In court, Pelicans owner claims family members 'tried to kill' him

Ball Don't Lie
New Orleans Pelicans and Saints owner Tom Benson at the 2016 Kentucky Derby. (AP/Garry Jones)
New Orleans Pelicans and Saints owner Tom Benson at the 2016 Kentucky Derby. (AP/Garry Jones)

In a deposition made public this week as part of an ongoing and bitter legal dispute, Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Pelicans and NFL's New Orleans Saints, claimed that members of his family "tried to kill" him.

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From A.J. Perez of USA TODAY:

Benson, who has been engaged in a legal fight over who will inherit the sports franchises, detailed why he decided to cut his daughter Renee, along with grandchildren Ryan and Rita LeBlanc, out of any ownership stake with the teams.

“Well, they tried to kill me for one thing,” the 88-year-old billionaire businessman said in the deposition on March 28.

"I found out they didn't love me very much, trying to stab me in the back, wanted to take over everything, brought me to court saying I was crazy. You don't need any more than that."

More from Daniel Kaplan at Sports Business Daily:

Asked what he meant by ["they tried to kill me"], he said, “You know by picking on my wife and when I wasn’t feeling very good they were very hostile.”

Benson recounts a previously reported incident at a December '14 Saints game in which his wife,Gayle, was allegedly physically attacked by his heirs. However, in Benson’s retelling it is his daughter, Renee, and not his granddaughter Rita LeBlanc, who attacked his wife in the suite that day. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported in February '15 it was Rita who had “shook” Gayle in a violent encounter. Benson in his testimony said, “They start picking on Gayle. And it got so bad, Renee shook her, and I said, 'That’s enough. Let’s go.' Gayle and I left the game.”

In January of 2015, Benson announced that he would transfer future ownership of the Saints, which he purchased in 1985, and Pelicans, which he bought in 2012, to wife Gayle. That arrangement would cut out Renee and Benson's grandchildren, Ryan LeBlanc and Rita Benson LeBlanc. Benson LeBlanc had previously represented the Saints at NFL league meetings and was viewed as being groomed for ownership, but in 2012, the elder Benson reportedly placed her on unofficial paid administrative leave as a "wake-up call" intended to curb her "sense of entitlement."

One day after Benson's announcement, Benson LeBlanc filed suit against her grandfather in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, hoping to block the new succession plan on the grounds that he was being manipulated by Gayle, his third wife, and that his "declining health [was] much worse than publicly known and [had] rendered him unfit to manage his personal affairs or the business of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans." Renee, Rita and Ryan called for an independent psychiatric evaluation of Benson, who later countered with a federal suit aimed at regaining "assets in the Saints and Pelicans from trusts he'd set up for [his] recently estranged heirs."

Benson wants to remove nonvoting shares of the Saints and Pelicans from their trusts; he's allowed to do that if he replaces them with equally valuable assets, but the "mostly promissory notes" he has offered thus far are being challenged as an "insufficient exchange" that would short-change the trustees. The trusts hold 60 percent of the Saints and 95 percent of Pelicans, all of which is non-voting stock, with Benson maintaining sole control of the teams by owning all voting stock, according to Katherine Sayre of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Last June, a judge found Benson competent to run his business as he saw fit. One week later, Renee, Rita and Ryan appealed that ruling, continuing an ugly internal struggle that has led to calls for the family to sell their franchises to other, non-warring local interests. Earlier this month, the Louisiana Supreme Court declined their appeal; undaunted, they issued a statement claiming that they "love and miss Tom Benson very much and will continue to try to protect him however they can." They were, perhaps, emboldened by a February ruling by a Texas judge in a different case, ordering that Renee Benson replace her father as the trustee of a family estate trust created in 1980, after the death of Benson's first wife, Renee's mother, that is now worth almost $1 billion.

After a breakthrough 2014-15 season that saw them make the playoffs for the first time in four years, the Pelicans struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness all of last year, stumbling to a 30-52 record that resulted in them having the No. 6 pick in June's 2016 NBA draft. At the moment, though, it's not entirely clear who will be making that pick, as noted last week by Rick Stone of Pelican Debrief:

The New Orleans Pelicans still have not made a decision on who their General Manager will be for the future. The team has current GM Dell Demps awaiting the word on if he will be returning to his post in the upcoming season. [...]

The biggest problem lies with the owner’s nonchalant manner about the situation. So many excuses have been made for the delay of this quite simple decision for the future. On April 25th, it seemed New Orleans made their decision with a press conference for Dell Demps scheduled. It looked like his return for the 2016-2017 season was locked up. That press conference was cancelled, resulting in all kinds of confusion and speculation from the fan base.

After that, the excuses became not about Dell Demps or the Pelicans franchise, but Benson’s other ownership roles coming before his basketball team. Tom Benson owns the New Orleans Saints as well, so that was the first excuse made for the indecision. New Orleans has been a football first town for a while, so this was not exactly a surprise. Mickey Loomis, the man likely making the decision, was unavailable as a result of the NFL draft, but after that was a wrap, a decision still was not announced.

Just recently, the excuse shifted to the Kentucky Derby, where owner Tom Benson owned two horses in the race. And while the decision seems to finally be getting closer, there has already been an unnecessary amount of time lost. To put it bluntly, Tom Benson’s other priorities have put the New Orleans Pelicans on hold at the worst possible time. This is a team that needs a decisive direction, and yet, they are in an indecisive rut while waiting for ownership to decide how the franchise should proceed.

In court, on court and in the front office, there's an awful lot of uncertainty surrounding the Pelicans right now. They've still got Anthony Davis, which means they've still got a chance to get the basketball product moving in the right direction again; the situation in the ownership suite, though, seems much darker and dicier.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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