It’s early Wednesday morning as I write this and as the Blazers sleep off a 138-117 loss to the Pelicans in the comfort of their Memphis hotel, I am currently waiting in Houston for my flight to southwest Tennessee.
Over the past 30 hours I spent time exploring the Big Easy, a stretch capped off by that second-half meltdown against the Pelicans. Despite the loss, I now see why so many people — sports fans or not — enjoy traveling to the Bayou to take in a game.
I've written in-arena reports in the past, but this season I want to take you, the fan, with me as I document my experience on the Blazers’ two-game southern road swing while hopefully giving an insight on what it’s like to be on the road to watch the Blazers.
My goal is to document the city, in-arena, and game experience in this journal-like piece, so with under an hour until I make my way to Memphis, let’s do this.
Exploring the Big Easy
It’s mid-February in New Orleans which means that it’s cloudy, steamy (not too warm), and the colors of purple, green, and gold are becoming more prevalent in preparation for Mardi Gras in roughly two-weeks time.
The first destination on the itinerary was Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter for their famous beignets and a Café au lait. Everyone who’s been here told me to visit and they were right, it was so good that I went twice during my visit.
As the sun began to set, I made my way along the Mississippi River before cutting in towards Bourbon Street. Of course gumbo, red beans, and crawfish were a must before taking in the sights and live music in the French Quarter.
On Tuesday I made the most of my remaining time in New Orleans before heading to the Smoothie King Center for the marquee event. I decided to travel to the Garden District on the St. Charles street car with a Smoothie King smoothie on hand.
After some Jambalaya, a Po Boy, and more exploring, it was time to head towards the arena.
When you are given aerial shots of the third ward, the first thing that often draws the eye is the behemoth Mercedes-Benz Superdome. As impressive as it looks on TV, it seems even more enormous in person. However, despite its sheer size, the building is hard to see from the French Quarter and I didn’t fully notice it until arriving right under it.
Understandably, the Smoothie King Center is overshadowed by the vast, UFO-shaped dome that it shares land with. Both arenas were decked in those Mardi Gras colors which gave them are a very cool aesthetic.
One thing about the arena that I noticed almost immediately was the size. It’s a small arena that takes just five minutes to walk all the way around the concourse. The concourse is also relatively bland. It’s mainly concrete, condensed, and lacked concession stands. They did play nice jazz music for some ambiance and had a Smoothie King, so there’s that.
While taking everything in, I found it fascinating how they sold and promoted tickets. Multiple ticket-package booths didn’t advertise Pelicans promotional games, but rather showed pictures of sold suites and packages at the Superdome for Saints’ games.
Making my way to the upper-level, I noticed that it was very small and contained brown seats. Many were empty throughout the game, but they seemed more vertical and closer to the court; it reminded me a bit of the Memorial Coliseum in Portland.
The atmosphere is also exactly what you’d expect from a city like New Orleans where the fans have the reputation of not filling the stadium on a nightly basis. The upper-level was extremely empty whereas the lower basin filled in, but was speckled with plenty of open blue seats; I’d guess the capacity was at about 75%.
All of these conditions came together to create a strange vibe, one that seemed distinctly fun and New Orleans. It was laid back and quiet at times, but when momentum swung (a la the second half) it got loud quickly and in bursts.
During the Game
As a traveling Blazers fan, things went great — well at least for the first quarter.
When Portland led 28-14 in the first quarter, multiple fans were grumbling and lamenting the home team’s sloppy play. Everything the visitors put up went in and the contingent of Blazer fans behind the basket were on their feet.
Then that Holiday to Zion Williamson alley-oop happened.
From then on the crowd seemed extra rowdy as the Pelicans mounted their run, and I do admit watching Williamson play in person is a blast, especially with all the energy that he brought; he is probably the second most fun player that I’ve seen in person this year (besides Lillard, of course). Everything you hear about the rookie seems to be true and is definitely worth seeing if you can get to a game (he visits Portland for the first time next Friday).
As the game went on and the Blazers began to falter, the environment started to get more and more loose. It was a fun crowd to be a part of despite witnessing what was currently happening on the court.
As per usual, Jrue Holiday had a solid game against Portland and held Lillard in check. It certainly is strange seeing Lillard finish a game without 25 points these days though. I can only imagine what it was like during that first round series a few seasons ago when every game in New Orleans seemed to have the same game script as Tuesday night’s.
The Blazers play two high-paced teams on this road trip in New Orleans and Memphis. The Pelicans put up 35 points in transition last night and as the home team raced down the court, fans leaned forward in their seats anticipating that next electrifying Williamson dunk or Redick three.
When the smoke eventually cleared, it produced a lineup that I couldn’t have even fathomed back in November. Watching Simons, Brown, Hoard, Gabriel, and Swanigan for the final eight minutes was a strange experience.
When the game was out of hand and Zion checked out for good (to a standing ovation), the home fans began making their way out to either beat the traffic or head back to the French Quarter for another fun New Orleans night.
After spending a little less than two days in New Orleans I can see what all the hype is about. It’s a laid back and fun city with plenty of fun things to do and food to enjoy. I would probably rank it in the top five as far as NBA road experiences and that might even be too low.
So if you can swing a trip to watch the Blazers play the Pelicans in the Big Easy next season, I would easily recommend it, even if the team has a less-than-stellar recent record here.
Now it’s on to Memphis where the Blazers take on exciting rookie Ja Morant and a young Grizzlies team in an extremely important game. I just hope it’s as good as an experience as New Orleans, but this time the visitors come away with the win.