New Orleans In the National Basketball Association, the NBA, the New Orleans Pelicans, as we now call ourselves, often get little respect. We’ve had some great players like Chris Paul and Anthony Davis, but often we have not had great teams. Twenty teams make the playoffs annually, but for the last four years, the Pelicans have not been able to break into that list, which should give a sense of our seasons. This is our home team though. Our family goes to some games when we get the chance, and my son and I have been to several this year when I’ve been in town. There’s a new coach and despite losing the player who is supposedly our big star, Zion Williamson, all year, we have been scrappy, made some good moves, and are likely to sneak into the playoffs this year, despite an overall losing record due to an abysmal beginning of the season.
Why do you care? I don’t know, but maybe you should. Basketball is a team sport, despite there being huge stars, but unlike football, the teams fielded are small, almost intimate, so despite the intense competition, many of the players know each other well and have history.
All this is on my mind after my son and I were part of the huge crowd the other day watching the Pelicans host the vaunted, often champion Los Angeles Lakers. The game mattered, because, unbelievably our team records were the same, and in a play-in, if we won, we would have the home court advantage. Playing the Lakers or Golden State is always unsettling in New Orleans, because their history of championships has given them an “everyone likes a winner” fanbase which shows up large at their chance to see these teams even on another team’s home court. There are always huge numbers of Lebron, Kobie, and Steph jerseys. These are great players without question. Lebron James pushed the Lakers to a 12-0 start, and it was painful to watch as they acted out. This time we came back from a 23-point deficit, 20 at half-time, to beat them by 8 points, led by one of our stars, Brandon Ingram, in a record comeback for the Pelicans and hugely sweet and satisfying victory for all of us as Pelican fans.
Fans are fans, and at many levels they can’t help themselves, but the players, despite making millions, are something different, and this year at Pelicans games one of the treats has been to witness the grace and sportsmanship of the players in their special community separate from the fans. In the warmup before the game, frequently, we see players on both teams fraternizing with old teammates from college, which is kind of dear to tell the truth. Before tipoff, all of the players in each team typically greet and hug all the other opposition players. The Pelicans traded a couple of our players, including Josh Hart, an aggressive 6th man on the team and a fan favorite, to Portland in exchange for CJ McCollum, a point guard who has been a huge addition. We were there that night. Hart was wearing an Ingram jersey and sitting in the floor seats, joined later by another traded player. In one of the more moving things, I have ever watched in sports, all the members of the Pelicans, including the coach, went over to Hart and shook his hand and gave him a hug at half-time. Trading players is part of the business of professional sports, but this demonstration of real grace was unique and said volumes about the team, the players, and the head coach, who had created this environment.
LeBron James is a great player and to watch him demolish our team, as we have seen many times is painful, even as it is awesome. He is intensely competitive and even at 37 argues every call and works the refs aggressively. A picture in the local paper though said something about good sportsmanship. At the end, when it was clear that our Pelicans were going to beat the Lakers, LeBron was giving Brandon Ingram a hug and a smile of congratulations, and you could tell he meant it. Ingram had come to us as a young, green and unproven player in the Anthony Davis deal, and had blossomed into a star. They knew each other well, and that moment with huge smiles on both of their faces was sincere and meaningful.
Sure, there are trash talkers in basketball, just as there are in other sports, but there are fewer players, they play each other often during a season, and what goes around, comes around. The speed, skill, and athleticism are amazing in the sport, but there’s something to watch and learn about grace and sportsmanship in the sport, which is worth the price of admission sometimes, win or lose.