Of Course the Pelicans Will Retire Chris Paul’s Jersey

Published: February 24, 2014

Chris Paul faces the New Orleans Pelicans tonight, a team he’s never played for. Despite that, he’ll be the first player to have his jersey retired by the Pelicans. Why? Because they wouldn’t exist without him.

It’s really that simple.

Last time the NBA All-Star came to New Orleans the future of professional basketball wasn’t at all secure in the Crescent City, and not just because of Hurricane Katrina. While the storm certainly destabilized the team, forcing them out of town for most of two seasons, it was not the only problem the Hornets faced in New Orleans.

In 2002-2003, the Hornets first season in New Orleans, they finished 19th in attendance, winning 47 games and losing in the first round of the playoffs. The following season saw similar results on the court– 41 wins and a first round playoff loss– but off the court the downturn was much more profound. They finished second to last in the league in total attendance and were able to sell or give away barely over 83% of tickets.

It was never a sure thing that professional basketball would work in New Orleans, and seeing attendance drop off so drastically after making the playoffs in year one was anything but promising news. In 2004-2005, the final season before Katrina hit, the team was in disarray. An 18-64 record resulted in the worst attendance in the league and an even further decline in the number of tickets sold or used.

With the fourth pick in the 2005 draft, the Hornets drafted Chris Paul and things changed forever.

(Hurricane, two years in OKC, yada yada, you’ve heard this before)

When the Hornets returned to New Orleans full time, they were hardly the biggest news in town. The Saints were making noise, the city was being rebuilt, and in general people had other things on their mind than the return of a team many still called the Charlotte Hornets.

David Stern, Jac Sperling, Hugh Weber, George Shinn and the Benson’s all made invaluable contributions to the effort, perhaps each of which was somehow as essential as the last, but none of them ever scored a bucket or grabbed a rebound. They never blocked a shot. They never really mattered at all once the game started.

There are a million reasons to go to an NBA game that aren’t the game itself, ranging from the normal (your boss invited you), to the absurd (your friends like to play “Where’s Waldo?” in large crowds). What it comes down to in the end, though, is that the game itself keeps people coming back.

What Chris Paul did in the year after Katrina was single handedly electrify the hearts and souls of thousands of what are now Pelicans fans, and in the process make an average team good enough to win a playoff series and nearly a second.

CP3 was a special player his first two years in the league, and he remains a special player today, but what he did in 2007-2008 and again in 2008-2009 will go down as two of the best seasons by a point guard in history. Knee problems won’t keep him from being one of the best of his time, but they likely kept him from entering the conversation of all time greats.

He’ll never be that player again, and he never has to be. His greatest contribution to the NBA and the city of New Orleans already took place.

In those two years he showed thousands of New Orleanians what they would be missing if they didn’t fight to keep their team. He proved that post-Katrina New Orleans could support a basketball team, and as a result they have.

You don’t have to like Chris Paul, or root for Chris Paul, or even respect Chris Paul, but it’s hard to argue that there would be a professional basketball team in New Orleans if not for him.