still in a Pelicans jersey. Yet it’s also clear now that both teams are better off for the trade. Los Angeles is 15-2 and atop the Western Conference. New Orleans, at 6-11, doesn’t have the immediate success of its counterpart, but it does have a new future. Brandon Ingram is the front-runner for the league’s Most Improved Player award. Zion, who tore his meniscus during preseason and is expected to return mid-December, has yet to play a game.

“I’ve done a lot of great things on and off the floor for New Orleans,” Davis says in the video, “and I don’t regret it one bit. I’m closely tied with the city. If they do [make a tribute video], I’d much appreciate it. If they don’t, then I understand why not.” The Pelicans, for the first time in some time with Davis, have the last say.