With the New Orleans Pelicans making their 2018 playoff run, including a shocking sweep of the Portland Trailblazers in the first round, the question has come up again; can New Orleans be a basketball city?
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Thats a loaded question, however, that conjures up a history of race and racism in a divided city trying to find itself. Race and sports are central to the story of New Orleans, and basketball gave the city its first sign that sports could mean so much more than just sports. To this day, the hardwood offers hope that the city can recover from its past prejudices, but also move forward in branding itself as a modern city.
During the civil rights movement, at a time when white politicians tried to maintain segregation and white racial power as long as possible, Loyola basketball made the first move to integrate the city. For the 1954-55 season, the private Catholic school declared that they would allow integrated basketball on the court, and they integrated their seats in their fieldhouse.
Because of this policy, black residents flooded to games, and Loyola played to packed crowds. Loyola basketball games offered the only integrated entertainment where black residents could sit in dignity.
That year, in 1954, LaSalle came to town with their black star, Alonzo Lewis, who played alongside the great Tom Gola, and the game went off without a hitch. The local black press praised Loyola, lauding, This one occasion alone was clear proof that there is no truth in the myth that Negroes and whites cannot mix as human beings.
The following year, in December 1955, just weeks after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and New Orleans native Warren Baxter came to the city with their San Francisco Dons to play against Loyola in one of the most significant basketball games in city history.
Afterwards, Russell, who migrated out of the state with his family at a young age, told a black audience at a banquet celebrating him and his black teammates, Playing against Loyola is better than twenty-five Supreme Court decisions.
With their black players and their powerhouse squad, the Dons demonstrated that true integration was not only possible but also produced winning results.
Bill Russell 26pts 27reb 20blks 3stl 1a Double-Triple-Double his final NCAA Championship
3/24/1956 Iowa vs San Francisco NCAA Championship Game… a young Bill Russell tallies an unbelievable 26pts 27reb 20blks 3stl 1a …a double-triple-double (unofficial as blocked shots are not a recognized stat at that time). Russell completely shuts down the lane even blocking shots that are released behind him showcasing his incredible reflexes, anticipation and timing.
Summing up the hope that Loyola inspired, a black columnist for the Louisiana Weekly noted, We must salute Loyola University for making it possible for democracy to work in the true manner in which it was meant, whether at home or abroad. It is even sweeter when considering that at last, we are practicing democracy and the Christian concept we boast to the world about, right here in the haven of racial bigots.
In an era of white resistance to black civil rights protests, basketball in New Orleans was the first local sign of proof that integration could work.
The feelings of hope on the hardwood, however, were quickly dashed that summer when white state legislators passed a mixed sports law that completely segregated all sports, including the fans in the stands.
White politicians worried that integrated sports would lead to an integrated society. They reasoned that if they allowed black athletes to compete against white athletes, or black and white fans to sit together at sporting events, the fields of education and employment would be next.
Thus, what started as a noble gesture by Loyola to integrate their basketball games, turned into a battleground for white politicians. But black residents fought back.
Black sports writer Jim Hall used his platform to urge black fans to boycott all segregated sports events, and boxer Joe Dorsey sued the state. In 1959, Dorsey won. The courts ruled that the mixed sports ban was illegal. Integration in the stands, however, was slow to come.
Most sports venues maintained segregated seating until 1963. This included the Loyola Field House. Despite its brief history of inclusion, when Loyola refused to change their seating policy, black fans boycotted their basketball games, even when they played opponents with black players.
In 1962, for example, after Loyola faced Loyola of Chicago, a team that started black players and would win the national championship the following year while starting four black players, Jim Hall argued, Today, the Negro wants equality under the law, without the strings of race, creed, and color. It is our opinion that a Negro must be granted a right to play on a field when his ability permits. At the same time, without restrictions, he must be allowed to sit in a stadium, gymnasium or baseball park as any other American citizen and he must be allowed to eat unmolested in a public eating place. We have repeatedly pointed out we must not pay for segregation.
In other words, in the middle of the civil rights movement when local residents were getting arrested for trying to integrate the city, what should have been a moment to celebrate, just like they did with Russells San Francisco Dons in 1955, turned into a moment of despair. Basketball could only offer so much. Institutions reinforcing racism had to change.
1965, however, provided a sliver of hope that basketball could bring that change, but once again, city leaders and institutions squandered the opportunity. They called it the secret game.
Five years after local public schools legally integrated, one month after twenty-two black football players boycotted the AFL All-Star game in New Orleans, and four days after Malcolm X was assassinated, two Catholic schools, one white, one black, Jesuit versus St. Augustine, came together in a secret game to use basketball to break down racial barriers.
St. Augustine, led by future high school All-American Harold Sylvester, won easily. Although this game is celebrated in history, and Hollywood made a movie about it called “Passing Glory”, not much changed. The city remained violently segregated — CORE had their headquarters bombed that year — and that summer, at least eleven Black kids drowned in local swimming holes while the public swimming pools remained closed because they city tried to avoid integrating their public pools.
And in regard to high school sports, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA) continued to refuse to allow blacks schools into their association until St. Augustine successfully sued the LHSAA for entry in 1967.
While high school teams were busy trying to integrate sports, city leaders were trying to figure out how to use sports to remake the image of the city. Like other major southern cities, Houston and Atlanta specifically, New Orleans leaders believed that if they could attract a professional sports franchise to the city, then that would allow them to market themselves as a major modern New South city; a city that had pushed passed its racist past and offered modern amenities.
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In order to sell themselves in that light, these cities used integrated professional sports to do the trick. Houston had the Oilers, the Colt 45s, and by 1967 the ABAs Mavericks. Atlanta brought the Braves from Milwaukee, got the Falcons, and eventually the NBA Hawks from St. Louis.
And New Orleans got the NFLs Saints and the ABAs Buccaneers. Both teams made their debut in the fall of 1967. Celebrating the potential progress of having integrated professional sports, Jim Hall wrote, New Orleans is going Big Time this year when the New Orleans Saints go marching in and make their pigskin debut in the National Football League. When this happens, we believe that all the little guys who are still preaching race hate from the soap box, will be trampled in the process of moving forward on the sports front. Moving down the road of progress, we also believe that they Saints to be Angels of the field, will have added more color to the front office. The same holds true with the New Orleans Buccaneers of the newly formed American Basketball League.
Although the Buccaneers did not integrate their front office (the Saints hired Hall as their publicity man), owner Morton Downey made an effort to use basketball as an important bridge in the city. Understanding that he needed black fans to come to the games for the team to financially succeed, he signed top local black talent.
With their first pick, the team drafted Gramblings James Jones, who averaged 25.8 points per game his senior season, and they traded for local Dillard University star Malbert Pradd, who averaged more than 43 points a game his senior year. At 63, however, Pradd was an undersized forward in the league and barely played. But Jones was one of the top rookies in the ABA, and his stellar play helped the Bucs reach the ABA finals where they lost to the Connie Hawkins led Pittsburgh Pipers in seven games.
But, unfortunately, the fans didnt show up. New Orleans had branded itself as a football city, and the Bucs could not compete with the Saints. Even high school football games received more fans than the Bucs. The Bucs would be gone in two years.
If the Bucs represented a hint of racial progress, the Jazz represented the bitter sound of bigotry.
Instead of focusing on building a winning team, when the New Orleans Jazz entered the NBA in 1974, they used race to build a white southern fan base. They mortgaged their future by trading multiple first and second-round draft picks to the Hawks for white scoring machine “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
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With Maravich as their star, however, the Jazz remained at the bottom of the league in wins. But when healthy, he brought in the white fans. And that is what the owners wanted.
Before a major injury to their star in the 1977 season, the Jazz were third in attendance. During Marivichs tenure, the franchise set attendance records when they packed the Superdome with 30,000 fans, doing that at least four times. The front office estimated that their white hope brought in 30% of the fanbase. And it was clear what white fans wanted.
As one fan reportedly told Sports Illustrated, Remember, Maravich is not only the white star, hes the white who makes the blacks look bad. Hes the white who got the 68 points off Walt Frazier. New Orleans is the original town where black were jigs. They still are. New Orleans gets off on the Pistol doing it to the jigs.
But when Maravich suffered injuries, and or the team struggled to win, Maravich took the blame. Race was never far from the conversation. Even Pistol Pete felt the heat. In 1978, he told Sports Illustrated, For four and a half seasons Ive done everything I possibly could to help this team. They aint got no complaints. But, then, Im the white boy making the most money, so its my fault.
In 1979, the city lost their team and name to Utah.
Today, in hopes of selling itself as a major southern city, the city still clings to basketball. But to market itself as a new city, New Orleans must ignore race. This is hard to do considering the fact that blackness is central to the brand of New Orleans as a tourist attraction, and professional basketball is nearly 70% black. But they try anyway. Instead of race, they use race neutral words like revitalize and renaissance.
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This point was made perfectly clear in 2002 when the city acquired the Hornets from Charlotte. According to Stephen Perry, the governors Chief of Staff at the time, he believed the arrival of the Hornets would signal an economic renaissance for the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.
Instead of spending the money on infrastructure and or education, the city and state used basketball as a branding tool. To lure the team, the city and state used millions of public dollars, mainly from a hotel tax, to build brand new suites, a practice facility, a modern locker room and weight room for the team, and guaranteed up to three million dollars annually if the Hornets did not meet their attendance goals.
In their initial season, however, the Hornets only sold out 12 games and ranked 21st in league attendance. The following year, the 2003-2004 season, they ranked 28th out of 29 teams. And for the 2004-2005 season, they won 18 games and ranked dead last in attendance. Then Katrina hit.
The combination of Hurricane Katrinas impact on August 23, 2005, and the subsequent flooding after the levees broke, forced the Hornets to relocate to Oklahoma City for two seasons. Coming back to the city essentially meant starting over. And along with the Saints, basketball became a new brand, representing a new hope.
This time, in a city in which the media made clear that Katrina had a damaging, if not disproportionate, impact on local black residents, basketball was going to bring the city back together. When owner George Shinn returned with the team, he buzzed around the city promising his Hornets would be part of the recovery.
They helped rehab homes off the court, and with a team led by superstar Chris Paul, they helped instill pride on the court. He implemented a new slogan for the post-Katrina Hornets; Passion, Purpose, and Pride.
Although overshadowed by the Saints, who won the Super Bowl in 2010, basketball finally had a unifying purpose that supposedly every native, black or white, could get behind. As Hugh Weber, President of business operations added, When we talk to our fans and community leaders, there is a sense of overall purpose of what we’re trying to do, a sense of building pride and building back the national image of the city and to be proud of the heritage and uniqueness of city.
Even the players supported this image. Sharpshooter, Peja Stojakovic said, We are back home in New Orleans, and it’s a new beginning for all of us — the city and the team. Together, we can put this city back on the map.
Miraculously, the team had their best attendance since abandoning Charlotte in 2002 and ranked 16th in the league in attendance.
But then, once again, attendance lagged. And in 2010, Shinn wanted out. Only problem; he could not sell the team. Nobody wanted to invest in New Orleans. The Hornets were a basketball team in a football city, still dogged by a lagging recovery. Shinn sold the team to the NBA, who kept the team in the city until they could find an owner.
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In 2012, Tom Benson, the late owner of the Saints, stepped in and bought the team, signing a 10-year lease. He christened the team the Pelicans, a name that ironically harkens back to the days of segregated sports.
The NBAs willingness to keep the franchise in New Orleans, and Bensons ownership, however, signaled to locals that they could be a basketball city. More importantly, moving forward, it suggested that the city was recovering and basketball would play an intricate role in that phase. And with Anthony Davis leading the way for these Pelicans, a black face is the front of revitalization and hope on the hardwood.