Emphasis on fun created joyous, enjoyment-filled Pelicans locker room
Whether it was a postgame TV interview with Jen Hale, or a postgame radio interview with Erin Summers, forward Brandon Ingram tried to maintain his concentration, focusing on answering questions and staying on task. Invariably though, as New Orleans guard CJ McCollum aimed to distract his 24-year-old teammate by dancing to the song “Wipe Me Down” a few feet away, Ingram would break into a wide smile or laughter, unable to keep a straight face.
While opposing defenses had difficulty getting Ingram (22.7 ppg, career-high 5.6 apg) out of his comfort zone throughout the 2021-22 season, McCollum and the Pelicans made it their duty to throw off the sixth-year pro whenever Ingram tried to recap a win over the airwaves. That was among many traditions developed by a New Orleans team that finished third in the league in rebounding and 18th in defensive efficiency, but may have surpassed all 29 other NBA rosters in fun.
While McCollum led courtside dance parties after games, early in ’21-22 the Pelicans began holding pregame “mosh pits” during starting lineup introductions, with players careening off each other and staging mock one-on-one boxing matches. The scrums often concluded with massive starting center Jonas Valanciunas pretending to crash into multiple teammates, with 179-pound point guard Jose Alvarado then pretending to be knocked completely off-balance. The “hockey check” from Valanciunas caused Alvarado to “fall backward” 20 to 30 feet, sometimes brushing into a surprised Pelicans fan in a first-row seat.
Alvarado and New Orleans’ other first-time NBA players may have realized what was in store for them in October, when they were told to wear costumes to conclude the team’s open practice at Nicholls State, part of “rookie hazing” activities. Alvarado dressed as a hot dog, while Trey Murphy III was Scooby Doo and Herbert Jones donned a Mario Brothers suit. Perhaps because he’s the youngest of the trio, the 21-year-old Murphy eventually became the designated errand man, tasked with making sure food was brought to the team plane for flights (sometimes being half-jokingly scolded by fourth-year guard Devonte’ Graham for forgetting the proper sauces).
Prior to joining Willie Green’s rotation permanently in January, Alvarado was the Pelicans’ most visible in-game hype man, constantly springing from his seat on the sideline to roar his approval of a highlight play by a teammate. It didn’t take long for New Orleans to boast one of the NBA’s most lively benches, with several players joining Alvarado in fervent celebrations of baskets or defensive stops.
That type of enthusiasm was on display even during what are normally mundane practices and shootarounds for NBA teams. When the Pelicans’ guards were pitted against the squad’s frontcourt players in shooting competitions at each end of the Ochsner Sports Performance Center court, the winners often immediately darted around and dished out some good-natured trash talk, making sure the defeated opposition knew which side won.
Ingram’s aforementioned attempts to remain focused during postgame interviews did not even conclude when he left the playing surface. After the Pelicans began to reel off victories following their 3-16 start, Ingram occasionally scanned the press conference room to see Alvarado or forward Naji Marshall seated among the media, holding a microphone, ready to fire off questions. Once again, Ingram had difficulty not breaking into laughter, or staying in character (after one home win, a grinning Ingram spotted Alvarado through a window of the entrance door and urged Pelicans PR to “keep him locked out”).
Alvarado and Marshall repaid Ingram for their surprise postgame media appearances when both players wore Ingram’s No. 14 jersey to the practice facility the day after the season ended with a Game 6 playoff loss in the first round to Phoenix. Donning apparel that acknowledged others within the New Orleans organization actually became common practice – prior to Game 6, Alvarado walked into the Smoothie King Center in a T-shirt that promoted Willie Green as Coach of the Year. That same night, Murphy sported a preposterous, hilarious shirt that gave a nod to Pelicans TV play-by-play broadcaster Joel Meyers (also known as “Joelvenile” or “Trigga Man” on Murphy’s shirt).
Asked about the fun-filled, tight-knit nature of the locker room as New Orleans prepared for its April 13 play-in tournament game vs. San Antonio, Green responded, “It’s rare. But the special groups, they stay connected through trials and tribulations, the ups and downs. That’s what I love about our guys.
“We came in every day and just kept the (mood of the practice) gym the same (during the 3-16 start). You wouldn’t have known whether we won a game or lost a game, because of their spirit. That’s the fun part. That’s the journey. That’s the beauty in our group, our guys.”
Green and Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin also took note of the uniqueness of something that occurred during the club’s Feb. 8 home game vs. Houston. Just hours after they were traded to other teams by New Orleans, guards Josh Hart and Nickeil Alexander-Walker decided to sit in courtside seats, in order to support what were now their ex-teammates (Hart wore an Ingram jersey… sensing a theme?).
“That’s one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever seen,” Griffin said of Hart and Alexander-Walker choosing to attend a game of the team that had just traded them. “To know that that culture is what we’re carrying forward.”
As New Orleans registered a 110-97 win over the Rockets that night, many onlookers – coaches, players and media members included – remarked that the presence of traded players at a game was something they’d never seen before in the NBA. It may have been the best way to sum up the joy of being a Pelicans player in 2021-22: They had so much fun that you didn’t even have to still be on the team to want to be part of it.