Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For The Birmingham Times
In the end, Birmingham proved to be a good fit.
That’s what leadership of the National Basketball Association’s New Orleans Pelicans said as they announced that Birmingham will be home to their new G League team.
The team will play in the Erie, Pennsylvania area for two to three years as upgrades are done to Legacy Arena at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.
“Whether it has to do with the demographics related to age, whether it has to do with income, whether it had to do with professional sports teams in the market and a number of different factors — it checked all the boxes,” Pelicans team president Dennis Lauscha said. “And the proximity to New Orleans is important.”
Leaders of the Pelicans started looking about two years ago for a city to call home for its minor league affiliate. That search went across the Southeast and even some spots outside of the U.S.
The G League is the NBA’s official minor league basketball organization and was formerly known as the Development League.
Making The Case
Discussions with Birmingham began about a year ago with several cities like Shreveport, LA and Pensacola, FL appearing to have the inside track. However, Birmingham continued to make a strong case.
“We discussed with Mr. (Tad) Snider, the (BJCC) CEO,” Lauscha said. “We talked to him about the various improvements that were going to be made in the arena. At the end of the day, we were very impressed with their vision, very impressed with what they’re doing in and around the arena right now.
“Again, we’re very bullish on the market (and) the G League as well,” he said. “The G League runs a number of metrics and Birmingham was at the top of those metrics.”
Lauscha was asked whether the Pelicans would have located its affiliate in Birmingham had there not been upgrades to Legacy Arena. It helped the decision, he said.
The arena is undergoing a $125 million renovation, expected to be completed in 2022, which is part of significant upgrades to the BJCC campus that include a new 45,000-seat stadium.
“We were very impressed with the vision, very impressed with what the stadium had to offer in the future,” he said. “Looking at where the renovations are going as well as the investment with the convention center and the hotel and I know you have Top Golf right there. I know there’s some infrastructure around its proximity to downtown, proximity the airport, all those things were very important when we looked at a potential arena to call home.”
Dell Demps, executive vice president of basketball operations and general manager, spent time in the G League – as an assistant coach and as a general manager. For him, having easy access to the parent organization was very significant.
“Having the players feel like they’re still connected to the team while they’re on assignment is very important,” Demps said. “We think that this is going to be a great opportunity for us to not only develop players but also coaches and staff on both the business side and the basketball side.”
The Pelicans are owned by Gayle Benson. She is an heir to the estate of her late husband Tom Benson and became an American billionaire, businesswoman, philanthropist and sports franchise owner after his death on March 15, 2018.
Lauscha said the Pelicans have upwards of 300 fulltime employees. He added that Benson’s organization, which also owns the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League, has worked closely with the University of Alabama and other colleges in pursuit of staffers.
“We’re always looking to recruit, attract and develop talent,” he said. “We see this as an opportunity as well for you folks in Birmingham.”
Lauscha made it clear that the team in Birmingham will be part of the Pelicans operation.
“We’re going to operate as one company, one organization where the G League team will obviously be in Birmingham and where the Pelicans will be in New Orleans,” the Pelicans team president said. “Our plan is to use the team to help us win games. And we feel if we have that continuity amongst the group, then when the players are going back and forth, it’ll be more seamless.”
The same offense, same defense and terminology will be used in both places.
“Now, it might work a little different if (all-star) Anthony Davis is not in Birmingham,” he said, “but we feel like that continuity, the familiarity are going to be important things that will help our players become better basketball players.”
‘I Can Compete’
Pelicans guard Ian Clark said the NBA G League is an important part of players’ pursuit of their dream.
“You see it every year, guys are down in the G League playing, playing, playing and they get that call up and it’s a great feeling,” Clark said. “I think that, especially with my experience down there, guys are working just as hard. They know how important it is to still come out and treat it like it’s an NBA game.
“You want to listen to the coaching staff. You want to have your player development where you’re trying to get better every day,” Clark continued. “And you want that hard work to pay off.”
Fans can expect a lot of energy when G League teams take the court, Clark said, adding that players are “hungry.”
“You’re not going to get a lot of plays off,” he said. “You’ve got guys that have got talent that can be on an NBA roster. Seeing those guys in the G League compete, you’re going to have a lot of excitement in the game. I think fans can look forward to that.”
Forward Darius Miller said he wasn’t getting minutes in the NBA so he was sent down to the G League. Now he’s in the Pelicans lineup.
“It’s a great opportunity to use that to get into a rhythm, get comfortable and develop on the court,” he said.
Tim Frazier said his initial call-up to the NBA came via a 10-day contract after playing in the NBA G League.
“Everybody out there is striving for one thing – to get a call up and to make it into the NBA,” the guard said. “It gives you that competitive nature to be able to compete and know that you’re going against the best of the best. That feeling to be able to put on an NBA jersey and just compete.
“All the hard work that I had put in prior to that in the G League paid off for me to be able to showcase it,” Frazier said. “It was really the stepping stone that let me know that, ‘Hey, I can compete here.’”