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Tom Benson, the owner who saved the NBA in New Orleans, dies of the flu at age 90

New Orleans Hornets Announce Name Change

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 24: Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Pelicans, speaks at a press conference to announce the name change from the New Orleans Hornets to the New Orleans Pelicans at the New Orleans Arena on January 24, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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Tom Benson, the man who saved the NBA in New Orleans, has passed away from the flu at the age of 90.

Benson had been hospitalized for a month as the flu evolved into pneumonia. While a few weeks back things reportedly had improved, that did not last.
“The NBA family mourns the loss of New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson,” NBA Commisioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “Big-hearted and gracious, Tom topped off a distinguished business and sports career by acquiring the Pelicans in 2012. During his tenure, he hosted two highly-successful All-Star Games, rebranded the franchise and installed a first-class organization. He was a dear friend to me and so many others in the sports world, and the loss of his authentic and unique presence will leave an enormous void. We send our heartfelt condolences to Gayle, their family, the Pelicans and Saints, and his countless friends.”

Back in 2011, George Shinn (the owner who almost ruined the NBA in Charlotte before Michael Jordan saved that effort) was walking away from the New Orleans Hornets (he had moved the Charlotte team to the Big Easy) and sold the team to the league (that was at the time of the lockout and when Chris Paul was nearly traded to the Lakers). The NBA had plenty of potential new owners lined up ready to move the franchise to another city, but first looked for an owner who would keep the team in New Orleans.

Benson, who had owned the NFL’s Saints since 1985, stepped up and took control of the team. He eventually had it renamed the Pelicans — something local and more meaningful to the region (and allowing the Hornet name to go back to Charlotte, where it has local significance).

Control of the Pelicans and Saints now passes to Benson’s wife, Gayle. Although that was not without controversy — when Benson overhauled his estate plan to give Gayle control upon his passing, Rita Benson LeBlanc, Benson’s granddaughter and previous handpicked successor, sued (Rita had been completely cut out of the family businesses, not just the sports franchises). The lawsuit said Tom Benson was incompetent to make his own decisions, that he was being manipulated by Gayle, and basically called Gayle a gold digger (in fancy legal terminology). A judge ruled in favor of Tom and his plan to turn the team over to Gayle.

Thomas Milton Benson, Jr. was born on July 12, 1927, in New Orleans and was raised in the 7th Ward neighborhood of that city, eventually going on to Loyola University New Orleans to study business and accounting. He served in the Navy during World War II before returning to the city and the university to finish his degree. In 1948, he started work at the Cathey Chevrolet Co. in New Orleans and by 1962, at age 35, he took full control of the company and established a multi-dealership organization with outlets throughout the New Orleans area and South Texas. His financial empire expanded from there to include banking.

In 1985, Mr. Benson purchased the New Orleans Saints, keeping that team in the city when owners were lined up to move it elsewhere. While fans would not exactly call him a model NFL owner — Benson would threaten to move the team when he didn’t get what he wanted from the city — he kept the team in New Orleans under his ownership did go on to win Super Bowl XLIV in 2009.