NEW ORLEANS — The NBA’s All-Stars will be back in the Big Easy two seasons from now.
Whether New Orleans’ NBA franchise will still be known as the Hornets by then is another matter.
Three days after Saints owner Tom Benson agreed to buy the Hornets and sign a lease extension at New Orleans Arena, NBA Commissioner David Stern came down to the bayou and announced that New Orleans will host the 2014 All-Star game as “a reward to the good citizens of this city and the sponsors and ticket holders” who helped solidify the team’s financial footing before it was sold.
Stern had barely finished making that announcement when Benson asked fans to help him pick out a new name for the team.
“We want to change the name from Hornets to something that means New Orleans and Louisiana,” said Benson, who has agreed to pay $338 million for the club. “The Hornets don’t mean anything” to the area.
Stern smiled while Benson spoke and noted, “He doesn’t own the team yet.”
“You’ve got $25,000 of my dough,” Benson responded, referring to his down-payment.
Stern quickly corrected him, saying, “$25 million — and if you want to get it credited to the purchase price, you better stop talking now.”
Laughter erupted, but talk of a name change continued later when Stern was asked about the possibility of New Orleans getting the name of its first NBA franchise — the Jazz — back from Utah.
“It’s fair to assume going in that each of other 29 teams will maintain ownership of their names,” Stern said. “There are ways to look at that, but I’m sure there are also other great names.”
Benson, meanwhile, is not stopping at a name change. He said he wants a new practice center for the team as well.
“The first thing we’ve got do is get a practice facility that’s going to be what we ought to have to get this team ready to win a championship,” Benson said.
Currently, the Hornets practice in a suburban event center across the Mississippi River from where the Saints are headquartered. The Hornets’ lease contains a pledge of $10 million that can be used either toward a new practice center or improvements to the New Orleans Arena, which already is slated for about $50 million in improvements during the next two years.
Doug Thornton, vice president of SMG, the company that manages the state-owned Superdome and New Orleans Arena, has been working on the selection of possible practice facility sites in the metro area. He said it was too early to name sites, and added that Benson likely would have to spend some of his own money on a practice center. Thornton said would be tough to build one comparable to the better ones around the NBA for less than $20 million.
Joining Stern and Benson at the announcement were Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Landrieu noted that Monday’s announcement took place across the street from the Superdome, from where images transmitted worldwide in the late summer of 2005 told the story of the misery caused by Hurricane Katrina.
“Now what you’re witnessing in the city of New Orleans is probably one of greatest stories of resurrection and redemption that the people of America have seen,” Landrieu said.
Stern had already pledged to Jindal that New Orleans would receive an All-Star game once a new owner and lease extension were in place. Because of potential conflicts with Mardi Gras in 2015 and 2016, awarding the game in 2014 made the most sense.
The 2013 game will be played in Houston, and Mardi Gras falls on March 4 in 2014, well after the usual mid-February date for NBA All-Star weekend. Mardi Gras falls in mid-February in 2015 and 2016, so if the NBA had given the 2014 event to New York, as some predicted, it would not make sense to hold the game in New Orleans again until 2017. By then, Benson would be 89 years old.
Stern and Benson announced an agreement Friday for the Saints’ owner to take over the Hornets, who have often been on shaky ground since arriving in the Big Easy in 2002. Benson agreed to an arena lease running through 2024, and Stern said Monday that he expected Benson’s prospective ownership to be approved by the NBA’s board of governors within 45 days.
Benson’s involvement in pro basketball comes as his football club looks to emerge from a bounty scandal that has resulted in head coach Sean Payton’s season-long suspension.
While Benson was appearing with Stern at a court-level restaurant in the New Orleans Arena, the Saints were having their first day of voluntary workouts in nearby Metairie. Absent from the workouts was quarterback Drew Brees, who is seeking a new, long-term contract, and who was in New York to join players union and NFL officials discussing the Saints’ bounty system.
When the line of questioning at the New Orleans Arena turned from basketball to football, Stern interrupted.
“I’m not going to allow my putative owner to answer that question,” Stern said. “This is an NBA-related press conference.”
However, Stern did not discount the value that Benson’s ownership of the Saints, who are enormously popular and sell out every game, could bring to the Hornets.
“If you have relationships with (Saints) sponsors, some of whom might have made a mistake and not associated with the Hornets, or maybe even some Hornets sponsors who made a mistake and have not associated with the Saints, there are huge opportunities for both teams,” Stern said.
Benson said some of his close advisers, whom he consults on Saints matters, also would be consulted about the Hornets.
There are some aspects of the operations of both clubs that could be more practical to consolidate, such as ticket sales, sponsorships and game-day entertainment.
However, Benson said he had assured Stern that the teams would operate independently of one another.
“They’ve got to operate separately,” Benson said. “They’re two different things.”