New Orleans: A Sports City Revived

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On Tuesday, the news of all-star NBA center Demarcus Cousins’ trade to the New Orleans Pelicans sent shockwaves in the sporting world. The Pelicans, sitting just three spots outside of a Western conference playoff spot, had acquired a perennial all-star to play alongside superstar Anthony Davis. Following a successful NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans, Pelicans fans have been bolstered by the news of the two former University of Kentucky stars linking up. After a New Orleans Saints Super Bowl win in 2010, and the rebranding of the New Orleans Hornets to the Pelicans in 2013, the city has experienced a sports transformation like no other city in the last five years. Long gone are the days of Saints fans wearing brown paper bags over their heads during games to express their disgust in the team, or the languishing last-place Hornets that could never seem to sell out home games. The city known for the birthplace of jazz has a new instrument of attraction: the revival of professional sports.

The images of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its subsequent devastation were heartbreaking for all Americans.

In his book, Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, Michael Eric Dyson, a scholar at Georgetown University wrote about the effects of the experience on the very poorest Americans.

“It was an event that overwhelmed levees and exploded the conventional wisdom about a shared American prosperity, exposing a group of people so poor they didn’t have 50$ for a bus ticket out of town. If we want to learn something from this disaster the lesson ought to be: America’s poor deserve better than this.”

News reels ran images of citizens stranded on their roofs, waving everything from bedsheets, to large metal poles to try and get the attention of rescue helicopters. Perhaps the most impactful image of the storm’s effect on the region’s poorest individuals were the photos taken inside the Superdome, the stadium used for the New Orleans Saints. Residents who didn’t have the money, or transportation to leave the city packed into the Superdome by the thousands, as the turf and stands were converted into makeshift sleeping quarters. Entire communities were forced into the stadium for weeks, lacking resources, food, and hygienic necessities. The Superdome, what had once been the home of an NFL franchise, had fallen from grace.

As the city reeled from the devastation of the storm, the sports teams in the region, particularly the New Orleans Saints, were put into a precarious situation. The Saints ended up having to play their entire 2005-2006 home games in different locations. As they bounced from Giants Stadium, to San Antonio, Texas, the city looked to rebuild from within, including a 185 million dollar renovation of the historic Superdome. The team eventually returned for the start of 2006, selling out all of their home games within hours, a first in franchise history. The home opener in 2006 was to date, the most viewed program on ESPN. The Saints beat the undefeated Atlanta Falcons, much to the delight of the nation, who fell in love with the comeback story of a reeling franchise, and city.

Michael Irvin, a former Dallas Cowboys star, said on ESPN, “[My] favorite day was Monday, September the 25th, 2006. New Orleans, Louisiana, site of the Superdome. I watched our people who had suffered so grievously through through Hurricane Katrina fill a stadium hours before a game and stay hours after a game.”

Hurricane Katrina had a major impact on the city’s well-being. Sports, often a unifier in times of hardship, were seen as an escape from the horrific realities of life in post-Katrina New Orleans. Black or white, poor or rich, everyone could get behind Drew Brees lethal throwing arm, or Reggie Bush’s elusive running style, or even Chris Paul’s incredible basketball IQ. The New Orleans Saints eventually brought a Super Bowl championship to the city of New Orleans in the 2009-10 season, defeating Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts for the team’s first Super Bowl win in franchise history. The jubilant victory parade through downtown New Orleans allowed years of struggling to be forgotten about for a single day. That said, the city is still greatly affected by urban blight, gentrification, violent crime, and high rates of poverty.

I visited the city of New Orleans during Swarthmore’s winter break. We stayed just off of Bourbon Street in the heart of the city. I made sure that I caught a Pelicans game while I was there. My dad and I went to the Smoothie King Center, adjacent to the Superdome and saw the Pelicans take down ex-New Orleans star Chris Paul, and the Los Angeles Clippers. The game was practically a sellout, as we bought nosebleed seats right before the game started for a steep price of 33$. Three days after that was the Sugar Bowl in the Superdome, as as college football teams Oklahoma and Auburn fans converged on the city in the the tens of thousands. As I watched the game from a bar in downtown New Orleans, I remember succinctly having a conversation with the bartender, a native of the Lower Ninth Ward, an area that had been hit particularly hard by Hurricane Katrina. He remarked, “Sports are back for good here. Katrina put a dent in our spirits, but never broke us for good!”

The resilience of New Orleans residents, and sports fans in the face of disaster has been a story like no other. After hosting the NBA All-Star festivities for the first time in history, it is safe to say that New Orleans is now taken seriously as a sports city. As the Saints prepare to rebuild following a less than stellar season, and the Pelicans begin to gear up for a playoff push with an all-star frontcourt, the city of New Orleans, in the face of such peril, has rebounded and put itself on the map once again.

 

The writer actually was able to visit New Orleans recently and experience the sports revival first hand:

I visited the city of New Orleans during Swarthmore’s winter break. We stayed just off of Bourbon Street in the heart of the city. I made sure that I caught a Pelicans game while I was there. My dad and I went to the Smoothie King Center, adjacent to the Superdome and saw the Pelicans take down ex-New Orleans star Chris Paul, and the Los Angeles Clippers. The game was practically a sellout, as we bought nosebleed seats right before the game started for a steep price of 33$. Three days after that was the Sugar Bowl in the Superdome, as as college football teams Oklahoma and Auburn fans converged on the city in the the tens of thousands. As I watched the game from a bar in downtown New Orleans, I remember succinctly having a conversation with the bartender, a native of the Lower Ninth Ward, an area that had been hit particularly hard by Hurricane Katrina. He remarked, “Sports are back for good here. Katrina put a dent in our spirits, but never broke us for good!”

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