Tom Benson’s legacy includes preserving the NBA in New Orleans
With the NBA currently soaring in popularity and New Orleans’ professional basketball franchise thriving, it’s easy to forget how bleak the situation once was for the latter in the early 2010s. The then-Hornets’ future was in jeopardy when the NBA was forced to assume ownership of the team, which then was forced to trade perennial All-Star guard Chris Paul. There were reports that the club might be headed elsewhere, with potential out-of-town buyers poised to pounce.
“The objective was to keep it in New Orleans,” remembered Jac Sperling, who was hired by the NBA to help facilitate a deal with a new owner. “If we couldn’t do that, the team would’ve had to be relocated, but that wasn’t the primary option. The primary option was to find a buyer who would keep it in New Orleans.”
Enter Tom Benson. Already the longtime owner of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, Benson emerged as the city’s best hope to secure the future of professional basketball in South Louisiana. Years later, it is clear that that’s exactly what he became.
“It took a lot of courage at that time for him to step up,” Sperling said. “He had a (sports) team already, and the Saints were doing well. To try to go into a new area was not easy. The basketball team was doing well – not great, but much better than it was before the NBA bought it – so he had to believe in it. The reason he did it was it was about the community. He didn’t want that team to leave New Orleans. He exuded a lot of confidence in the city and the community. Ultimately he was the hero of the whole transaction. Not only did we get a buyer, but we got the best one possible for the team.”
It began with a belief by Benson that investing in the Hornets – who were renamed the Pelicans by him in 2013, more closely tying their identity to that of Louisiana – was not only a sound business decision, but the right thing to do. The business ledger for the franchise he purchased was still a bit questionable, as evidenced by the implementation of season-ticket benchmarks in previous seasons that served as “prove it” hurdles for the local fan base.
“We had to get the financial situation of the team improved, by increasing ticket sales and signing a new lease with the state,” said Sperling, who as a native New Orleanian was uniquely qualified for the role. “Everyone pitched in. People are proud of New Orleans, and they should be. It’s a great city, a fun city. We basically appealed to their pride and gave them a reason to be proud, to rally around each other. Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat or whatever, you could rally around this cause of keeping the team in New Orleans.”
Sperling chuckled when he remembered Benson’s approach to buying an NBA team. Like with any negotiation, Benson didn’t want to show too many of his cards.
“If you remember, we were negotiating with him at that time,” Sperling said of discussions between the NBA and Benson. “So his level of enthusiasm while we were negotiating, he didn’t want us to think he wanted to buy this team at any price. He’s a fabulous negotiator in his career obviously, and he was in this transaction. It was fun to see that.”
A passion for the city of New Orleans was one motivation for Benson’s purchase of an NBA team, but Sperling also noted that it was a labor of love.
“I think he had a lot of fun and seemed to really enjoy it,” Sperling said of Benson operating the Pelicans. “He was a remarkable person with a huge amount of energy. It was fun to be around him and watch him operate, in the little amount of time I was around him. A wonderful person.”
Instead of losing the NBA for a second time in four decades, New Orleans benefited innumerably from gaining an owner with deep local ties. It was a perfect match.
“Mr. Benson was able to provide us with numerous things since I’ve been here: a world class practice facility, renovated the arena, and he’s done anything and everything possible that he can to put us in a position to win,” Pelicans All-Star forward Anthony Davis said. “He even let us borrow his plane and go visit Jrue (Holiday) when Jrue and his wife were going through a tough time. Things like that that some owners would probably never do, Mr. Benson made sure that he went above and beyond to make sure that as players and an organization were happy.”
Said Coach Alvin Gentry: “I think that when you look at what he and Mrs. Benson have done for this city and this state, you can take everything from Ochsner and what they do with them and cancer treatment. Everything that he has to have to help this city. You can go to Tulane University and look at the football field. Everything that needs to be done, they’re so willing to do it. From a charitable standpoint, I don’t think anybody in this state could come close to doing what they’ve done as a couple and as a family. We’re lucky to have him and Mrs. B and what they do for this city and what they do for this state, because I just think they add so much to the things that need to be done here and to make it a better place to live.”
“At the end of the day, this was an investment for him about the city and his commitment to New Orleans,” Sperling said. “He’s a successful guy, so you say, ‘Does he need to take on a whole new business and everything that comes with it?’ But for him it was about the city. “He was clearly the MVP of the deal. I think everyone felt that way, including David Stern and Adam Silver. The owners of the other teams in the NBA could not have been happier with how it all turned out.”
An entire city of grateful basketball fans couldn’t agree more.
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