As if the constant churn of NBA personnel is not fast enough, the New Orleans Pelicans franchise’s former instability combined with its talented General Manager have kept the Pelicans, and New Orleans Hornets, from keeping players around long enough to really being identified with the franchise. Chris Paul was with the team for six years, but spent only four years in New Orleans, and some of that was mired in rumors of trying to force his way out of town. David West (my favorite NBA player) was with the team for a season longer, but really did not grab the fan base like Chris Paul because he was not as talented or media-friendly. Like Chris Paul, some fans find his exit from New Orleans less-than-endearing. Both players are achieving success in their next homes, further contributing to them not being really identified with their time in the Crescent City.
Reversing the situation, many a fan has their favorite role player. Some love Dan Dickau to this day. Ryan Bowen has a special place in some hearts. Me, I’ll take Bobby Jackson. Most fans have these pet players that somehow weasel their way into undying fan-affection. I’m not sure what it is, but there is something about the scrappy underdog that resonates with fans most likely. These players, however, lack the time to really have more than a smattering of disconnected fans. The fan base in general does not look to any one of them as the post child for the Pelicans.
Anthony Davis is the future of the franchise, but if he ends up having greater success elsewhere, he won’t quite fit the bill (see: LeBron James and the Heat v. LeBron James and the Cavaliers).
To be identified with the team favorably, the player will need to significant time with the franchise, have the majority of his success with the franchise, and the franchise has to have some success during that time. The New Orleans Saints got this relatively recently with the induction of Rickey Jackson into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Pelicans are far from this, and Davis is their best shot 20 years from now.
What the Pelicans, and their fans, need today is a Fast Freddie.
Fred McAfee is the current Director of Player of Development of the New Orleans Saints, but he started his long career on the field. The 5′ 10″ running back from Philadelphia, Mississippi was drafted in the 6th round by the Saints in 1991. He rushed for over 4.5 yards per carry on over 100 rushes to lead the team in rushing as a rookie, helping the Dome Patrol land the team their first Division Title in franchise history.
McAfee would play for other teams in his career but returned to the Saints in 2000, just in time to win a second Division Title, still testing free agency consistently though the years. He blossomed on special teams meriting a Pro Bowl invitation 2002. He was cut and resigned over and over until they finally slapped his in a suit to make him a Saint far beyond the end of his 16-year on-field career ended in 2006 with another Division Title and his first touchdown in 11 years, and 13 since his last with the Saints . . . in his final game.
Fast Freddie was beloved by fans for a number of reasons. He was always a hard-worker and spirited man and was consistently praised by players and coaches for being a consummate teammate. McAfee embraced the opportunities presented to him, taking full advantage. Coaches trusted him to call direct snaps to himself on punts when he saw `something’. He’s also won a game or two with his special teams play.
McAfee was always in the shadow of greatness. His cousin was the phenom Marcus Dupree, and McAfee was a ball boy for his cousin’s high school team. He won state championships in pole vaulting, but his football skills led him to Division II Mississippi College (now Division III). He was never a transcendent talent like his 2006 teammate Drew Brees to whom the Who Dat nation rides behind week after week. He never blocked a punt of the magnitude that his teammate Steve Gleason did, flooding the eyes of those who love New Orleans with tears and their hearts with belief and hope enough to keep rebuilding their homes, families, and lives . . . along with this magnificent city and resilient region. He was just there, a steady guy who embraced his role and worked hard for his teammates and coaches. When Reggie Bush joined the team and asked for his number 25 (since 5 was not allowed for NFL running backs), McAfee stepped aside and gave the number to his sensation of a teammate . . . provided that Bush let McAfee redirect half of Bush’s charitable donations from jersey sales.
For his troubles, he’s got the unique honor of being the only player to be on the Saints squads for the first three Division Titles. He also has a nice Super Bowl ring for his long efforts with the teams on and off the field, always embracing the opportunities around him, including being called the best special teams player some coaches had ever seen. For his entire career, he was always helping to propel others and the team to greatness in any way he could, constantly figuratively raising the bar in that area in the way he literally did in his bona fide individual championships, and he both was and is one of the greatest ever at that.
This is exactly what the Pelicans need.
I would venture to say they have that . . . maybe . . . in Jason Smith.
Smith has that same genuine embrace of the game. He’s the exemplar of a teammate and has continued to develop his game the best way he can to help the team, going all out in his available minutes and even playing hurt when allowed. Smith is also currently the longest-tenured Pelican and was one of Dell’s first acquisitions. Beyond that, he enjoys and supports New Orleans while being a defender of his beloved Colorado in their time of need. He is exactly the kind of player this team needs to connect with fans in a Fast Freddie way, and he’s the best shot the Pelicans will have for the next several years.
The trick with Jason Smith is, of course, keeping him. He’s in the last year of his relatively inexpensive deal. With a suddenly crowded front court, Smith could end up the odd man out if other players develop. Also, his attractive contract, increased level of play over the years, and off-the-court contributions to his team could make him a requested sweetener in one of Dell’s deals.
Personally, I’m rooting for Jason Smith to retire a Pelican (not now!) and join the broadcast team, something in which he’s shown general interest. In the meantime, I’m wishing him good health and a good season. He’s earned well-wishes, no matter his professional fate.
He’d just be the ideal player to go down in history with us, the original Pelicans fans, as synonymous with the team we all love.