Tom Benson sat in front of an NBA logo on Friday as he announced his decision to purchase the New Orleans Hornets. He read a prepared statement, then opened it up to the press to ask questions.
The first question was about football.
Benson, who also owns the New Orleans Saints, was asked by Times Picayune writer Jimmy Smith on how close the Saints were to signing Drew Brees. Benson answered as deftly as an 85-year-old man can manage, then fielded other softball questions about his newest business acquisition.
But the questions about football remained.
On Monday morning, Steve Czaban of XL 950 Indianapolis reported the purchase only to point out, "the man just spent $340 million, and he can't sign Drew Brees to a contract?"
Never mind that's not how salary caps work. Never mind the Saints are waiting for more money to be available to work out a deal. Never mind that the Saints have plenty of time to sign Brees. The only spin Czaban could give the Hornets purchase was a negative one that had nothing to do with the NBA franchise at all.
Such is the treatment of the New Orleans Hornets, the closest thing to a neglected stepchild the NBA has. They are either ignored by the media at large, or relentlessly attacked when national media does pay attention to them. The day of the purchase, Tony Kornheiser on ESPN's Pardon the Interruption claimed the team should be contracted and refused to see how Benson purchasing the Hornets could be a positive thing.
But despite all of this negative attention, Friday's purchase is more than just positive news for the city of New Orleans. It could be the first step in transforming the neglected stepchild into a successful and upcoming NBA franchise.
For the past two years, the NBA has owned the Hornets, and the future has been very dark. Before David Stern made it his mission to save basketball in New Orleans, there was rampant speculation that, much like in the late 70s, the city would once again fail to keep a basketball franchise. The team lost All-Stars David West and Chris Paul to free agency and trades because neither was happy with the direction the franchise was heading in.
But on his way out, Paul may have helped the franchise more than he ever did as a member of the Hornets.
In trading Paul to the Clippers, the Hornets received a package that included Eric Gordon and a draft pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Though Gordon missed most of the season to injury, he has returned and made an immediate impact, helping the Hornets win games against playoff teams such as Utah and Memphis. And because the team has struggled most of the season without him, the Hornets now have two picks in the lottery of the 2012 NBA Draft, a draft most pundits are calling one of the deepest in years.
And now, with Tom Benson purchasing the team, the Hornets have stability, something that has escaped them for the past two years. Benson has been known to spend money to win, current Brees issues aside. He is planning on using Saints staff to help advise Hornets staff in how to run a successful franchise. And he is also planning on building a practice facility close to the New Orleans Arena in an attempt to make New Orleans a more viable free agent destination.
Because Benson isn't kidding around here, as he told reporters on Friday. When asked what his goals were in a nola.com article, Benson said, "To win championships. To put sellout crowds of 19,000 in the arena. To make basketball fans out of some of the 70,200 Saints season-ticket holders. We've got a great opportunity. New Orleans showed what a great small-market city it is when it comes to sports. Now we've got to keep proving it. Just watch. The success of our football team will help our basketball team build corporate sponsorships. Sky's the limit. I'm in. Big-time.''
These are strong words from Benson, but words that fill the New Orleans fanbase with hope after spending two years of having little to none. Along with these promises, Benson is looking into rebranding the team to something that resonates with New Orleanians more than "Hornets." This also represents a clean slate for a franchise that is currently the worst in the Western Conference. Taking all of this into account, Benson gives fans of the NBA's smallest market franchise hope for a bright future.
The Hornets have a lot of work to do. They must resign Gordon, who is a restricted free agent. They must make the right moves and draft the right players. If the Hornets do not get the #1 pick and the rights to draft Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis, they must pick players that fill needs as well as seats in the arena. Current GM Dell Demps and Coach Monty Williams have to build on the momentum they have created in their short time in New Orleans. Building a successful NBA franchise is equal parts shrewdness and making the right decisions, with a heaping bit of luck on top. There is no "model," despite what national media would have you believe about small market teams like Oklahoma City and San Antonio. There is only having the right pieces and hoping for the best.
Right now, the Hornets have many of the right pieces, and a future that suggests that more pieces will be coming soon. If everything breaks the right way, national media is going to have a hard time ignoring or demeaning the Hornets for much longer.
The new owner will make sure of that.