One of the people most responsible for bringing NBA All-Stars back to the Big Easy this weekend is an 86-year-old man who wasn’t that into basketball for much of his life.
He is Tom Benson. And in New Orleans, NBA fans and community leaders are grateful the NFL owner — who also now owns the Pelicans — finally came around.
“He really stepped up to the plate in a big way, because there was more than an idle threat that our team was going to get moved out of the city,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “It was really important that we had an owner that was committed to keeping the team here.”
Benson was widely credited with keeping the NFL’s Saints in New Orleans when he bought that club for $75 million in 1985. In April 2012, he paid $338 million for New Orleans’ franchise, then called the Hornets, who’d struggled financially since relocating from Charlotte in 2002.
With that purchase came a promise that New Orleans would host its second NBA All-Star game since 2008, providing an enormous boost to a local economy built in large part on tourism.
“Mr. Benson has played a major role in the revitalization of New Orleans through sports,” said Jay Cicero, head of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which organizes bids for major sporting events. “If you look at some choices out there where NFL or NBA teams could go, other cities might be more profitable, but Mr. Benson loves this community and it’s apparent through his actions the past eight, nine years. It’s a pretty amazing story.”
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina put many aspects of New Orleans’ future in doubt, particularly its role as a small-market host city for two major pro sports franchises.
The Hornets spent two seasons in Oklahoma City before returning to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season. By December 2010, cash-flow problems led franchise founder George Shinn to sell the club to the NBA as part of a plan to give Louisiana more time to find stable ownership.
Initially, Benson said, “I wasn’t that interested.”
But as the NBA’s temporary stewardship of the club dragged on for more than a year, Benson said, “We were a little concerned it was going to leave New Orleans and that excited us to the point where we felt we better look at this.”
Now in his second full season as an NBA owner, he has rebranded the club with the name Pelicans.
SMITH SITS — J.R. Smith missed the New York Knicks’ game against Sacramento on Wednesday night because he was uncomfortable with the mask he was to wear over a broken cheekbone.
Smith was hurt Sunday at Oklahoma City and was expected to play Wednesday, but wasn’t given the mask until earlier in the day and didn’t feel right with it.
REDUCED CHARGES — A clerk for an Oklahoma County judge says felony domestic violence charges against former Oklahoma City Thunder guard DeAndre Liggins were dropped. Defense attorney Tony Coleman said Wednesday that prosecutors are expected to refile the charge as a single misdemeanor count of domestic abuse. Coleman declined further comment. Liggins now plays for the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League.