Before New Orleans Pelicans were enjoying a successful season, arguably the most successful since they changed their namesake from the Hornets to the Pelicans in 2013. That result remains to be seen, as the Pelicans have made the playoffs once before, but they were swept by the Golden State Warriors in 2014. It's a shame Benson's death came this season, but the team success doesn't matter. He would have been a great Pelicans' owner if he'd never won a game., the
Benson was the victim of several very public battles for his teams with his heirs, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. However, his love for the teams he owned never wavered. Benson likely saved basketball in New Orleans when he bought the Hornets in 2012, in more ways than one. The team had been in the possession of the NBA for the previous two seasons, since it was wrested away from former owner George Shinn for $300 million. Shinn's reasons for moving to New Orleans were shoddy from the start, as it was due to his blemished reputation from a trial for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting a Charlotte woman. He moved the team prior to the 2002 season, and the league eventually bought it when Shinn was unable to financially support it.
The Hornets were middling at best in New Orleans. After Chris Paul, the only source of the Hornets' success at that point, was traded to the Clippers before the 2011 season (only after having a trade to the Lakers in the infamous "basketball reasons" debacle -- a deal that would have netted the Hornets Lamar Odom), the Hornets cratered. They went 21-45 in 66 games during the shortened next season, the league's worst record. A move seemed imminent when Benson, who already owned the Saints, bought the team before the 2012 season. The first draft pick made with Benson as owner was Anthony Davis.
Benson immediately made his mark, opting to localize the name. Naturally, he pursued the "Jazz" moniker, but he couldn't get Utah to give the name up due to the team's deep history with it. The "Brass" and the "Krewe" were also strongly considered, but eventually the Pelicans were settled upon. The Louisiana state bird is the brown pelican, and so it honored Benson's insistence that the name honor the state of Louisiana in some way. The name was adopted in 2013, just one year after Benson took over.
Since then, the Pelicans have been up and down. The city's interest in basketball has come and gone and come again, but Benson's commitment to the city has never waned. Enthusiasm reached a fever pitch this season, when Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins populated the Pelicans' frontcourt. Now, with the Pelicans fifth in the Western Conference and two games out of third, even with Cousins out for the season with a torn Achilles, it's going stronger than ever. If the playoffs started today, the Pelicans would lock up their highest seed since 2007, when they won the Southwest with Paul and David West and finished with the No. 2 seed. Incidentally, that season is the only season in which the team won a playoff series. Anthony Davis is having an MVP-caliber season, and even though the award is James Harden's to lose, fans of the team will adamantly say Davis is the best player in the NBA.
Benson fought tooth and nail to keep sports in New Orleans. He did it with the Saints first, and he did the same with the Pelicans. With the team under league ownership, it simply would have been a matter of filing the paperwork to move the team somewhere else. Clay Bennett moving the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City may have saved New Orleans basketball before Benson ever could. After Hurricane Katrina, the team played in Oklahoma City. Benson wasn't going to let a move happen. The league owning a team is a precarious situation. Benson just righted the ship.
With Gayle Benson taking over, the team's legacy is likely safe -- for now. No matter what happens with the teams in the future, however, everyone in New Orleans will undoubtedly remember how hard Benson fought for the Pelicans to stay in the Crescent City.