David Stern has always been in New Orleans' corner

NBA Commissioner David Stern with Pelicans owner Tom Benson

Since making its return in 2002, the NBA in New Orleans has encountered more than its fair share of obstacles. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused the then-Hornets to leave their new home for two seasons. In 2010, ownership problems prompted the other 29 NBA teams to make the unprecedented decision to intervene and purchase the franchise, leading to further questions about its long-term future. Throughout all of the upheaval and question marks, however, New Orleans always counted on the support of one key figure, NBA Commissioner David Stern.

From the time Katrina touched down in the Gulf South, Stern backed the Big Easy. Over the past 30 years, the longtime NBA leader has been one of the biggest allies for the league’s small markets, including locations such as Sacramento and New Orleans.

It wasn’t always easy – or particularly popular, from a national perspective – to believe in New Orleans as an NBA city after Katrina. When the then-Hornets returned full time post-Katrina to the Crescent City for the 2007-08 season, a legion of skeptics predicted that the franchise was destined for disappointment and an inevitable relocation.

“New Orleans doomed to fail yet again,” read one Chicago Tribune headline in October 2007.

“The general consensus around the NBA is the return experiment will fail...,” the article predicted. “It seems inevitable, and probably the sooner the better for the basketball fate of the Hornets.”

Instead, six years later the rebranded Pelicans are one of the NBA’s most stable franchises, with a committed local owner in Tom Benson who immediately invested significantly in the club. As a result, pro basketball in New Orleans is now in a better position to thrive than it has been at any point during its 11-year run in Louisiana.

Perhaps just as important for New Orleans as Stern’s long-standing support of small markets, the commissioner always operated with the philosophy that cities deserve the chance to keep their teams. Back in the mid-2000s, the path of least resistance unmistakably would’ve been to find a way for the Hornets to leave New Orleans and land in the welcoming arms of an eager city with a new arena and sweetheart financial deal. Stern instead did everything in his power to help the NBA succeed in New Orleans and grow its popularity, including bringing the All-Star Game here for the first time in 2008.

“That’s not who we are,” Stern explained when asked why the NBA never considered abandoning New Orleans. “There may be good and sufficient reasons to leave a city, but not one that has just had a disaster after having built a building for a team it didn’t have and supported it in a first-class way. I always believed we had that obligation to New Orleans.”

“I thank Commissioner Stern for once again proving how much he believes in the city of New Orleans,” Benson said after the site of NBA All-Star 2014 was announced. “The city of New Orleans is the place to be. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact will be generated for our region. We could not be more pleased.”

Stern has often said that he won’t be taking a final victory lap when NBA All-Star festivities return to New Orleans in mid-February. He’s retiring on Feb. 1, after 30 years at the helm, with protégé Adam Silver set to take over as the league’s new commissioner.

It’s a commendable gesture by Stern, but it also means that his visit to New Orleans Arena during Friday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers could be the last time New Orleanians will have the opportunity to thank the man for his pivotal role in helping preserve pro hoops for future generations. For a man who never played in a pro game, the commissioner’s legacy here is obvious: Credit Stern with the most important assist in the history of New Orleans basketball.