The Last Time

by Toney Blare / @BrianWBoyles

“This is a big event,” says the emcee onstage at Champions Square, the entertainment plaza at the foot of the Superdome. “For the last time: Let’s! Go! Hornets!” A cover band, the Chee-wees, resumes their set with Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” a song about nostalgia and love. “I guess nothin’ can last forever, forever!” crows the singer.

Today we’ll cheer the Hornets for the last time. Starting next season, the teal and gold gives way to the red and blue of the Pelicans, the new moniker announced in late January. At the merch trailer opposite the stage, I ask the sales lady if she has any Hornets hats. “Shoulda been here Friday,” she says with a grin. “It was all 75 percent off.”

Owner of no hats and only one team shirt, I’m sorry I didn’t take advantage of the sale. For seven years, the Hornets meant something to me, and their disappearance leaves me bittersweet on this pristine afternoon.

They were a transplant, someone else’s runaway who found a better home upon arrival, then ran into the usual problems of life in the humidity. My friends and I often joke of people who move here, exude naïve joy, then have their car stolen, their old lady run out on them, or their neighbors involved in that life. It’s not funny but it is: the Big Easy plays sweet and alluring right up until the power goes out, when you start longing for Cleveland or Charlotte. That hoodoo thins out the herd so that the dedicated can prosper in comradeship, smug in their isolated, chosen path away from America.

Nowadays that Hobbesian process fades. The post-Katrina era brought many improvements, many fine new citizens, and a persistent national spotlight that benefits many of us. It also ushered out much of the black middle class, doubled rents, and altered the commercial and spiritual landscape. Today’s New Orleans features countless enterprises dedicated to making the newcomer feel comfortable, with food and retail they recognize, lots of festivals, and constant updates on how to fit in. The mystery of the city’s culture, hustles and shortcuts gives way to the smartphone. I’m not here to tell you if that’s good or bad, but it’s fundamentally different and, well…easier.

What’s this have to do with basketball? Isn’t the name “Pelicans” more local and thus better? Perhaps. I’d offer this: the Hornets were ill-fitting, slightly weird bunglers, short on money and talent. At various points, they’ve been bailed out by wealthier folks and spurned by star talents. In their awkwardness, their fleeting successes and routine fumbles, the Hornets were like a lot of New Orleanians I know: they were screw-ups. From the day I moved here for college in 1995 (seven years before the League’s arrival), I appreciated those people. I knew they were essential to the city’s uniqueness, and, yes, its danger and dysfunction. I liked that, because I never thought the alternative all that fruitful. Efficient, safe, polished, with the texture of frozen yogurt? No thanks. Give me New Orleans. I’ll take the Hornets.

Now, is it fair to make such a connection between team name change and post-disaster socio-economic changes? Probably not. But we’re always eager to say (without evidence or hesitation) that successful teams reflect conditions on the ground. For me, the choice of a more “appropriate” name is another step in making our image more “appropriate,” more understandable to the outside world, more coordinated and marketable. In 2013, tourism is big business, so those efforts to buff our reputation are wise. Still, in a city suspicious of progress, it still feels funny to nod and say “out with the old.” We like the old, and we’re not so sure the new will improve things.

Walking through the crowd and into the New Orleans Arena, I’m struck by just how much will need changed, and how much needs erased. The bookmobile, the logos on every pillar, the Bee Wear merch booths, the inflatable bee and the inflatable moonwalk, every corporate ad with a Hornets logo—this will all go. Between now and October, the entire iconography goes Pelicans.

On the way to the section 113 media seats, I pass an autograph table where former Saints RB Deuce McCalister dutifully signs his name. Staffers at another table service a huge line of fans, each receiving a gray t-shirt. “Mathletes?” a woman groans. Apparently the team is unloading an old promo shirt, thus making everyone in line is good at math.

I take my seat and look around the arena for signs of finality.

The track-suited hype team running across the floor waving flags spelling out H-O-R-N-E-T-S: Last time.

The lay-up line of purple pants with gold stripes: Last time.

Digital Fleur-de-Bee logos circling the jumbotron: Last time.

The beefy dude in teal fedora, matching suit, and mustard tie/shirt combo: Last time? Last time??

“Welcome to today’s game between the Dallas Mavericks and your New Orleans….” The PA announcer let’s it hang there, makes the end evident by his silence. Introductions bring out a team that, whatever the colors, will need a lot of work before they reappear. At center court, forward Jason Smith addresses the crowd with his arm in a sling, closing with “Go Hornets, baby.” The half-full arena responds loudly.

Among the many consequences of the name change, the challenge facing should interest any web-savvy branding types. Launched by Irishman Niall Doherty (currently residing in Thailand), the True Hoop-affiliated site is now under the direction of Ryan Schwan, Joe Gerrity, Chris Trew and Jason Calmes. Earlier today, I asked Calmes what it all means.

“A rebrand of the New Orleans Hornets was a near-given once someone bought the franchise from the NBA, so this has been on our radar for years,” he says. Once Benson made his intentions clear, the site consulted with NBA execs about rebranding strategies. “The name has to be good, but it cannot be so good that someone else has it and wants $50,000 for it. This is a real example. So you really have to break ground to get the URL with complimentary twitter, etc. to have a coherent, professional brand for the world to see.” They plan to unveil a new name once the team’s rebranding is complete, and continue to work through archiving issues. “It’s been an interesting problem to solve,” says Calmes, “but it’ll be nice once this franchise is interesting because of the players on the court and not the hundred reasons for interest over the past three years.” Here’s the site’s excellent take on the end of an era.

The game begins and the Mavericks take a quick lead. Anthony Davis is in a suit, Eric Gordon totals 4 points in the half, and the offense looks disjointed. Defensively, they can’t get a stop against the Mike James(!)-led Mavs. Two years after Chris Paul left town, the team still lacks a concrete identity under Monty Williams, aside from general scrappiness.

At the end of the first, I walk to the upper level to rap with my friend Mikey Corcoran, a diehard fan from across the lake in Slidell, and a season ticket holder since 2007. I ask him if he’s going to miss the Hornets name and colors.

“Yeah. Yeah, I am. I was thinking about that when I was walking up here today. I’m going to miss wearing this hat, y’know? The only thing constant in the world is change, so you just have to roll with it. But I’m going to miss it.”

When the franchise landed here in 2002, Mikey was in the army.

“I moved home from the military literally on August 1, 2005 [just weeks prior to Katrina]. And one of the first things I thought about was, ‘I get to go to NBA game in my hometown.’ And then, the proverbial doo doo hit the fan.” I say that, for me, the Hornets were a big part of the post-storm recovery.

“They were a big part of it to a lot of people,” Mikey agrees, then offers unexpected praise for former owner George Shinn, who receives little mention in this last afternoon of his former team. “It cost a lot to move an NBA team. George Shinn took a big chance moving them back here. Say what you want about the guy: I can’t totally look at George Shinn with a whole lot of disdain, because he took a chance on us. Essentially, I was going to take a chance on him, and I been here ever since.”

Returning to my seat, I find the Hornets down by 20 points. Both teams will miss the Playoffs, and the former rivals exhibit little of the animosity of past years. In many ways, the Mavs are the opposite of the Bees: full of aging stars, two years removed from a title, with more talent, gobs more money, and, in Mark Cuban, an energetic owner and someone who’s legitimately changed the League. The Hornets are now property of longtime Saints owner Tom Benson, in attendance today. The 85-year-old Benson owns a Super Bowl ring, both of the city’s professional teams, an office tower next to the Dome, and a local television station. He may be the most powerful man in town, but he’s new to the marketing-driven world of the NBA, and we can only hope his administration turns things around. The Hornets close out the first season of the Benson era ranked 29 out of 30 in attendance.

Throughout the game, there’s very little mention of the name change, which seems like a lost opportunity. A celebration of the Hornets’ past, a toast to the Pelicans future—the possibilities for fun in-game promotions are endless, but we get the standard contests and dance cams. Sure, there are no Championships to commemorate, but there remain the sort of memories that tie a fan base to a team despite their record; see Mikey’s comments above.

Instead, we get one brief sign: on the jumbotron, mascot Hugo the Hornet flips through a scrapbook of his past antics. I’m happy to catch a glimpse of the King, a sort of Kid Rock-esque mascot from Sacramento who appeared in 2007 or 2008. I remember the King hurling stock insults at the fans like a WWE heel, insults about “this stinking city,” etc., that he probably said in every town on the road trip. That might be OK in Orlando, I thought, but in this proud, battered city, you’re seriously pissing people off, your highness. There was something bizarre but satisfying about Hugo knocking the King to the floor that night. Back then, countless loudmouths scoffed at this city and its stubborn residents, who in turn grew more defiant and angry. I loved the Chris Paul Hornets because they tapped into that anger, that underdog quality so vital during the recovery. Today is another time and place, and we’ll see if the angry Pelicans emerge.

When his video ends, Hugo receives a standing ovation, a sign that fans want some moment. Instead, the Honeybees perform their final routine without fanfare. Another video spot shows Greivis Vasquez thanking fans, but the point guard doesn’t mention the name change. The Hornets lose this last home game, 107-89. Players stay on the court for a season-in-review video and a raffle, but no one waves goodbye to the teal and gold.

After a few interviews for another SLAM assignment, I exit through the loading dock, past a group of police and a line of departing ushers. Outside, dusk gives way to gauzy purple night. A group of 10 boys, who look to range in age from 4 to 8, whack each other with Crystal Hot Sauce thundersticks, each of them wearing brand new blue-and-red Pelicans shirts. None of them remembers Katrina, and in a few years, they’ll mostly forget the Hornets. The Pelicans won’t make them ask their parents, “Why are we called the…?” In that New Orleans, things may make more sense. Things will definitely be different.