It’s objectively hard to find a name less sexy than the Pelicans. Even the Hornets, their previous monicker, is somehow flashier than that. An insect.

Pelicans are goofy looking birds with foot-long beaks and discolored wings. Their neck-skin protrudes from their throat and it jiggles as they move. But when new team owner Tom Benson announced the Hornets would be changing their identity at the end of the 2012-13 season, the idea wasn’t to make the team sexier. The idea was to make the team more New Orleanian.

If you’re not in or around Louisiana, it’s regrettably easy to forget about the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked over the whole of the state but New Orleans in particular. $150 billion of damage was assessed along with an 80% flood rate, and that was the least of it compared to the human cost, the death and displacement, loss in all its forms. By all accounts, after 2005, the city was left in shambles.

That was also the year the Hornets drafted Chris Paul. The franchise had only been in New Orleans since 2003, and without a home, they temporarily relocated to Oklahoma City. In what would be the first chink in their identity’s armor, they became known as the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets and were fostered in Oklahoma for two years.

The pelican is Louisiana’s state bird. It’s on the state flag and official seal. It inhabits the swamps and patrols the coast in flocks. It’s one of only two bird species that dive into the water to catch prey below the surface.

Upon returning to the Big Easy, they had one good season. Behind Coach of the Year Byron Scott, they won 56 games and landed second in the western conference. They lost to the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs, but it was an entirely triumphant homecoming. Chris Paul was the face of the franchise, a prodigal talent that had come to usher them to the basketball promise land. But after that season, they never escaped the first round of the playoffs again.

In 2011, owner George Shinn ran out of money. The NBA purchased the team for $300 million and had no idea what to do with it. By the skin of their teeth, New Orleanians were able to purchase enough season tickets to keep the NBA from activating an escape clause that would’ve allowed the team to walk away from their contract with the New Orleans Arena and skip town. That same year, Chris Paul requested a trade, and they sent him, their only All-Star caliber talent and a top 5 NBA player at the time, to the Los Angeles Clippers.

If there was ever a time to doubt New Orleans’ basketball future, that was it. They had no owner, no All-Stars, and a low attendance rate. A narrative began to float around that it just wasn’t a basketball town. Football had Louisiana’s heart. Ironically, New Orleans Saints’ owner Tom Benson thought otherwise.

That Louisiana is not a basketball state could not be further from the truth. Players born there include Robert Parish, Karl Malone, Elvin Hayes, Clyde Drexler, Joe Dumars, Bill Russell (Yup.) and of course – the man credited with popularizing basketball in Louisiana – Pistol Pete Maravich, whose jersey still hangs in the rafters at Smoothie King Center. I challenge you to find another state whose collective contribution to the NBA is as historically significant as Louisiana and didn’t have a team for the majority of NBA history. Per capita, in fact, Louisiana is still a top five producer of NBA talent, with Paul Millsap, Thaddeus Young, Elfrid Payton and more hailing from the sultry swamps of gumbo-country. New Orleans is as much a basketball town as any.

So after Tom Benson doubled down on NOLA and purchased the Hornets for $338 million, it was time to press the reset button. What the team would be called was almost entirely in his hands, and man oh man could he have messed that up.

Just consider the dearth of good NBA team names. What is a Knickerbocker? A Clipper? That’s not to mention the downright inappropriate names like the Lakers, who were initially based in Michigan. In fact, the team with perhaps the least applicable name in the whole of the NBA was founded in New Orleans: The Utah Jazz.

Team names that embrace their city’s heart and culture are few and far between. And when they do reference a cultural touchstone or a native animal, they don’t speak to a history of resilience in the face of tragedy. They don’t tell a tale of pain. They don’t say: We don’t care what you think of our neck-pouch. This is who we are.

When Benson announced the new identity on January 24, 2013, he had this to say, “The synergy of this name, this bird and the future of our state and region are intertwined, and in three, five, ten years from now, it will not only be a name of a sports franchise but it will also be the face of the continued recovery of our region. We will promote healthy habitats, not only for our youth but for our community, our coast and our wildlife. The Pelican name will do that. It is more than a name. It represents our way of life.”

The pelican is Louisiana’s state bird. It’s on the state flag and official seal. It inhabits the swamps and patrols the coast in flocks. It’s one of only two bird species that dive into the water to catch prey below the surface.

The pelican is also a symbol of resilience. When Katrina’s dust settled and those who stayed to tough it out were left stranded on their rooftops, waving at helicopters as if to say “We’re alive! We’re here,” they noticed the pelicans soaring high in the sky, scoping out a new beginning.

(Cropped image courtesy Antioch Smith via Wikimedia Commons)