New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson’s services are today, so we are taking a look at his often-confounding legacy.
My most vivid memory of Tom Benson was seeing him for every home game. From the vantage point of my season tickets, I could clearly see him sitting in his suite. I was close enough to throw something at him if I wanted to, and some nights I definitely wanted to.
When it comes team owners, everyone has an opinion. And everyone was more than happy to share those opinions when Benson bought the then-Hornets from the NBA in 2012. To some, Benson was the savior of basketball in New Orleans. To others, Benson was a cheapskate owner who would forever put the Pelicans on the backburner in favor of the Saints.
Of course, both sides wound up being right. And wrong.
There have been a lot of “Tom Benson was a true son of New Orleans” tributes making the rounds. That is a correct assessment, but not for the reasons everyone thinks. New Orleans is a complicated place, with luxury and poverty and exuberance and despair and harmony and racism and tolerance and sexism and love and violence all happening concurrently and loudly. Benson was no less complicated. The Saints’ Super Bowl win made him a symbol of triumph in New Orleans, but he publicly floated moving the team to San Antonio in the immediate (and I mean immediate) aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was a benevolent boss gave his employees a top-notch facility on Airline Drive complete with free lunch on-site (I’ve gotten to eat there and the food is surprisingly high quality – Benson himself even ate it), but he was estranged from his own heirs.
And finally, he saved basketball in New Orleans, but fans could never quite shake the perception that the Pelicans were a stepchild franchise (as much as a team worth hundreds of millions of dollars could be considered an afterthought). People often claimed he was an absentee owner, and yet he was there every night. I saw him with my own eyes, and he surely heard every cheer for Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins, every JJJRRRUUUUUEEEEEE for Jrue Holiday, and every boo for Alvin Gentry (and Monty Williams before him). He was in his owner’s suite flanked by Gayle and a team of handlers, but he was in that arena, experiencing the same joy and misery as the rest of us.
Today, the complicated man from the complicated place will be laid to rest. With his lingering family succession issues and general uncertainty, what comes next is unknown and, well, complicated. But the outpouring of support from Pelicans players and coaches tells us we can at least be certain Tom Benson will be missed. After all, he was always around.