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Reborn on the Bayou

In many ways, Bill Simmons’ life restarted in New Orleans. That’s why he can’t stand to see the city in ruins.

The greatest week of my life happened in New Orleans.

I’m not saying it was the best week, the wildest, the most rewarding, even the most entertaining. But things kept happening and happening. I witnessed my most exciting sporting event up to that point. Watched my favorite band perform three songs. Probably downed 100 drinks and smoked about 200 cigarettes. Gambled until the wee hours every night. Nearly got dumped by my fiancĂ©e. Wrote the single best column of my life. Had the most memorable drinking night of my life. Tapped the full potential of an Internet column in every respect, for better and worse. Even had my life threatened a few times.

Looking back, that New Orleans week was the highlight and the lowlight of my writing career. My life would never be quite the same, and in a good way, although it took me four years and a deadly hurricane to realize that. Watching the city’s devastation this week, I wasn’t prepared for the way it would affect me. It feels like losing an old friend. That’s the best way I can describe it. I feel more numb than anything.

After the shock of 9/11, like so many others, I have trouble summoning the proper reaction for catastrophes anymore. That day was so troubling, so unconscionable, my natural defense mechanisms kicked in for life. I threw myself into mindless hobbies like sports, pop culture, music and everything else, if only because that was the easiest way to stop thinking about what happened. Instead of thinking about the future of mankind, or the poor souls forced to jump 110 stories to their deaths because that seemed more palatable than burning to death, I found it easier to concentrate on things like “Mike Martz is a crummie coach” and “Where did Jennifer Connelly’s breasts go?”

And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone did it. We needed to move on and didn’t know how, so we threw ourselves back into our old lives, bravely saying things like, “We can’t let those terrorists keep us down!” and “The best thing we can do is get things back to the way they were.” Actually, that wasn’t the best thing. I remember handing in a review of “Hardball” one week after 9/11 and feeling like an absolute schmuck. But I was trying to live my life again. We all were.

Four months later, New Orleans was the home for Super Bowl XXXVI. I had been writing for Page 2 since July, and things were going well enough that they decided to send me down there for the week. Little did we know that my beloved Patriots would be joining me. Every sportswriter dreams of covering a Super Bowl some day, just like every football fan dreams of seeing his team in the Super Bowl. I was killing two birds with one stone. This was the highlight of my professional career. Nothing else came close.

The city knocked me for a loop. I was staying at the Embassy Suites, three blocks from Harrah’s Casino, maybe a 15-minute walk from downtown. Walking around Bourbon Street my first night there, I remember being legitimately blown away — it was like showing up at somebody’s messy frat house after a keg party, only for miles on end. But it was a functional craziness. Everyone wanted to walk around, get plastered, throw some beads, have fun and cross a few lines. Debauchery ruled the day. As I wrote at the time, New Orleans was one of the rare cities that made you feel like you were appearing in a movie scene, even if you were just walking down a street or making a pay phone call.

I spent two more days walking around and sizing things up, eventually writing a piece for Tuesday called “Queasy in the Big Easy” that poked fun at the goofier features of the city. At that time, when I was writing my columns, I always pretended that I was writing them for my friends, never worrying about what other people would think or how my words would be perceived. So when I described what I liked and disliked about N’Awlins, I never imagined that anyone would care.

They cared. And then some.

All hell broke loose. By Wednesday afternoon, my column was the No. 1 topic on every radio station. Every local TV newscast led with a report about me. Camera crews were following me around, staking out my hotel, calling me on my cell phone. The whole thing seemed to unfold in about two seconds. By the time I reached my hotel that night, I felt like Julia Roberts in “The Pelican Brief.” Was that guy staring at me? Why didn’t the lady behind the front desk smile at me? Inside my hotel room, the light on my phone was blinking. I had 10 messages, two from my bosses, five from reporters … and three death threats. One guy even muttered about 20 different obscenities, followed by five chilling words: “You’re a f—— dead man.”

Now I was scared. The death threats didn’t bother me as much as the fact that these psychos knew where I was staying. What if one of them was serious? I headed down to the front desk and asked them to block all calls to my room, leading one of the ladies to say, “Oh, you’re Bill Simmons?” before glancing at the other lady behind the desk (who was staring right through me). Great. Even the people in my hotel hated me.

Looking back, I should have just gone on TV and radio and defended myself, faced the music, explained myself. Everyone in New Orleans was oversensitive about the city’s problems — the deteriorating conditions downtown, the tenuous level of safety, the subtle tension between natives and tourists — and I managed to open these festering wounds (with a tongue-in-cheek column, no less). Honestly? I was overwhelmed. Why would anyone care this much about something I wrote? Rattled by the death threats, I didn’t want anyone to know what I looked like … so I avoided every local television offer and made just one radio appearance. Biggest mistake of my career. I handled the entire saga like a giant wuss.

The story died within 24 hours, although angry e-mails kept pouring in for months. Here was the irony: I liked New Orleans. I had become its most visible critic even as I was enjoying the hell out of myself. One night I went barhopping until 4 a.m., cabbed it to a friend’s hotel and ran into Gerry Callahan, one of WEEI’s morning hosts in Boston. He was headed to work; I was headed to sleep. That’s New Orleans for you. The whole week was like that — crazy stories, bizarre celebrity sightings, public nudity galore, 5 a.m. poker games at Harrah’s, bosses disappearing into Champagne Rooms, every wild card you can imagine.

As the big game crept closer and closer, you could actually feel the city come alive. You know those few minutes right before a concert starts, when there’s that palpable buzz in the stadium after the lights dim and the generic music gets turned off? That’s what New Orleans felt like for about 72 straight hours. And since this was my first (and hopefully, not last) Super Bowl, I had no way of knowing that my cherry was being given to the best possible Super Bowl city.

(The quintessential New Orleans story: I was walking down Bourbon Street with some friends, nearly stepped into a giant puddle of puke, then jumped over it at the last second. Even as I was jumping, I heard a group of drunken people groan audibly: “Awwwwwwwwwww!” These people had been standing there, all of them holding drinks like spectators, hoping somebody would walk into the puke. Only in New Orleans. You couldn’t make this stuff up.)

After my friends from Boston arrived on Friday night, I ended up spending a legitimately festive Friday night with them — we ended up at Harrah’s as the sun was coming out, and I apparently taught my buddy J-Bug how to play poker before stumbling home. Six hours later, I was lunching downtown with two higher-ups from ESPN — the food was remarkable all week, by the way — as we discussed my “Growing Queasy” article, how I could have handled things better, how I needed to realize that hundreds of thousands of people were reading me now (not just thousands), how I needed to learn from the experience. Meanwhile, I probably looked and smelled like Reverend Jim Ignatowski from “Taxi” the entire time. What a strange week.

Everything crested with Super Bowl XXXVI. I was one of the few writers who picked the Patriots to win the game, and they vaulted to an improbable 14-point lead at halftime, immediately followed by U2’s coming out and singing “Beautiful Day.” I remember thinking to myself, “Is this really happening? Am I actually here?” My favorite band, my favorite football team, the Super Bowl … and somebody actually paid me to be there and write about it? Who was luckier than me?

The Rams roared back in the fourth quarter, followed by New England’s last-ditch drive, Vinatieri’s kick and my giddy group hug with the Pats’ fans behind me. For the first time in 16 years, a Boston team had won a championship. I raced back to my hotel and wrote two-thirds of my column in record time, then headed down to Bourbon Street to celebrate with my buddies for the next four hours, returning in the wee hours to finish the column. Let’s just say that I wasn’t sober. The next morning, I called one of my editors in a panic, wondering if it was complete gibberish. They assured me it was fine. It turned out to be my favorite column out of anything I have ever turned in to ESPN, not because of the quality but because of the circumstances. I have never handed in a drunken column before or since.

Bill Simmons
I loved New Orleans now. This place was part of me. The Patriots won a title there. The defining moment of my career happened there, as well as the craziest week of my life. I didn’t want to leave.

That morning, I walked downtown for one last time — the place was in shambles. They hadn’t even bothered to start cleaning up. I strolled down to the riverbank, soaked in the sights, kept rehashing the events of the previous nine days. After 9/11, I never imagined that I would care about sports that much again, that I could have that much fun again, that my column could have that much of an impact (for better and worse). New Orleans completed the healing process for me, whether I knew it or not.

And I haven’t been back there since.

Now the city is pretty much gone, washed away, victimized by a natural catastrophe that could eventually prove more devastating than 9/11. (In the irony of ironies, it was a hurricane that did the city in, the same name of the most deadly drink in New Orleans.) This week, on Wednesday night, long after the city had been demolished beyond anyone’s worst fears, I found myself watching CNN until the wee hours, wondering how they could save the city and the surrounding areas, wondering whether the place would ever be the same, wondering where they would put all these disenfranchised people, wondering why the government waited to react until it was far too late.

Here’s the thing that separates New Orleans from anywhere else: We all come from somewhere and feel an attachment to that particular place. But only two American cities summon that same attachment from a sizable group of outsiders: New Orleans and Las Vegas. In fact, after attending yet another formulaic bachelor party this summer, I had planned on writing a “Stick a fork in Vegas” column and pushing for the Big Easy to become the new Vegas (the ultimate male-bonding destination for the 21st century). It was one of those “Rainy Day” columns, a timeless concept that could be written at any time.

Or so I thought. New Orleans is barely holding on right now. The local survivors are panicking, their homes destroyed, no hope in sight, every man fighting for himself, a swarm of violent looters threatening to seize the city. If 9/11 brought out the best in Americans, it sure seems like Katrina is bringing out the worst. There’s a good chance that, within a few weeks, some of these Gulf Coast towns and cities will have the most decrepit and inhumane conditions in this country’s history.

Like everyone else, I’m going to pray for these people, send money to the Red Cross, never stop hoping that things turn around. Selfishly, I’m going to keep thinking about the New Orleans that doesn’t exist anymore, the city that challenged me in every respect, the city where the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. I loved that place.

And as sad as this sounds, I don’t think it’s coming back.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.