Neighborhood superstar: Zion Williamson must do more than dominate on the court to win over New Orleans
Winning cures a lot. But for Zion to be truly beloved, he has to embrace the city and its culture.
Amid the frenzy surrounding Zion Williamson’s impending arrival in New Orleans is the Cajun-flavored truth that a pick-and-roll or alley-oop can never mask: Love in the 504 is a two-way street.
The Big Easy will be watching Williamson, who visited the city last week, not just for how he plays on the court but also how he immerses himself in the culture. “New Orleans,” said native Dax Hawkins, who’s been on the Saints’ season ticket waiting list for years now, “rocks with people that want to be in the city.”
While the Anthony Davis debacle raged on from regular season to offseason, the Pelicans snagged the top pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, aka the Zion Sweepstakes. College basketball’s biggest star is widely thought to have the ability to change the course of an NBA franchise. Whether Williamson can live up to the future Hall of Famer hype hasn’t stopped New Orleanians from fantasizing about a player who is a Mardi Gras parade disguised as a fast break.
“The closest thing you’ve seen right now relatively is [Giannis Antetokounmpo] and what the Greek Freak brought to the game, to Milwaukee, that culture,” said New Orleans-bred artist, Grammy-winning producer and entrepreneur Chase N. Cashe. “The best thing about Giannis … I feel like Milwaukee got him in a way that allowed it to be natural. I think this is the same thing that’s happening to the Pelicans [with Williamson].”
Williamson landing in New Orleans is about as natural as the drama that unfolded around the organization last season was unnatural. And residents are paying attention to the contrast. Like millions of others across the country, Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir, an associate history professor at Xavier University, has marveled at Williamson’s athleticism. Yet what drew her to Williamson had nothing to do with basketball.
“I love the fact that he’s so close to his mother,” she said. “It’s interesting because most people in New Orleans are mama’s boys and mama’s girls. We all draw to our mothers, so that’s a connection right there that you can see the fans of New Orleans will notice.”
The history of basketball in the Crescent City is complex.
Louisiana rarely is mentioned among the game’s finest breeding grounds, even though Hall of Famers Bill Russell, Bob Pettit, Robert Parish, Willis Reed, Elvin Hayes and Karl Malone are natives of “The Boot.” Not to mention Shaquille O’Neal, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and “Pistol” Pete Maravich, who all had storied careers at Louisiana State University.
Yet professional basketball in New Orleans was for many generations, at best, a recurring hiccup. The New Orleans Hurricanes played only eight games (finishing 3-5) in 1947 before the Professional Basketball League of America folded. Reconstituted the following year as the New Orleans Sports, they finished 7-24 in the Southern Basketball League’s second and final season. It took nearly 20 years for basketball to return to the city, when the American Basketball Association’s Buccaneers became the first winning professional team in New Orleans history. Despite advancing to the ABA championship series in its first season (1967-68), the team relocated to Memphis by 1970.
Maravich, though, permanently altered basketball in the city with the New Orleans Jazz, which entered the NBA in 1974. The team colors were green, purple and gold in homage to Mardi Gras. Maravich’s game, bursting at the seams with swagger, charisma and fluidity, wowed fans who packed the Superdome and kids on playgrounds across the state. Unfortunately, Maravich was plagued by knee injuries and the team never had a winning season in its five years in the bayou. The Jazz relocated to Salt Lake City in 1979.
Professional basketball lay dormant in New Orleans until the Hornets defected from Charlotte in 2002. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 once again put professional basketball on hold for two seasons. Since the start of the 2007-08 season, the franchise has gone 460-508 and made the playoffs five times, advancing past the first round once.
Modern basketball in New Orleans pre-Williamson has had its fair share of stars, including Baron Davis, Chris Paul, David West, Peja Stojakovic and, of course, Davis. But the occasional star or superstar has done little, if anything, to rewrite the game’s place in the city. New Orleans and the state at large are defined by football, thanks in part to pillar programs at Louisiana State, Southern and Grambling universities — the latter two play in one of college football’s greatest rivalries, the Bayou Classic, every year in the Superdome — and, of course, the NFL’s Saints. In Louisiana, pigskin is a family heirloom.
“I give it about a 5 or a 6,” Hawkins said, ranking the local community’s attachment to the Pelicans. The Saints “have been around [since 1966], so fandom has been embedded through generations.”
“I do believe the city likes having a pro basketball team,” said “Uptown” Angela Charles, an on-air personality and senior vice president of programming for iHeartMedia in New Orleans. “But it appears the Pelicans haven’t done a great job connecting with New Orleans. We were excited to get No. 1 picks like Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, who had decent success, but then they let it be known they no longer wished to be here. At that point, the fans checked out. … Winning is great, but give it your all on and off the court. Truly become part of the New Orleans community. … It means something to [us] when players embrace our city and become part of the journey to make it better.”
New Orleans’ journey neither alphas nor omegas with Hurricane Katrina, but it’s irreversibly linked to the storm that claimed 1,833 lives. Thousands of residents moved away for good, and some feared the broken city’s culture and identity had been washed away with the broken levees. The NFL worried the region would never recover, and San Antonio, which hosted three “home” games that season, was a candidate to permanently adopt the Saints.
In a city that has lost so much, abandonment issues are ever-present. Those who stayed, were able to return, or arrived post-Katrina and embraced the city’s scars as their own are intertwined in its DNA. And in New Orleans, its most beloved current Saints — Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Demario Davis, Cam Jordan, coach Sean Payton and, of course, Drew Brees — are deeply woven into the community’s fabric and will be long after their playing time concludes. The chance for Williamson to fit that same mold, while reshaping the perception of basketball in New Orleans, is there.
“The whole city of New Orleans will be wearing that n—a shoe like it was a Reebok Solja. That n—a jersey will be a staple in the street. That is what Zion would mean to the city, bro,” said Chase N. Cashe. “Whoever is Zion’s agent, if they don’t sit [him] down with Drew Brees and let Brees be his mentor, that would be a huge mistake. Brees will clearly show you, ‘This city took care of me, man.’ We love anybody that come down and like to be one of ours.
“The best thing [Williamson’s stepdad] showed him that’s going to make him a f—ing icon in New Orleans is that he said, ‘Man, when my stepdad used to go everywhere, that n—a used to stop and talk to everybody, and I did not understand that,’ ” said Chase N. Cashe, referring to Williamson’s sit-down with ESPN’s Maria Taylor. He credited his stepfather’s willingness to speak to people in all walks of life as inspiration for his present-day personality. Chase N. Cashe yells proudly, “That’s New Orleans, my n—a!”
From chargrilled oysters, po’boys, gumbo, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter to jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Trombone Shorty and Jelly Roll Morton to No Limit Records and Cash Money Records, Big Freedia, Frank Ocean, the gospel of bounce music and countless entry points in between, New Orleans doesn’t depend on sports to define its existence.
How Williamson chooses to embrace that reality will dictate his legacy in the city. New Orleans loves people who love New Orleans. With an enticing young core thanks to the Lakers haul, Williamson will soon be the face of what could be one of the most entertaining League Pass teams in the NBA and maybe even a playoff contender. But while winning is important to New Orleanians, emotional connections trump everything. Sometimes it’s through the stomach. Other times it’s through the grooves of the city’s music. But each time it’s personal.
“It’s more than just performing. It’s performing and becoming a New Orleanian,” said Sinegal-DeCuir. “If he does that, he will be accepted and the people will be loyal to him and they’ll be loyal to the team.”
Loyalty is a sensitive topic in professional sports and can easily be disrupted by financial considerations. In the best cases — say, Dwyane Wade and Miami — the superstar transplant becomes a local living legend. It’s the highest form of athletic intimacy.
The culture of New Orleans isn’t static, of course, and that’s an opportunity for Williamson and the Pelicans. There’s the recent death of culinary matriarch Leah Chase. Saints quarterback Brees is nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career. The presumptive No. 1 pick could be the city’s next transcendent cultural ambassador — and the biggest basketball tour de force to enter the city since Maravich.
The Anthony Davis saga is now in the city’s rearview mirror. But disdain for the former No. 1 pick and the way he handled his last season in New Orleans lingers.
“I think Anthony Davis is taking a route he may regret. He better pray he can go over there and catch a ring [with LeBron James],” said Chase N. Cashe. “That’s going to be a big stain on that dude, man. He might not look at it right now because he’s young and he’s looking at it like, ‘I gave so many years of my career to y’all. I’m in my prime now. I need to make sure I get what I need.’ That’s cool. But there’s a way you could’ve went about it that would’ve played off better in his favor.”
The Pelicans were 25th in attendance last season as the team was enveloped in Davis’ trade demand and subsequent unofficial benching for the better part of the 41-game home slate. But landing the top spot in Thursday’s draft was a titanic shift in energy both inside and outside the organization. The Pelicans’ sales team erupted in celebration the night of May 14 when the No. 1 pick fell in their lap for the second time this decade. The team sold more than 2,000 season ticket packages that night alone, according to The New Orelans Advocate, including floor-level packages for $75,000 a seat.
Meanwhile, the front office has undergone its own makeover. A training staff maligned for being too “football-centric,” a red flag during Davis’ tenure, added widely respected Aaron Nelson, the former head of the Phoenix Suns’ training staff, as vice president of player care and performance.
David Griffin, who famously constructed the 2016 championship-winning Cleveland Cavaliers, is now the Pels’ executive vice president of basketball operations. Former Duke standout and NBA veteran Trajan Langdon became the team’s new general manager. And WNBA legend Swin Cash was named vice president of basketball operations/team development last week. Lost in the frenzy of Cash’s hiring and the headlines surrounding New Orleans, though, was what she said after the announcement.
“I’m excited to join the @PelicansNBA family and the community of New Orleans!” Cash tweeted.
It’s not that the Pelicans haven’t been involved in the community. The exact opposite is true. Yet, in a city that values loyalty and personal connections, the Pelicans sometimes resembled tourists in their own city. But the team’s owner has been working to change that perception.
In October, Pelicans (and Saints) owner Gayle Benson, a New Orleans native, donated $1.5 million to Xavier University. Likewise, in an effort to quell long-standing chatter about the Pelicans’ future in New Orleans, Benson declared, notably at the NFL owners’ annual spring meeting in March, that selling the team would never become an option.
“[The Pelicans are] reaching out to the city and they’re putting their feet in. They’re getting in where we need it,” said Sinegal-DeCuir. “I think once the city sees that, we will be loyal to that. It’s not just [Williamson]. It’s the franchise as well.”
The next stage of basketball in New Orleans starts Thursday night. Playing under coach Alvin Gentry, manning the wings with Brandon Ingram, playing with what might be one of the best defensive backcourts in the league with Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball, Williamson enters the league in perhaps the best situation for a No. 1 pick since Tim Duncan in 1997 (three years before Williamson was born).
He’s likely to electrify Smoothie King Center the same way he did Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke. The same way he did high school gymnasiums en route to becoming an internet demigod. He’ll continue to be a cultural commodity — Zion was name-dropped by Rick Ross on his recent Drake collaboration “Money in the Grave.” But, as with everything in New Orleans, from food to music to partying, not much else matters if soul isn’t involved.
“Zion could be the game changer we’ve been anticipating for a very long time,” said Charles, “but only if he wins over the fans.”
“If [Williamson] comes in and shows that he’s ready to embrace the city for all that it is, that he’s ready to get active in the community and not just be this person that’s on TV and who’s larger than life,” said Sinegal-DeCuir, “if he can show that he’s willing to get down and dirty and come hang out, visit our schools and help out in [those ways], then the people of New Orleans will notice that he’s not just here to make money and play basketball and become this superstar, but he’s here to embrace our culture and embrace us.”