The advice to Zion Williamson came from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees. It is passed from athlete to athlete here like an heirloom: “If you love the city of New Orleans, it will love you right back.”
This city throws its arms open to new arrivals, sharing its music, its food, its rich culture. From its athletes it wants something in return: confirmation that they want to be here. Validation that New Orleans punches above its weight, that a small market can hold its own in the big leagues.
“They like to see their athletes doing New Orleans type things – eating beignets, out on Bourbon Street,” Saints tackle Terron Armstead said.
As skilled as forward Anthony Davis was for the NBA’s Pelicans, many fans say that he seemed to be in New Orleans but not of New Orleans. His protracted divorce from the team last season and his departure to seek championships in Los Angeles with LeBron James and the Lakers left many here feeling jilted, a hoops marriage vacated at the altar of competition and finance.
The local embrace is more hopeful for Williamson, 19, who arrived by unlikely chance via the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery and whose teenage charisma, explosive power and agile grace have made him the most anticipated NBA rookie since James joined Cleveland out of high school in 2003.
But the city will have to wait, after the team announced its beloved young star would miss six to eight weeks after undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus in his right knee.
In the meantime, the team’s fans are likely to grow even fonder of Williamson in his absence, especially if New Orleans struggles in the early going.
Cleverly, Williamson has associated himself with the sport that people care most about here – football – appearing at games involving the Saints, Tulane and Louisiana State. And he has developed a kind of bromance with Brees, the Super Bowl winner who gave him a framed jersey that said, “To Zion – Passing the torch to you!” For this summer’s ESPY Awards, Brees dressed his three sons in maroon tuxedos almost identical to the one that Williamson wore.
Football’s imprimatur has been more than enough to convince Pelicans fans. An estimated 10,000 showed up for a public practice. The team has sold more than 12,000 season-ticket packages, a franchise record. Its lone home pre-season game drew an announced sellout of 17,954. There were empty seats but no vacant enthusiasm.
“The only thing that would come close for me to what we’re experiencing with Zion would be David Robinson getting out of the navy and coming to San Antonio,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who was an assistant with the Spurs in the 1989-90 season.
New Orleans is not a place that expects perfection. It is patient and willing to grant second chances. It stuck by the Saints through 20 consecutive nonwinning seasons as an expansion franchise. But just as this city knows how to put out the welcome mat, it knows how to hold a grudge, even if playfully.
After a referee’s blown pass-interference call during the NFC championship game in January probably kept the Saints out of the Super Bowl, the town held a Boycott Bowl parade and concert. Less gleefully, a Saints fan filed a lawsuit against the NFL that reached the state supreme court in Louisiana before being dismissed.
So when Davis asked to be traded, and then was after last season, it was no surprise that feelings were hurt. To hear fans tell it, it was not just that Davis left, but the way he left – wearing a “That’s all folks!” T-shirt to his final game in New Orleans.
“We might be ‘the City that Care Forgot,’ but it’s not that we don’t care,” said Rick Sanchez, a Pelicans season-ticket holder. “You can’t leave us high and dry. You don’t want to be with us, we don’t want to be with you.”
When New Orleans secured the first pick via the NBA draft lottery in May, some in the media surmised that Williamson might try to return to Duke for his sophomore season. But his stepfather, Lee Anderson, felt a small Southern market could be a good fit for Williamson, who grew up in South Carolina, telling ESPN in a radio interview, “We’re excited about the Crescent City down there in New Orleans.”
Two days after the draft in June, Williamson wrote on Twitter, “Dream is finally here, ready to get to work and give the City of New Orleans everything I got.”
He kept his word during the pre-season, muscling and whirling inside to hit 12 of 13 shots against the Chicago Bulls, then powering to the basket regularly against Rudy Gobert of Utah, the NBA’s reigning two-time defensive player of the year.
“He’s kind of surprisingly agile; he takes a lot of people off guard because of that,” Gobert said. “He can change direction pretty quick.”
As rookies inevitably do, Williamson needs to take a “big step” to improve his defence, Gentry said. But a feathery three-pointer against Utah suggested that Williamson may be able to hit jump shots when he cannot get to the rim.
There has been much discussion about whether Williamson could handle the wear and tear of an NBA season while carrying 285 pounds on his 6-foot-6 inch frame. Days before the injury, Gentry said he was unconcerned.
“He’s got 8 per cent body fat; we should all be so lucky,” Gentry said. “We’re fine with where he is.”