Benson gets credit for this weekend's NBA All-Star festivities in New Orleans
NEW ORLEANS -- One of the people most responsible for bringing NBA All-Stars back to the Big Easy this weekend is an 86-year-old man who wasn't that into basketball for much of his life.
He is Tom Benson. And in New Orleans, NBA fans and community leaders are grateful the NFL owner -- who also now owns the Pelicans -- finally came around.
"He really stepped up to the plate in a big way, because there was more than an idle threat that our team was going to get moved out of the city," Mayor Mitch Landrieu said.
Benson was widely credited with keeping the NFL's Saints in New Orleans when he bought the club for $75 million in 1985. In April 2012, he paid $338 million for New Orleans' NBA franchise, then called the Hornets, who'd struggled financially since relocating from Charlotte in 2002.
With that purchase came a promise that New Orleans would host its second NBA All-Star game since 2008, providing an enormous boost to the local economy.
"Mr. Benson has played a major role in the revitalization of New Orleans through sports," said Jay Cicero, head of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which organizes bids for major sporting events.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina put many aspects of New Orleans' future in doubt.
Even the future of the Saints was in doubt. The team was temporarily relocated to San Antonio, where Benson also had business interests.
The NFL, however, wanted to maintain a presence in New Orleans and help drive the area's recovery. Benson announced at the end of the 2005 season he was on board with that plan.
The Hornets spent two seasons in Oklahoma City before returning to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season. By 2010, cash-flow problems led franchise founder George Shinn to sell the club to the NBA as part of a plan to give Louisiana more time to find stable ownership.
Initially, Benson said, "I wasn't that interested." But as the NBA's temporary stewardship of the club dragged on for more than a year, Benson said, "We were a little concerned it was going to leave New Orleans and that excited us to the point we felt we better look at this."
Now in his second full season as an NBA owner, he has rebranded the club as the Pelicans, a nod to the state bird and the team's mission to support conservation.
Benson has consolidated the business offices of his teams at the Saints' suburban headquarters, where the Pelicans have a new practice center.
In selling to Benson, the NBA's hope was that having the football and basketball teams work in tandem, rather than competing against each other for ticket sales and sponsorships, gave the NBA its best chance of sustained success in New Orleans.
Benson's granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, is vice chairman of the board of the Saints, and new NBA commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the two.
The Bensons "demonstrated their excellence in the NFL" and are "as connected to the community as anyone could be," Silver said. "Everything is running smoothly and we couldn't be happier with the ownership there."