They shoot, they score: New Orleans Arena makes city’s NBA dreams come true
It was a long-shot — the political equivalent of a full-court lob. But New Orleans’ then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy and Gov. Edwin Edwards figured if they built it, the NBA would come. So, in 1993, they pitched a plan to refinance Superdome bonds to raise the money to build a mid-sized arena in the shadow of the Dome. It took six years and no small amount of political wrangling, but on Oct. 26, 1999, city leaders cut the ribbon on the $110 million New Orleans Arena.
Barthelemy and Edwards were right. The arena, which in February 2014 became the Smoothie King Center in a corporate naming deal, was the key to luring an NBA team to New Orleans. Three years after construction was completed, the Charlotte Hornets relocated to the Crescent City in 2002. The team, which in 2013 was renamed the Pelicans, returned professional basketball to New Orleans for the first time since the departure of the Jazz for Utah in 1979. On Sunday (Feb. 19), Pelicans power forward/center Anthony Davis will play in the NBA All-Star Game as part of the Western Conference squad.
- The New Orleans Brass minor-league hockey team became the arena’s first tenant when it opened the facility on Oct. 29, 1999. A crowd of 12,247 showed up to watch the game, a state record for a hockey game. The Brass lost to 2-1 to the Baton Rouge Kingfish.
- Almost exactly three years later, on Oct. 30, 2002, the Hornets played their first game in the arena. It was against a familiar foe: the Utah Jazz, the franchise that had moved from the Crescent City in 1979. The Hornets won, 100-75.
- The Hornets weren’t the first franchise courted by the city. In 1994, it looked like the city had landed the Minnesota Timberwolves, until the NBA relocation committee shot that plan down. Later, it eyed the Houston Rockets when that city rejected a new arena plan there in 1999. It also courted the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2001.
The trek to land the Hornets was sort of a three-handed mayoral alley-oop. Barthelemy got the ball rolling. His City Hall successor, Marc Morial, cut the ribbon upon the completion of construction. Then, Morial’s successor, Ray Nagin, was on-hand to welcome the Hornets to town.
- Taking the court before the Hornets’ first game in New Orleans with a microphone in hand, Nagin re-introduced pro basketball to New Orleans with the words, “Good evening, everyone. Ready for some roundball?”
- The first points scored in a basketball game at the arena were scored, fittingly, by Jazz player Karl Malone, a Louisiana native.
- The arena seats around 17,500 for basketball games and concerts, depending on the configuration.
- The arena’s early champions got the money to build the facility, and the political support, through a $215 million refinancing of Superdome bonds and extension of the hotel-motel tax that, in addition to the arena, helped build Zephyr Field and the Saints training facility in Jefferson Parish.
- The first music concert hosted by the arena was a show by Texas rockers ZZ Top, which played there on Nov. 5, 1999.
- As construction was nearing completion in September 1999, the project won the endorsement of none other than Dave Dixon, known as the father of the Superdome. “I feel comfortable in predicting that it is going to be an enormously successful facility for the people of our area,” Dixon wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Times-Picayune. “Just wait and see.”
The New Orleans arena project wasn’t without its detractors when it was first proposed, but it has delivered exactly what its supporters promised. In addition to returning NBA basketball to the city, it has become a revenue generator, providing a mid-sized venue for entertainment events that might have otherwise bypassed the city. That has given local audiences a chance to see everything from concerts by Lady Gaga and George Straight to athletic events ranging from professional wresting shows to the 2013 NCAA Women’s Final Four — not to mention the NBA All-Star Game, which this weekend returns for the third time to the arena.