The sound of laughter was audible from every corner of the sports world earlier this past January, as the city of New Orleans learned what its professional basketball team will be calling itself when it begins play during the 2013 -2014 season next year. When the New Orleans Hornets (and Saints) owner Tom Benson announced plans to change the name of his team to the “Pelicans”, a collective gasp went out with both fans who thought it either sounded ridiculous, or those of us who actually grew up in New Orleans (like me) that are aware that it is a name associated with the local lore of our once famed minor league baseball team. The Pelicans name was only meaningful to the long-time fans and historians of that sport, and not to the average (and the younger) hoops fan who doesn’t know anything about baseball history in general.
XHarahan WhoDat, AKA Barry, Staff Saints and Pelicans Writer
So what is so funny about being named a “Pelican”? Well, nothing honestly; but as sports names go, it certainly doesn’t strike fear into the heart of an opposing team (what would a Pelican do? Would it peck its opponent to death?). But as it turns out, as Benson so deftly and elegantly reminded all of us at his news conference back on that day when making the big announcement, that the Pelican (specifically the Brown Pelican species — which just happens to be the official state bird of Louisiana and can be seen everywhere along the surrounding regions of the New Orleans metropolitan area and the Gulf Coast) is “more than just a name; it represents our way of life”.
From Tom Benson’s perspective, the Pelican is a perfect symbol for the message that he wants to convey to not only the sports world, but to anyone else in the world that’s willing to hear or plausibly listen to it: that New Orleans and Louisiana are a resilient people, and that it will take more than a hurricane or an oil spill, to break that spirit. “When we purchased the basketball team” Benson stated, “it was a priority to change the name to reflect our culture, our community, and our resolve. The Pelican does that”. Another thing that it does, is keep in the long-standing tradition of naming our city’s basketball teams after things that were and are considered to be ”local legends”.
The original New Orleans professional basketball team, the old ABA ( the American Basketball Association of the 1960’s and ‘70’s) New Orleans Buccaneers, were named in honor of the old legendary French pirate Jean Lafitte (who famously helped then-General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans against the British in 1815) ; and the 1970’s NBA New Orleans Jazz (whom I got to see play live in person at the Louisiana Superdome as a kid, featuring the legendary star “Pistol” Pete Maravich) was obviously about the iconic genre of music that of course is predominant in New Orleans culture (and shamelessly remains as the nickname for that franchise since its relocation in 1979 to the state of Utah — a place not all that well-known for its eclectic taste in music). So in that regard, “New Orleans Pelicans” is a perfect fit.
But yet, for the older native New Orleanians like me, the bigger problem remains that it is a baseball name. This is a basketball team, befitting of a name that screams “up-tempo”, as grown men constantly run up and down a full-length court, for 48 minutes. Surely we could have come with something better than Pelicans, couldn’t we? There were other names that had been suggested, among them: Revelers, Rougarou (a Cajun werewolf), Jesters (for Mardi Gras), Voodoo (a name already taken by the city’s Arena Football team, also owned by Benson), Spirit, Brass (a former minor league hockey team during the 1990’s), Bounce, and the Krewe (Mardi Gras, once again — and my personal favorite). So will it grow on me, eventually? Perhaps; but the rest of the sports world and basketball fans in particular? Well, that may be stretching it just a bit.
A majority of fans across the nation have ridiculed the name, and while no doubt they don’t “get” the connection of the Pelican and our state (nor do they care), the only thing that truly matters to them is that it sounds ridiculous, and maybe even preposterous. I have to admit however, that as much as I originally had wanted to take Benson to task for choosing the name, I have to acknowledge that what he is doing is out of true love and passion for our unique heritage and culture —- something that is sorely lacking, in this day and age of professional sports. So while others may have a good laugh at our expense, we need to be mindful that the whole intent behind the name change is to establish our cultural identity to the rest of the sports world, regardless of whether they choose to accept it or not.
Certainly in time though, it may grow on them as well. The NBA has a history of teams and nicknames that don’t make any sense (I’ll leave the ‘Utah’ Jazz alone, for now), but yet have become a part of the league’s colorful history. The L.A. Clippers are named after a sail boat, for crying out loud; and the league’s marquee franchise (the Los Angeles Lakers) is named for the “Land of Lakes” — in the state of Minnesota, where the team originated. Perhaps somehow hearing it shortened from Pelicans to “Pels”, will help out a little bit in its being accepted, as well. When I was a kid growing as a fan of NBA basketball during its 1970’s heyday (and getting to see legends such as ‘Doctor J’ Julius Erving, ‘the Iceman’ George Gervin, and my idol, ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich), there were several teams that were known (and some still are) by their shortened nicknames, including: the Cavs (Cleveland Cavaliers), the Knicks (New York Knickerbockers), the Celts (Boston Celtics), and the Blazers (Portland Trailblazers), to name just a few.
Honestly, I believe the one thing that will invariably change people’s opinions is success. In professional sports, the most important thing is wins and losses. So it really wouldn’t matter if you called them the New Orleans Biscuit Eaters, if there was a chance that they’d manage to put forth a superior product out on the floor. As it is, they may become a major force to be reckoned with in these next few years. They have managed to begin the long and tedious process of rebuilding, as General Manager Dell Demps has deftly begun stockpiling young talent and upcoming future draft picks — along with an incredibly huge amount of money to spend in upcoming periods of free agency over the next few years. Would it just be some great coincidence then, that the nickname ”Pelicans” suddenly begins to ’catch on’ with all of the fans back here at home, and throughout the league? That of course, will mean that one thing can be considered truly important above all else: which is that down in New Orleans, the only name that really matters is — WINNERS ……….
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