“I said I would watch the lottery and go home, and we’ll talk about pick No. 7 or No. 8 the next day,” said Fletcher Mackel, WDSU’s longtime Pelicans reporter, who had arrived at the office after another assignment. The Pelicans, of course, landed the first pick and the right to select Zion Williamson, the Duke superstar whose ability has led to comparisons to LeBron James.
“It was pandemonium in the newsroom,” Mackel said. “It was the most pleasantly surprising moment in franchise history.”
And it came at the perfect time. The Pelicans endured a year torpedoed by a trade request from superstar centerpiece Anthony Davis, front-office unsteadiness and rumors of a possible franchise relocation, with some suggesting that a city such as Seattle might be more deserving of an NBA team than small-market New Orleans.
Then came the aftermath of lottery luck. The draft won’t take place until June 20, but shortly after the Pelicans won the pick, media speculated whether Williamson might try to avoid playing for New Orleans by staying another year at Duke. Williamson’s stepfather shot down the rumor, telling a Louisiana radio show that Williamson was “excited” to play in New Orleans and that a return to Duke “is nothing that we have even considered.” But the rumor’s very existence felt like confirmation of the Pelicans’ reputation — a professional basketball franchise receiving minor league treatment in a city preoccupied with its NFL team, the Saints.
“Basketball has always been on the back burner here compared to football,” Mackel said, pointing out that Saints fandom in New Orleans is multigenerational, while NBA basketball, which returned to the city in 2002 after the Jazz moved to Salt Lake City in 1979, is newer. For evidence of the power of Saints fandom, look no further than the citywide disgust with the infamous no-call late in the NFC championship game this year. Super Bowl viewership in the market dropped by more than 50 percent, giving New Orleans the lowest viewership of any U.S. market.
The Pelicans, though, need people to care. The team ranked 25th in attendance of the 30 NBA teams this season, according to ESPN. Relocation rumors are always nearby, and the team’s valuation ($1.2 billion, according to Forbes) could tempt owner Gayle Benson to sell — her husband, Tom Benson, purchased the team in 2012 for just $338 million, and control was passed to her when he died in 2018.
And there’s the little brother relationship with the Saints: In regard to Davis’s demand, native New Orleanian Mackel said that if it had been a Saints player who requested a trade, “He wouldn’t able to buy a beer in any bar around here — it would be an unforgivable sin.”
With Davis, it’s the opposite: Some fans have grown ambivalent as to whether he stays to join forces with Williamson or leaves. “Honestly at this point, I could take or leave AD,” said Matt Hendrickson, a longtime Pelicans supporter.
Mackel believes a Davis trade is inevitable. “I would love to imagine a world where AD and Zion exist together, but I think AD and his camp have already decided,” he said. “Now New Orleans basketball will be all about Zion.”
With or without Davis, could the allure of Williamson turn football fans into followers of basketball, too? Some have high hopes.
"It’s fun to pay money to go watch a team win and believe they have a chance,” said Win Butler, lead singer of indie rock band Arcade Fire and a Pelicans fan. “And with Zion . . . his ceiling is as high as it gets. And if he embraces the city, it could be big.”
Erion Williams, a native New Orleanian and the lead singer of brass band The Soul Rebels, said Williamson’s arrival “is going to be similar to when Anthony Davis arrived in town. The buzz will be there, and everybody will be hype to see the new version of the team.”
But there will be concerns. New Orleans couldn’t build a championship team around Davis, another hyper-talented athlete the team drafted No. 1 in 2012. So why would anyone think it can do so with Williamson?
Benson is trying. She recently hired David Griffin, the general manager of the title-winning 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, to be vice president of basketball operations, with former player and Brooklyn Nets assistant GM Trajan Langdon as the new general manager.
“There are signs that Gayle is taking the Pelicans seriously and hiring good people,” Butler said, recommending that ownership also find new ways to draw in fans, including bringing in brass bands such as The Soul Rebels and playing more authentic New Orleans music during games. “Bring the actual swag of the city into the arena,” he added.
The Zion effect alone is powerful. Davis is a two-way force, but casual fans are enthralled by Williamson’s electric dunks. His social media following reflects that excitement: While not a perfect metric, Williamson has about as many Instagram followers before playing a professional game as Davis has rounded up in seven years in the NBA. A stronger indicator of excitement for the Williamson era is that, after the lottery, the Pelicans said they sold 3,000 season tickets, double the amount sold post-lottery in 2012.
Mackel is starting to see the change. During a regular speaking engagement at a men’s club this month, he was shocked that no one had a Saints question.
“The entire hour,” he said, “was Zion.”