By the final month of the 2021-22 season, it was common to hear thousands of fans in the Smoothie King Center joining in unison, literally singing the praises of an undrafted rookie they’d come to adore. While scanning the spectator seats in April, it also didn’t take long to spot dozens of No. 5 jerseys and “Not On Herb” T-shirts, representing the boundless love and appreciation for a defensive-minded, second-round draft pick.
There were many unforeseen aspects of the New Orleans Pelicans’ unique campaign, but near the top of that list was the fact that a 6-foot guard initially on a G League contract would emerge as a beloved local figure. During the rare moments when Jose Alvarado wasn’t pestering opponents into eight-second violations or stealing the ball from behind, the 24-year-old was serenaded by fan chants of “Jo-se! Jo-se, Jo-se, Jo-se! … Jo-se! Jo-se!” Meanwhile, although 34 players were picked before him during the 2021 draft, fellow first-year pro Herbert Jones became a bona fide star in the Crescent City. The University of Alabama product’s play produced a rapidly-growing industry of online memes and demand for Herb-specific merchandise.
Alvarado and Jones were perhaps the most evident individual symbols of the bond that developed between New Orleans fans and Pelicans players this season, but there were plenty of others. The Big Easy appreciated CJ McCollum’s embrace of his new NBA home and thoughtful explanations for why NOLA was his preferred trade destination. It loved the way bigs Jonas Valanciunas, Larry Nance and Willy Hernangomez battled in the paint. It cheered the aerial exploits of Jaxson Hayes. It roared its approval at the scrappiness of Alvarado and second-year forward Naji Marshall, who like Alvarado entered the NBA as an unheralded, undrafted player. It celebrated the way Brandon Ingram began dominating games, putting together the best stretch of his six-year career. It rose to its feet each time rookie sharpshooter Trey Murphy III fired from three-point range.
The love wasn’t exclusive to players, either. Some of the loudest ovations of the season came during pregame introductions, when first-year head coach Willie Green’s name was announced.
The result was a Smoothie King Center postseason atmosphere described by many as among the best in the sport. Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin recently discussed with Green that even though both men have experienced deep NBA playoff runs and won titles, they’d never witnessed what took place in New Orleans this spring.
“The symbiotic relationship this team and our fans had, it’s really, really unique,” Griffin said. “Willie and I talked about it earlier – we’ve been to several conference finals and (NBA) Finals, won a championship. No crowd has done what that crowd did for (our) team. The shared hope and joy that exists between our players and this fan base is phenomenal.
“Jose and Herb are such huge parts of that. You’re talking about two rookies, a second-round pick and an undrafted free agent, who have T-shirts of their own. They might be more marketable than anybody else on the team. It’s a really rare thing.”
Nance, who’s played for four NBA teams and was a key reserve during Cleveland’s trip to the 2018 Finals, joined Griffin in acknowledging the exceptional nature of what took place in New Orleans this season.
“I’ve played games in New Orleans (as a visiting player), and it was not like what I found when I got here,” Nance said. “These people showed up and showed out.
“They just rallied around us and it was one of the best atmospheres I’ve been a part of in my career.”
Griffin reiterated during his season-ending press conference that the Pelicans understand they have much more work to do, that ’21-22 was merely an initial step toward what the franchise hopes to achieve. But what a memorable first step it was. When Griffin took over New Orleans’ basketball operations department in 2019, he made it clear that the Pelicans would prioritize high character in players, a trait that can help teams remain positive amid adversity. That paid off after New Orleans began the season 1-12 and 3-16, but still battled its way into the Western Conference play-in tournament. The Pelicans looked headed for vacation down double digits in their April 15 elimination game at the Clippers, but rallied in the fourth quarter to win and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
“I said the very first press conference we ever did here, that we wanted to build a team that was built in the ethos of the city,” Griffin said. “The resilience (Green) has instilled in this group is special, really unique. I think it represents what the city came to love about this team. There was a never-say-die attitude about it.”
Last fall, Pelicans players wanted to gather for voluntary workouts at the team’s practice facility, but Hurricane Ida had other plans for the Gulf Coast, forcing evacuations and cutting off power to New Orleans for multiple weeks in August and September. As a result, workouts were shifted to Nashville, Tenn. At the time, Griffin saw signs that the Pelicans had a chance to produce a special season – even in ways that had nothing to do with how they looked between the lines. New Orleans fans later realized the same thing in April, bringing the Smoothie King Center to a crescendo during a hard-fought first-round series vs. Phoenix.
“We had to start the (season) in Nashville because of the hurricane,” Griffin said. “At the time, I told many of you (media members) that this is the best (player) group of human beings I’ve ever been around, on and off the court. I think you saw that play out right in front of all of us on a very big stage.”
The Pelicans weren’t able to pull off an upset over the top-seeded Suns, losing in six games, but the experience was a memorable one for Griffin and others within the organization. The Pelicans went 1-2 in their three playoff home games vs. Phoenix, but even the losses felt like part of a giant long-term step forward.
“What that’s going to do in terms of jump-starting our future is almost unimaginable,” Griffin said of it being a first-time playoff experience for seven Pelicans players. “Certainly when you’re 1-2 and 3-16, (getting to the playoffs), it’s absolutely unimaginable.
“The gratitude we have for our players (is high), really working through everything every day. Contributing what they did in the way they did. The passion they have for each other. The passion they have for our city.”