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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," New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. "It was really important that we had an owner that was committed to keeping the team here."
Benson was widely credited with keeping the NFL's Saints in New Orleans when he bought that 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 a local economy built in large part on tourism.
"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. "If you look at some choices out there where NFL or NBA teams could go, other cities might be more profitable, but Mr. Benson loves this community and it's apparent through his actions the past eight, nine years. It's a pretty amazing story."
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina put many aspects of New Orleans' future in doubt, particularly its role as a small-market host city for two major pro sports franchises.
Even the future of the Saints was in doubt, despite Louisiana's renowned love affair with the NFL franchise dating back to its founding in 1967. The football team was temporarily relocated to San Antonio, where Benson also had business interests, and officials there have said they believed Benson flirted with the idea of keeping the Saints in Texas permanently.
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 football season that he was on board with that plan, and said he hoped the Saints would be a significant catalyst for redevelopment in the region.
The Hornets, meanwhile, spent two seasons in Oklahoma City before returning to New Orleans for the 2007-08 season. By December 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 that was committed to keeping the team where it was.
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 where we felt we better look at this."
Now in his second full season as an NBA owner, he has rebranded the club with the name Pelicans, a nod to both the state bird and the organization's mission to support conservation of fragile wetlands.
Benson has consolidated business and marketing offices of his NFL and NBA clubs at the Saints' longtime suburban headquarters, where the Pelicans also 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. So far, the league has not been disappointed, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.
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 in New Orleans and we couldn't be happier with the ownership there."
Before Benson stepped in, Silver said, "There was definitely some doubt about the long term sustainability about the team in New Orleans."
Previous commissioner David Stern and other NBA owners, recognizing the difficulties brought on by Katrina, "wanted to remain loyal," Silver added. "I'm not sure what would have happened had Tom Benson not stepped up."
Benson said he long preferred football and baseball to basketball. Ever since his investment in the NBA, however, he has been a constant presence at Pelicans home games, sitting in the first row of floor seats right at mid-court.
It looks like Benson will be waiting at least another season to see his NBA team contend for the playoffs, but with 20-year-old, first-time All-Star Anthony Davis on the roster, there is hope.
In the meantime, Benson takes satisfaction in the post-Katrina redevelopment of the city's downtown sports complex and the economic activity it has spurred, from the rehabilitation of a nearby high-rise hotel to major sports tourism events, such as the 2013 Super Bowl or this weekend's NBA All-Star festivities.
"I think that our city's better off today than it was a few years back," Benson said. "Hopefully, we're playing a small part of that."
AP Basketball Writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.