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...
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.
Simmons goes on to commend the oft-criticized NBA Commissioner David Stern for giving nay-sayers the finger and bringing the All Star Game to New Orleans. (The picture is NBA star LeBron James working on a house.)
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.