The New Orleans Pelicans have reached out to Gulfport as a potential destination for its new NBA D-League affiliate. That inquiry begs the question: Can minor league basketball work in the Coast’s largest city?
There’s no large arena in Gulfport and minor league basketball has yet to succeed in South Mississippi.
Gulfport is one of 11 towns on the Pelicans’ preliminary list, joining seven sites in Louisiana — Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Monroe, Shreveport and St. Tammany Parish. Mobile, Pensacola and Jackson are the other potential destinations.
The Pelicans are also open to hearing from other cities as they enter the early stages of getting a team ready to take the court for the 2018-19 season.
Many of the cities already under consideration feature arenas that could easily host minor league basketball.
There’s only one facility on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that’s played host to professional basketball teams previously, the Mississippi Coast Coliseum in Biloxi. The Continental Basketball Association’s Mississippi Jets played there from 1986-88 before relocating to Wichita Falls, Texas. In 1992-93, the Coliseum played host to the Mississippi Coast Sharks of the Global Basketball Association.
How about The Bert?
Gulfport may lack a large arena like Pensacola, Mobile or even Alexandria, but Gulfport High School athletic director Bryan Caldwell points out that an NBA D-League team may not need a 10,000-seat arena.
“Last night, I was watching a D-League game for a couple of minutes and it appeared to me that their facility was very comparable to Bert Jenkins Gymnasium,” Caldwell said of his school’s gym. “I don’t think it’s a total stretch of the imagination that we could host a team.”
The D-League arena that Caldwell referred to was Kaiser Permanente Arena, which hosts the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Warriors, Golden State’s affiliate. The facility holds 2,505 spectators.
Bert Jenkins Gymnasium is one of the nicer high school basketball facilities in the state and holds 2,200. It has hosted college basketball in the past with Southern Miss holding tournaments on the Gulfport High campus in 2008 and 2009.
The NBA D-League is a 22-team outfit that features players looking to climb to the sport’s highest level. It will be re-branded the NBA Gatorade League starting with the 2017-18 season.
Gulfport city spokesperson Chris Vignes acknowledged this week that there has been some contact with the Pelicans, who are owned by New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. Vignes said that the city has developed a good relationship with the Saints/Pelicans organization through past clinics and student workshops conducted in Gulfport.
“We’re very excited about the possibilities,” Vignes said of the potential of a D-League team in Gulfport. “We’d be excited for the opportunity and we’d love to explore it further.”
Gulfport has proximity working for it as a D-League destination. It’s a little over an hour’s drive from Gulfport to New Orleans.
Biloxi could be option
Coast Coliseum executive director Matt McDonnell said he hasn’t heard yet from the Pelicans about the potential of his 10,000-seat arena being under consideration for the D-League team.
“Minor league sports is tough,” McDonnell said. “We’ve hosted every sport you can imagine in our facility. It’s been tough to maintain a basketball team in the past. We were marginally successful early on with the Jets, who played in the legitimate CBA league. The NBA D-League is legit as well. I watched one (D-League) game at Westchester Saturday afternoon and they played in an arena that might have held 3,500-4,000 people and it was partially filled.”
McDonnell said he would have to see the business model for the NBA D-League before he considered pursuing a team.
Caldwell liked the idea of the Coast Coliseum and Bert Jenkins Gymnasium both playing host to D-League games.
“We have a great relationship with the Coliseum,” he said. “I’d welcome a partnership with them.”
The Coliseum keeps a busy schedule of events and Bert Jenkins Gymnasium will always prioritize Gulfport High teams, creating a situation where multiple facilities may be necessary.
Both of the pro basketball teams that have called the Coast home didn’t stay around very long, but there was a crowd of 7,427 on hand at the Coast Coliseum for the Jets’ first game in 1992.
“I believe there is a market for minor league basketball on the Coast,” Caldwell said. “We’ve already shown that there is a market for minor league baseball (with the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers).”