by Toney Blare / @BrianWBoyles
“At conclusion of the current campaign, the franchise is going to be changing our name to the New Orleans Pelicans.”
With those words, purred by play-by-play announcer Joel Meyers, a new name took flight. The team picked a fine time to herald change: Most of the civilized world is beginning to descend on New Orleans this weekend for the Super Bowl. To get to the arena this afternoon—11 days before the game—I passed through two checkpoints and dodged several production assistants busily moving equipment into the neighboring Superdome.
Inside the arena, the lights were dim on the court as media, team personnel, coach Monty Williams, GM Dell Demps, and players Ryan Anderson, Jason Smith and Greivis Vasquez took seats before a wide stage equipped with two large video screens. When Williams noticed the freshly scrubbed players, he noted audibly, “You smell better.”
After Meyer’s announcement, a brief video explained the logic and history behind the decision. When Louisiana first welcomed explorers, “Early officials saw how charitable the pelican was toward their young.” Later, the state flag reflected this impression, its central image a mother pelican feeding its young. “It is a hunter, protector, has speed, precision, and is as unique as the Gulf South region.”
In November 2009, the bird was removed from the state’s endangered species list. Five months later, the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill killed hundreds of them. The health of the bird and of the coastal wetlands will be an integral part of the franchise’s community efforts, with Ron Forman of the Audubon Nature Institute and Garret Graves, Executive Assistant to Gov. Bobby Jindal for Coastal Activities, on-hand to tout the partnership. A brief history of the Pelicans minor league baseball team, alive from the 1880s into the 1950s, gives additional emphasis to the name’s tie to New Orleans’ past.
When the video ended, two bursts of fireworks popped off in the rafters. Team President Dennis Lauscha explained the process that led to today’s announcement. “From the very beginning, Mr. Benson felt very strongly about changing the team’s logo and brand. In fact, he felt so strongly, the process of rebranding actually began before he bought the team.”
David Stern OK’d a shorter timeline, hundreds of names were discussed, and a design firm from Hattiesburg, MS, was hired to design the logo. “Passion, teamwork, resiliency, resourcefulness, loyalty, pride, precision, grace, family, dignity, grandeur and charity” are all words associated with the bird, Lauscha says.
The primary, secondary, and other logos were revealed and on first look, they were really good. The “bird de lis” is similar to the “fleur de bee” of the Hornets and works well. I’m not sold yet on red, blue and gold as a uniform scheme, but let’s see what they come up with. Blue represents the flag and liberty. “There’s another professional team with gold and it’s a bit of a nod to it.” Wink, Saints, wink. Red signifies one blood or union as well as the mother pelican pricking her breast to feed her young.
Forman from the Audubon Institute came next and told us about his part in the process. “Tom shared some stories, I remember fondly, the hurricane, the Superdome, are we going to stay, are we going to go? What can we do? Tom stood up and said, ‘I have a vision: The Saints are going to lead, not just in winning football games, but lead the rebuilding of the city.’” And here we are. “The PR we got out of becoming America’s team overcame the negative. We became the city alive again, and it became much more than a football team.” Forman thinks the Pelicans can do the same thing for the wetlands, “one of the biggest crises in our history right now.” The next steps will be education and PR. “[The Pelicans] are going to be the leaders to rebuilding our coast.”
He turned it over to Mayor Mitch Landrieu. The mayor is in the middle of a heavy few weeks of Super Bowl press but appeared in fine form. “Somebody that takes care of its young. Somebody that’s loving and caring but fierce. And then an entity that’s resilient. Now, there’s no better American character that Louisianians represent than resilience and coming back from near extinction.” He says he’s, “pumped up about the Pelicans.”
“The magic to this is that a Super Bowl is not an end in and of itself. Having a franchise on the football or the basketball side is not just an end of itself. It’s how you use it. The magic about the Bensons is they have used this as a means to make New Orleans and Louisiana a great place for all of us to live.” Then he welcomes the man he calls “the Papa Pelican, the Big Daddy of ‘Em All, Mr. Tom Benson.”
The Saints/Pelicans owner is now in his ’80s and moves slowly in a navy blue suit and tie, topped by a new blue Pelicans hat. “The New Orleans Saints means a great deal to this community, known throughout the world. Now with the New Orleans Pelicans, we’re gonna get it known throughout the world, too, huh?” He still speaks in the accent of his native 7th ward. With all these changes, he says to Monty Williams, “That means, Coach, we gotta get a helluva basketball game going.”
For one of the first times since Bountygate erupted, Benson mentions the scandal, at least a little. “I think we’re proud of our football team. We didn’t have the year we wanted this past year. But now we got back everybody on the job (Coach Sean Payton was reinstated yesterday). In fact, Payton was back in the office today. I didn’t think he and (Benson’s wife) Gayle would ever quit hugging, but it was alright. This is an exciting time.” He points to record season ticket sales and thanks the city and the state for their cooperation.
Meyers returns to close things out with a new cheer: “Let’s Go Pells.”
After the conference ended, I asked Mr. Graves from Gov. Jindal’s office about his hopes for the team’s impact on the wetlands.
“A lot of people think of the coastal restoration problem as very distant from the city of New Orleans, from the communities in Louisiana. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Graves said.
Hurricanes over the last 10 years show the dire consequences of a depleted coastline. “Having the Hornets change their name to the Pelicans is going to give us an amazing venue to educate people about how vital a healthy, restored coast is to the future of our state,” he said.
Monty Williams said there will always be an attachment to the Hornets. “My first head coaching job and hopefully I’ll be with this organization for a long time. There’ll be some sentimental value there. Going forward we have great ownership, we have a great foundation, we have great fans, and now we have a great name to go with it.” As long he has a team, Williams says, he’s not to worried about the name of it.
Rodney Richardson began at Nike in the team’s sports division in the NBA category. A native of Mississippi, he moved back from Portland in 1999 and began RARE Design. Past redesigns includes the Memphis Grizzlies and the NFL’s Houston Texas. (Look at that logo again and you can see the similarities.) For Richardson, though, this one was different.
“Brands are built around stories. Those stories of who we are and where we come from, those are the most impacting stories of all. And everything we would look at, yeah, there was fun, there was over-the-top aggressiveness [Other top contenders included Loup Garou, a legendary wolfman figure in French-Cajun folklore], but there was no question which name had the deepest roots and the deepest representation for this region. That always came back to the Pelicans.” He, too, mentions resilience and the first explorers.
“You can’t ignore those things. A lot of folks want you to follow trends. They want things they expect, they think all sports marks are supposed to be. This club said, ‘We don’t want to be what everybody wants us to be. We want to be uniquely New Orleans.”
Outside, a fleet of trailers hugs the loading dock of the Superdome. I pass the arena’s team store. Blue and gold jerseys, t-shirts emblazoned with bees and Hs, still fill the racks and walls.
A part of me already misses the Hornets, even if the team remains the same. They were sort of clumsy as a logo for this town, but who says things fit perfectly here? I’ll always remember Bonzi Wells calling me ‘playboy.’ He was a Hornet. So was Chris Paul, Birdman, Baron Davis, Bobby Phills, Muggsy Bogues, Grandmama, and boxing-ass Mike James. In New Orleans, we’re always bouncing between funerals and renewals. Maybe that reflex of mourning gets in your blood. I tried the door on the team store, but it was locked.