TEAM DREAMS: Looking for New Orleans Pelicans Answers With Actual Pelicans

Sports teams name themselves for fearsome beings, animals that charge and leap and buck, humans that dominate landscapes with the violence of war or of commerce. The NBA harbors its share of animal assassins, as well as Magic, Wizards, Heat and Jazz. This latter squad, born in New Orleans as the music was, was poached by the Mormon Empire in 1979, and replaced in 2002 by the New Orleans Pelicans.

What kind of killer is a pelican, the uninitiated might ask. It’s just a funny-looking shorebird that carries fish in its beak like a stork. Carrying the ball forward is part of Pelican basketball, but what they need to focus on is the precision of real-life pelicans. They need to focus on being focused. I have some first-hand knowledge of reinventing oneself by watching pelicans.

INSIDE THE TEAM

In 2006, I lived on Treasure Island, a mile-long, man-made island off the coast of San Francisco built during the Golden Gate International Exposition, also known as the 1939 World’s Fair. I was self-committed to a city-run rehab center, recuperating from a long period of drug-fueled detachment from reality, or rather from the consequences of both the drugs and the fragmentation.

We residents — clients, in therapeutic parlance — weren’t allowed off the island without permission, but we were allowed the run of it for an hour at a time during afternoons and evenings. The Center for Recovery was a four-unit apartment block that served as petty officers’ housing during Treasure Island’s time as a naval base. Two blocks from our itinerant home on Chinook Court was the western edge of Treasure Island, constructed to run parallel to the incredibly scenic cityscape of San Francisco proper.

I don’t know if you’ve ever fried your brain to the point where you had to teach yourself to read all over again, or if you’ve ever spent so long indoors that your body becomes acclimated to walking in only restless loops around your tiny apartment. These problems, of concentration and balance and severely taxed organs, can’t be solved with psych meds or therapy groups. You have to make yourself read books; you have to make yourself get up and move around.

I’m not about to tell you I learned how to become a human being again by playing basketball. That would be both a great story and an outright lie.

What I did instead was walk the shore of Treasure Island over and over again, half an hour out and half an hour back until I could reach the end of the footpath and make it back within the allotted sign-out time, dragging a fellow resident with me for the first three months before I was allowed out without a “buddy.” It rained almost every day when I got there shortly after Christmas 2005, and I’d walk anyway, even when the wind was so fierce the rain came in sideways off the Bay.

The view of the city, though spectacular, was beside the point, which was to reanimate myself.

By the middle of summer, having seen a few dozen people come and go and less than ten “stick and stay,” I was faster and steadier, calmer and less prone to thoughts of diving off and letting my body be beaten on the rocks until my ghost haunted the abandoned houses on the water, most of which were superfund sites.

The pelicans came to this part of the bay around mid-August. Brown pelicans are common to both the San Francisco Bay and the Gulf Coast. They have a six-to-eight-foot wingspan, like a basketball player, and they weigh about as much as a human head.

Brown pelicans cruise through the air with their footlong bills parallel to the water, looking like they’re just out for a commute, but they’re pacing schools of fish. Slowly and then all at once, they tilt their head so the bill is perpendicular to the horizon, and then they dive headlong beneath the surface, with an odd grace that contrasts with their goofy-looking bodies.

They stay under for longer than appears necessary, and then they emerge from the water with their bills full of fish and brackish water, which drains out of the pouch hanging under their bills.

In 2006, brown pelicans summered near Treasure Island for about eight weeks, and I’d interrupt my daily walks to watch them stalk and dive and emerge and head off to unseen shelter to eat and maybe feed a brood of tiny, ugly pelican chicks.

A pelican isn’t a glamorous deadly bird like a raptor or a hawk, maybe because fish aren’t cute and we don’t think of them as living things, maybe because we can’t watch the death of the fish like we do woodland creatures.

Conventional Internet wisdom says that the brown pelican is Louisiana’s state bird because the mothers take such good care of their tiny young. That’s a nice feeling. To that I would add that brown pelicans look unassuming and clumsy and then, in the moment, become missiles of death.

Maybe that describes a player on this year’s Pelicans. Maybe not. I don’t really know anything about basketball. Most basketball players look awkward and graceful to me, because bodies that tall with limbs that long seem harder to balance. They have more potential for reach and also for injury. The bodies of the New Orleans Pelicans have been plagued with such injuries, which I happen to know make both balance and focus impossible tasks.

The only human Pelican I’m familiar with is Anthony Davis, whose nicknames are all based on his eyebrows. People want to invest Davis with superhuman attributes, despite his own injury-filled 2015–16 season, and the Internet rumor mill is all about Davis as the wobbly fulcrum of the team.

Pelicans hunt and feed in small groups, sometimes diving in unison, and when it’s time to migrate, they do so in large packs. The Pelicans will only leave the bottom of the basketball barrel if they start acting like a pack instead of a bunch of birds supporting Davis.