NEW ORLEANS — So I’m standing in front of Café Du Monde on Thursday afternoon, holding a bag of their famous beignets and staring at a long-lost friend. For a place that many had prematurely mourned, including me, the French Quarter looked better than I ever imagined. Only a few stores and restaurants were boarded up. The streets were deceivingly clean and litter-free, like how a college dorm looks right before parents’ weekend. There wasn’t that hard-core N’Awlins stench that always makes you feel like you’re inhaling 150 years of garbage, spilled drinks and various forms of bodily fluids.
With the sun shining, with people happily strolling around, with the faint sounds of trumpets in the background I mean, wasn’t this New Orleans? Wasn’t I looking at New Orleans?
Once upon a time, you came here to escape life for a few days, not to think about how unfair and unlucky life can be. You came here to drink Hurricanes and catch beads, to gamble and carouse, to do one thing (at least) you’d regret the following morning. You came for mega-events like Jazz Fest and the Super Bowl. You came for bachelor parties and spring weekends. You came for the jambalaya and the gumbo. You came for tarot cards and voodoo stores — and tried not to care about all the strange people walking around. You came because of the festive, chaotic, electric, indescribable atmosphere that never quite spiraled out of control. You came because clocks and watches didn’t matter, because there were no rules in New Orleans, even if you worried just a little that there were no rules. You came here because there are only a few cities that make you feel like you’re in a movie, and New Orleans happened to be one of them.
Then Katrina happened.
Like so many others I thought she destroyed the city as a tourist attraction, that too much happened, that there was no going back. So, imagine my surprise as I’m standing there in front of the Du Monde, plowing my way through the best bargain in the United States — three beignets for $2 — with powdered sugar spraying my clothes just like old times. Imagine me looking around and thinking about how egregiously I underestimated the city’s rebuilding effort, and thinking to myself that New Orleans might make it after all. Imagine those dormant memories from Super Bowl XXXVI flooding through my brain, one of the single greatest weeks of my life.
There’s no question. I’m having a moment. I’m having one those I’m-in-a-movie, larger-than-life moments that can happen only in New Orleans. And right as it’s happening, almost on cue, a tattered white van pulls up to the stop sign directly in front of me.
An older black guy is driving. He looks like he has aged 10 years in the past three. He’s gazing ahead in silence, lost in his own thoughts, oblivious to the stares from the out-of-towner covered in powdered sugar. Meanwhile, his car radio happens to be blaring a classic Tupac song, and what’s really blowing my mind is that it’s the chorus of the perfect song for this particular moment. If you froze the moment and asked me to pick a song, I would have picked this song. And now it’s playing. And I’m frozen in midbite. I can’t believe it. I’m standing there in complete disbelief.
Keep ya head up ooooh child, things are gonna get easier keep ya head up ooooh child, things will get brighter.
Is this really happening?
Ooooh child, things are gonna get easier keep ya head up ooooh child, things will get brighter.
And just like that, he drove away.
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That’s the thing about life. You never know what’s going to happen next. New Orleans was fine, and then it wasn’t. Twenty-nine months after Katrina, the city remains in pain. You can feel that anguish everywhere you go, just like you can feel the love, the joy and the resiliency. The locals don’t feel sorry for themselves anymore. Too much time has passed. They have to live their lives. They have to keep their heads up. They have to keep moving forward. And they’re doing it without us.
See, here’s the thing about downtown New Orleans: It’s ready for us again. It has been ready for a while. For all intent and purpose, it looks the same. Bourbon Street looks the same. The Superdome looks the same. So does the Convention Center. So do Harrah’s and Pat O’Brien’s and Cafe du Monde. So do the waterfront and Canal Street and all the hotels. You could go back to New Orleans. You could have fun there. You could do all the same things you did before. Unfortunately, you don’t want to go back.
And that’s a problem. The city’s economy and future hinge on outsiders accepting the fact something horrible happened here, then coming back anyway. The city needs our money to rebuild the surrounding areas that were destroyed by Katrina — only the money isn’t coming in because you won’t come back. And why would you? Vacations are supposed to be fun. Nobody wants to drive by houses with giant X’s on them on the way from the airport, or think about how the place was underwater with dead bodies and dead dogs and raw sewage drifting through the streets. Post-Katrina visitors can’t help but think about those things, just like New York visitors can’t help but think about the missing Twin Towers when they see Manhattan’s post-9/11 skyline for the first time. Downtown New Orleans didn’t change after Katrina; fundamentally and spiritually, it’s still the same. Shaken and battered, but the same.
Unfortunately, we aren’t the same. New Orleans has baggage now — visible baggage — and when people are on vacation, they want to deal only with baggage like suitcases. The good people of New Orleans know this, and they’re worried about it, and more than anything else, those understandable insecurities made me want to write this column. For the most part, it was a relatively somber NBA All-Star Weekend. The parties were surprisingly manageable. There weren’t nearly as many players and celebrities as usual. Friday night in the French Quarter felt like a Thursday night for any other weekend, almost as though everyone hadn’t gotten there yet. Only on Saturday night did the typical crush of people smother the city.
I spent the weekend thinking New Orleans looked like a movie set of the old New Orleans, as if they had rebuilt everything and made it look exactly the same, only it wasn’t quite the same. And that’s going to take time. But that’s why the NBA went there in the first place. In the days and weeks following Katrina, an inordinate number of Americans were affected by the sights and sounds of the disaster, with many giving money to the Red Cross and other relief funds. We were galvanized in our dismay at FEMA’s unconscionably poor handling of the crisis, truly one of the lowest moments in the recent history of this country. A few weeks passed and New Orleans was pushed to the back burner, because that’s what we do — we feel bad about something, we react and then we don’t feel as bad anymore. The future of New Orleans rested in the hands of people who were scarred by what they heard and saw, people in positions of power who could and would make a difference: athletes, celebrities, politicians, documentary filmmakers, millionaires and philanthropists, as well as all the heroes who work for nonprofits and various community organizations.
David Stern happened to be one of those people. In December 2005, the commissioner took a tour of the devastated areas and couldn’t shake the things he saw. He committed to the city right then and there, vowing the Hornets would return someday and floating out hope the city could host the 2008 All-Star Game. Everyone thought he was crazy. (Including me.) After a particularly sketchy All-Star Weekend in Vegas accumulated a mountain of crazy stories and bad publicity, most sane people were positively mortified at the thought of spending an NBA weekend in New Orleans. Even Billy Hunter ripped the idea and discouraged players from going, which was a bad thing since he’s the head of the players’ union and all. Everyone I know in and around the league expressed real concern about the safety of players and patrons alike; even as recently as six weeks ago, I joked to a friend that All-Star Weekend in New Orleans was going to unfold like the first 30 minutes of “Cloverfield.”
Fortunately for us, the Commish never wavered. Not only did he keep the All-Star Game in New Orleans and pull off a safe weekend, but he committed to the single largest day of community service in the history of professional sports — a group of 2,500 people that included players, NBA employees, media people, investors, sponsors and politicians spending Friday afternoon at 10 different locations — that lifted the spirits of everyone in the area. At the age of 65, following a tumultuous 2007 season that had insiders quietly wondering if he should step down soon, David Stern turned in what was unquestionably his greatest moment. I really believe that. It’s one thing to make everyone rich; it’s another thing to enrich people’s lives.
The weekend was special for the NBA in more ways than one. Blessed with a likable generation of young stars, a scoring boom and an especially competitive landscape, this was already the most entertaining season in 15 years and that was before the megadeals started happening. I’ve attended six All-Star Weekends now, and out of any of them, this was the year when I found myself just talking basketball with people. Who’s the MVP? Who’s coming out of the West? Is Boston for real? Why doesn’t Chris Paul get more props? What’d you think of the Kidd trade? How effing incredible has LeBron been? You think Shaq has anything left? Why the hell won’t the Knicks fire Isiah? I swear, I talked about basketball for four straight days. That never happened before.
If you love the league, if you care about it at all, then you’re more excited about these next four months than you’ve been about anything since Michael, Larry and Magic were playing. Forget about the fact the West is so impossibly wide-open, or the juicy possibility of a Lakers-Celtics Finals (imagine seeing those uniforms on the same court in June again???), or the risky trades that lifted the “No Balls Association” tag and had everyone buzzing. Have you noticed what the new generation of All-Stars has in common?
SPECIAL MAGAZINE REPORT
In its Feb. 25 issue, ESPN The Magazine examined the NBA’s image with its fans … and why “perception is not reality”:
These are all likable guys.
What’s not to like about LeBron James? Dwyane Wade? Chris Bosh? Chris Paul? Deron Williams? Brandon Roy? Dwight Howard? Throw in Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Gilbert Arenas, Monta Ellis and Al Horford, and you’re talking about an entire team of likable and gifted stars under the age of 25. There isn’t a bad apple in the bunch. From a historical standpoint, LeBron has a chance to be one of the best 10 players ever. Howard has a chance to be one of the best big men ever. And Paul has a chance to surpass Isiah Thomas as the greatest 6-footer ever.
Think about what a boost this has been for the NBA. Following MJ’s first retirement in 1993, the ensuing 12 years were a gnarly stretch of wasted talent and wasted time. There were too many unlikable stars, too much crotch grabbing and chest thumping, too much sneering and posturing, too many rookies who weren’t ready, too much expansion, too many “superstars” mailing it in for $15-20 million a year, too many injuries, too little scoring and too much defense. Many of the league’s greatest players just didn’t resonate with casual fans, personified by the fact so many fans were turned off by Allen Iverson, only one of the fiercest competitors in sports. You need luck with this stuff, and the NBA definitely had some luck lately, peaking with LeBron’s progress as a competitor and person — unquestionably the most important thing that happened to the league since Jordan’s ascent. He’s a killer now. He gets it. He plays hard on both ends. He doesn’t take nights off. He takes over at the right times. He has a flair for the moment, as we saw with that game-changing dunk Sunday night.
As one NBA higher-up whispered to me last weekend, “People still think we have an image problem, I just don’t get it. Do they even watch us? Do they see the caliber of the guys we have now?”
That’s the issue gnawing at everyone working for the league right now. The NFL has considerably more thugs, Major League Baseball has a steroids scandal that basically has tainted the past 15 years of games, yet somehow the NBA is still perceived as the league with an image problem? For god’s sake, if the NBA can’t put that tag to rest this year, of all years, then it’s never happening, and we’ll have to accept there are deeper issues at work here.
(Well, one deeper issue. And you know what it is.)
But that’s a story for another day. The league did a great thing last weekend, and when we’re remembering Stern someday, his unwavering commitment to New Orleans will be one of the first things mentioned. I have to admit, the man drives me crazy sometimes. It drives me crazy he didn’t re-seed the playoffs and make them like March Madness, or he might dilute the league again by adding five European teams, or he keeps trotting out the same lousy batch of officials. The uncharacteristically callous way he has handled the situation in Seattle has been unequivocally appalling. Even the fact they won’t fix All-Star Saturday and take some chances drives me nuts. At times, I think he has been arrogant and stuck in his ways, and maybe he’d even admit that.
The people working for him spin yarns about his legendary attention to detail and biting sarcasm — with the lesson of the story always being, “You don’t want to screw up when you’re working for David Stern” — only you always get the feeling they wouldn’t want to work for anyone else. The people who deal with him tell stories about how intelligent he is, how you can never get the upper hand, how he’s always right, how he’s always the smartest person in the room, how you can’t argue with him because he’s a lawyer at heart and has an answer for everything. I don’t know anyone who totally looks forward to dealing with him — with the possible exception of me — and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t completely respect him. The funny thing about Stern is he has reached the point in his life when you can totally see him wearing ugly pajamas, lounging on a sofa and trying vainly to stay awake during the second half of a Warriors-Suns game, only he’s still the most influential figure in the league.
He also has a firm grasp of history, as well as his place in history, and if you look closely at his biggest projects over the past few years, they have been mostly big-picture, I-want-to-make-sure-we-get-this-going-before-I-leave stuff. Like expanding the NBA’s reach in Europe, China and Japan. Tapping into all the digital and technological advances. Building the D-League and the WNBA. Turning NBA Cares into one of the biggest charity programs in the country. He’s leaving his imprint on the league before he leaves. That’s what he’s doing.
Of course, New Orleans wasn’t about that. I think David Stern saw a city in pain, and I think he wanted to help, and I think he wouldn’t have been able to forgive himself if he didn’t help. And that’s the thing he did help. Like everyone else who was there, I had more fun than I thought and I won’t forget what I saw. And I’ll always remember painting the walls of McDonogh 35 on Friday afternoon and basking in the spirit of the kids who attend school there. They were happy to have us and we were happy to be there, and that’s what life is really about.
Did the weekend accomplish anything other than painting a few schools, planting a few gardens, raising some much-needed money and making the city feel good for a few days? I say yes. Everyone who traveled here for All-Star Weekend will think about returning someday, not because they feel bad, but because it’s New Orleans and it’s ready for us again. Skip your next Vegas trip and convince your friends to spend a wild weekend in the French Quarter. Don’t do it for charity, do it because it will be fun. And it will.
So keep your head up, New Orleans. Things are gonna get easier. Things will only get brighter. In the words of Terence Mann, people will come.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column — as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more — check out the revamped Sports Guy’s World.