Tom Benson, a towering figure in New Orleans who owned the NFL’s Saints and the NBA’s Pelicans, died Thursday at the age of 90. His widow, Gayle Benson, assumed control of both teams, although some members of Benson’s family may try again to contest that.
Benson had been admitted to a New Orleans-area hospital with flulike symptoms in February, and according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, after being moved to the intensive care unit, he remained there until he died. He bought the Saints in 1985 to keep the team in place and help it anchor his beloved but struggling city, and he went on to purchase the Pelicans, then called the Hornets, in 2012.
Having married his third wife, Gayle Benson, in 2004, Benson revealed considerable tension in the family when he made a surprising announcement in 2015 that he would be ending a planned succession of his teams and other holdings to his daughter Renee Benson and his two grandchildren through her, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. Instead, he designated Gayle Benson as that heir, setting off a bitter dispute in which his daughter and grandchildren went to court to contend that Benson had become mentally unfit to manage his own affairs.
Benson was declared competent in court, but there was more legal wrangling over nonvoting shares of the teams that were held in trusts for the LeBlancs. A settlement on those shares was reached last year, and while terms were not disclosed, Gayle Benson was publicly confirmed Thursday as the owner of the Saints and Pelicans.
The Times-Picayune published a story Thursday declaring that ownership of the teams was “in flux” in the wake of Benson’s death, because the “long-running family fight” could “reignite in the settling of his estate in court in New Orleans.” In response, the Saints stated that ownership of that team and the Pelicans was “not in flux but rather in solid standing,” adding, “Gayle Benson is the owner.”
“Tom Benson’s contributions to New Orleans and the National Football League were legendary,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “He purchased a team that had never had a winning season; by the third year of his ownership, the Saints were in the playoffs.
“Tom kept the Saints together through the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and his decision to bring the team back to New Orleans gave the entire region hope and confidence that they would recover. The Saints rewarded their fans with tremendous football and a Super Bowl championship.”
Benson actually drew criticism and suspicion among Saints fans for appearing to consider the possibility of moving the team permanently to San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005. Instead, reportedly with some encouragement from then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Benson brought the Saints back in 2006, not only providing the traumatized city with a rallying point but adding a new coach, Sean Payton, and quarterback, Drew Brees, who would lead the franchise to its first and only title after the 2009 season.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement the league “mourns the loss” of Benson, calling him “big-hearted and gracious.” Silver noted that Benson “hosted two highly-successful All-Star Games, rebranded the franchise and installed a first-class organization.”
“He was a dear friend to me and so many others in the sports world, and the loss of his authentic and unique presence will leave an enormous void,” Silver said. “We send our heartfelt condolences to Gayle, their family, the Pelicans and Saints, and his countless friends.”
A self-made billionaire, Benson spent his childhood in humble circumstances in New Orleans, but hard work and an appetite for entrepreneurship marked his ascent. He got a break in his 20s when the owner of a car dealership in San Antonio took Benson under his wing, and Benson parlayed the opportunity into a string of dealerships, plus banking and real estate holdings.
Benson’s daughter Renee was one of three children he adopted with his first wife, Shirley, who died of complications from lupus in 1980. He lost his son Robert to cancer in 1983, and his youngest daughter, Jeanne Marie, committed suicide in 1991; Benson also outlived his two brothers, both of whom were younger than him.
He married Grace Marie Trudeau in 1982, and after she died in 2003 of Parkinson’s disease, he met Gayle Marie LaJaunie Bird at a Catholic church and married her within six months. He donated millions to the church and other local charities, and his $11 million gift to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2014 led to a stadium there being named after him.
“Tom loved New Orleans, where he was a generous and caring philanthropist,” Goodell said. “Within the NFL, he was a true leader among NFL owners. … I know that the entire NFL family joins me in extending our most heartfelt condolences to Gayle Benson and the entire Saints organization.”
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