It hovers around 90 degrees on a Sunday afternoon in the French Quarter of New Orleans, but the heat isn’t a deterrent. Not on game day.
The Saints are set to host the Cowboys on primetime. Black and gold jerseys flood Bourbon Street as early as 11:00 am. Cigar smoke and the smell of Willie’s Chicken Shack fill the air. Bars are packed hours before kickoff and multi-colored beads fly off second-floor balconies. Bands of trumpets, trombones and other massive horns spontaneously perform on sidewalks. A dance crew outside St. Louis Cathedral has a huge speaker set up and uses a microphone to interact with pedestrians. Groups of little kids bang on buckets with drum sticks.
This is the rich culture of the Big Easy. This is the kind of energy that the people possess—it just hasn’t always, or fully, been directed at basketball.
That’s beginning to change, though. You can feel it.
The new Pelicans core of Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday is a major reason why. There are several other factors, including a dramatic change in the culture of the organization, from top to bottom. The prospect of winning—and winning for a long, long time—has the city galvanized. Locals are getting behind it. The team has sold more than 12,000 season-ticket equivalents for 2019-20, the highest mark in over a decade. Since the NBA draft, they have seen the second largest Instagram follower growth (29.5 percent) in the League, compared to merely 6 percent over the same period last year.
“We have an open practice coming up and they’ve had requests for more tickets than the Smoothie King Center has seats,” Coach Alvin Gentry says. “That would’ve never happened a few years ago. That alone tells me that we’re transitioning into something pretty good.”
“Pretty good” is an understatement.
The doors to the party are being flung open, and the rowdy fans of New Orleans are rushing in.
“Hear me out, hear me out, hear me out,” Zion Williamson pleads. “No one would expect him [Brandon Ingram] to do it, so he should do it. You feel me? It’s facts.”
Zion’s been told, er ordered, by his new teammates—Ingram, Ball and Holiday—to introduce the video you see above. There’s a playful fight as he resists.
“Or we could just give the viewers what they want,” Ball says to Zion, “which is you.”
He gives in. After a few takes (Zion can’t contain his laughter), we wrap up the video. Then the argument continues.
“But you the leader,” he says to Holiday, still giggling.
“But you the rook,” Holiday quickly fires back. “The rook does everything.”
Of course, this rook is a little bit different. A massive Jordan Brand billboard of him plastered outside the Smoothie King Center is evidence of that. So are the 4.8 million followers on Instagram, the endorsement deals and the countless viral clips dating back to high school.
His fate was sealed on May 14, 2019, the night of the NBA draft lottery. Despite having just a 6 percent chance at it, New Orleans won the No. 1 pick and the opportunity to select the most-hyped prospect since LeBron James.
A few days later, Alvin Gentry pulled up to Distinct Image Barbershop and left his car in the middle of the parking lot.
“I was cutting his son’s hair right before him,” remembers Rushawn Toppin, aka Ray Da Barber, who also cuts Zion, Lonzo and other players on the Pelicans and Saints. “And his son was like, ‘Dad, you just parked in the middle of the parking lot.’
“Alvin kind of walked in the barbershop and was like, ‘Look, I can do whatever I want. I got Zion!’”
The place erupted in laughter. It was a joke, sure, but it underscored an indisputable truth: Williamson is a complete game-changer—one that the Crescent City desperately craved. Some fans saw it as consolation for the looming departure of Anthony Davis. Others viewed it as a make-up for the missed pass interference call that may have cost the Saints a spot in Super Bowl LIII. Either way, it definitively ushered in a new era of NOLA basketball and had the downtown area on fire. Every inch of Fulton Street Square was filled for a “Draft Fest” celebration in June.
The buzz around the Pelicans, however, can’t be attributed solely to Zion. In the eventual trade for AD, the team netted Ball, Ingram and Josh Hart, three young and promising players. They scooped Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, along with Williamson, in the 2019 Draft. Veterans JJ Redick and Derrick Favors joined shortly after; and the leader and longest-tenured member of the Pels, Holiday, is back to take the reins.
This isn’t your typical first home for a prospect as highly touted as Zion. This is a talented, deep squad with their sights set on making the playoffs now, even in a super competitive Western Conference.
“It’s going to be a fast, young team mixed in with some veterans who know how to play the game of basketball,” Ingram says. “The culture that we’re looking for is just being a team that is relentless and resilient, that takes the punches in the throat and still comes back strong.”
“Don’t back down from nobody,” Ball says of the group’s identity. “We got a new team, a lot of young guys, but I think we can go far.”
The chemistry is already apparent, despite the roster turnover. Holiday hosted the guys at his house in LA to work out over the summer and a large contingent were running pick-up and training together in New Orleans leading up to the official start of camp.
There’s a clear rapport among Holiday, Ingram, Ball and Williamson—the nucleus at the heart of the Pelicans’ bright future.
“I think [the chemistry’s] already there and developing,” Zion tells SLAM. “Jrue’s the leader and he just sets the tone. He’s such a great guy. You can go ask anybody around the League and they’d say how much of a great guy he is. And then, with Zo’s personality, and don’t let BI fool y’all—he’s a funny guy [laughs]. I think with our personalities and competitive edges to win, we’re going to be fine.”
The other guys like to pick on Zion, in the same way you’d pick on a younger sibling, only this younger sibling is 6-6 and 285 pounds. During our photo shoot, he spins the ball on his finger for a moment before Jrue promptly smacks it off. At one point, Ball jokes that he’d let Zion visit his music studio, but he’s not sure the big fella would fit.
“Is that considered bullying?” the rook asks with a smile. “I feel like that could hurt my self-esteem.”
The four of them mesh so smoothly it feels like a family sitcom. You completely forget that the dynamic is brand new, just a couple of months in the making. If it’s any reflection of how they’ll connect on the floor, then it bodes well for the Pelicans. Their individual styles of play, at least on paper, seem to complement each other in many respects.
Holiday, the captain, is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-best 21.2 points to go with 7.7 assists. He’s a versatile guard who can push the tempo, facilitate the offense and lock up on defense. The exact same description fits Ball. As a backcourt duo, they have the chance to be explosive, especially in the free-flowing system Coach Gentry has introduced.
“I would be disappointed if we don’t play with the greatest pace in the League,” says Gentry. “We did it last year and I think we’re much more equipped to do it better this year. And I would be disappointed if we’re not a top 10 defensive team.”
Throw in an extremely skilled scorer like Ingram (18.3 ppg in 2018-19) and a once-in-a-generation athlete like Williamson and the potential is scary. It will be a show every night, no question. The Pelicans are scheduled to appear on national TV a franchise-record 30 times this season—an insane number, given the size of their market (the population is around 400,000).
There were rumblings not too long ago that the state of basketball in New Orleans might spiral to a point where it made sense to move the organization elsewhere. Today, the rumblings are about an incredible road ahead and the hope of bringing something special to this city, something everyone is yearning for.
Roughly 12 hours after the Saints game ends, media day for the Pelicans begins. There’s a lot of talk about a different energy in the Oescher Sports Performance Center, which might sound like classic media day fodder, but it’s not. The people who’ve been here the longest—from players and coaches to PR and social media directors to the reporters covering the action and the team chefs working behind the scenes—swear it’s not. You can feel it, too.
Media day has never looked like this, as longtime credentialed writers like Oleh Kosel and Jake Madison affirm. Kosel can’t remember struggling so much to find parking.
It goes beyond just having Williamson and Ball and Ingram and Holiday and all the other pieces on this revamped roster. In truth, the seeds of the new era were planted months before that roster came together, when the franchise hired David Griffin as the Executive VP of Basketball Operations and principal owner Gayle Benson made clear her commitment to investing in the future. The front office has been expanded. The training facility has been upgraded. Griffin is establishing a tight-knit and inclusive culture that’s making an immediate impact.
“I see what they’re building here,” Derrick Favors tells SLAM. “They’re trying to build a family atmosphere and I wanted to be a part of it. It’s an exciting time to be a Pelicans fan and a Pelicans player.”
“People like to come here,” Holiday said, while seated in the press conference room at the practice venue. “The energy from everybody is positive and everybody wants to get better—not just the players, but the coaches and the training staff…To see all these guys come in and want the same goal, which is to get better themselves individually [and] as a team, has been inspiring.”
“Anyone who’s had the opportunity to be on campus the last month or so can feel the positive energy around the players, the coaches and our staff,” Griffin reinforced. “I think everybody can sense that there’s something special here potentially. I think, when I look at it, it’s an energy that’s wholly unique in my basketball career.”
That energy is permeating into the greater community and has been strengthened by an embrace from players like Zion, who’s appeared on the sidelines of LSU, Tulane and Saints games. There exists suddenly, even amid football season, a genuine excitement about basketball. More merchandise is up in stores. More Pelicans flags hang from windows. You hear more talk about it in barbershops, bars and restaurants.
“Even at that Saints game against the Cowboys,” Madison says. “If you walked in there, there was a lot more red for a game between two teams that don’t have any red in their [color schemes].”
“This is the most exciting team ever…EVER!” exclaims NOLA artist and producer Chase N. Cache. Just before our conversation ends, he adds: “And we’re making that eighth seed. I’m sorry to the Sacramento Kings, but we’re taking that.”
“I feel like we’re going to get us a ring finally and once we get that ring, it’s gonna take the city up 10 notches,” says New Orleans-based entrepreneur Larry Morrow. “I remember when the Saints won our first Super Bowl, you got people second lining and dancing. We have a lot of culture, so we celebrate with brass bands, with second lines, people dancing to music, just running through the streets; they block off everything, people might be on top of cars—it’s a celebration. And I think we’re preparing for that now because I know that we’re going to be able to go far with this young team.”
The Pelicans have had success in the past (seven playoff berths in 17 seasons), but never prolonged success. It’s why they’ve struggled to capture the spirit of their passionate hometown. With Jrue, Zion, Zo and Ingram, and a rock-solid culture to fall back on, that tide is turning.
“We’re going to establish what we call sustainable winning,” Gentry says. “That means winning over the course of a lot of years. I think that guys see that and buy into it.”
The city of New Orleans sees it, too, and they’re definitely buying into it.
So let the good times roll.
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos by Matthew Coughlin and via Getty Images.