The history of the NBA in New Orleans

Published: Dec. 29, 2022 at 2:38 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Thousands of basketball fans will pack the arena tonight to watch the Pelicans take on the Timberwolves.

Fans are pumped about the team’s success this year, and many will celebrate a big anniversary.

In the past twenty years, the Hornets, which morphed into the Pelicans, have provided countless thrills for thousands of fans across the gulf coast.

At the Smoothie King Center, those involved in bringing the NBA back to New Orleans will celebrate.

‘We’re celebrating 20 years in New Orleans 20 years after the relocation of the Hornets.’

20 years ago, the Charlotte Hornets decided to relocate to New Orleans, returning the NBA to the city for the first time since the Jazz departed for Utah in 1979. But the groundwork was laid three years earlier when former Mayor Sidney Barthelemy got the backing of former Governor Edwin Edwards to include funding for a new arena in a Superdome refinancing package.

‘He said while you’re getting it renovated dome and I said that’s for the saints and he said what do you want and I said a basketball arena,” said Barthelemy.

The original plan for the arena was included in a study on rail transit improvements at the nearby Union Passenger Terminal.

“In this initial study, he said can you put in a place for the arena, and we were able to fit it in in this area,” said former Barthelemy Chief of Staff Darrel Saizan.

It was an idea that faced a lot of political opposition—spending $100 million to build an arena in New Orleans to attract an NBA franchise.

Former Mayor Marc Morial helped pass the financing plan through the legislature, where he served as a senator before moving to city hall.

“Although the funding is driven by the hotel-motel taxes in New Orleans in Jefferson parish, the truth is we built it with a philosophy build it and they will come,” said Morial.

And those involved in the project say former governor Edwin Edwards was vital.

“Edwin was such a brilliant guy bringing people together. I’m not sure a lot of things would’ve happened without him,” said former Louisiana House Speaker and Senate President John Alario.

Though the arena has served New Orleans sports fans well for 20 years, those who helped build it say it’s probably time for an upgrade.

“There’s no time frame; we’re still finishing the renovations for the Superdome, so we’re going to have to wait a little while,” said Pelicans owner Gayle Benson.

The arena’s and the Pelicans’ economic impact are measured in millions of dollars.

“To have two major sports teams in your market says a lot about your market and it gives you worldwide recognition,” said Thornton.

Recognition is now being celebrated by those who believed if you build it, they will come...and...they did.

Since the NBA relocated to New Orleans, the city has hosted 3 NBA all-star games. Proponents of arena renovation say to keep bringing them here; the facility will likely need to be upgraded to ensure it remains attractive for big events.

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