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Merriment on the Mississippi

By John Hollinger

NEW ORLEANS – Down Canal St., they kept coming and coming like something out of a zombie movie. Wave after wave of exhilarated humanity streamed past with no end in sight, jumping, cheering, high-fiving, and “Who-Dat?”-ing, all headed toward Bourbon St. to join several thousand of their closest friends in celebration.

As soon as the Gatorade hit Sean Payton, torrents of Saints fans spilled out of every packed-to-the-gills bar and hotel in the French Quarter and CBD and made a beeline for Bourbon. Many of them ran. And as I stood at the corner of Bourbon and Canal and watched the spectacle, I was overcome by just how many people had arrived to take part.

Here’s the thing about the experience in New Orleans last night: It was as much a cultural event as a football event. The locals who flocked into all the bars in the French Quarter and CBD were joined by a crush of expats (Mrs. Professor included) who went to New Orleans—not Miami, but New Orleans—to take part. Every hotel in the city was full this weekend, and almost none of the arrivals were tourists. These were returning locals, clad in “9” jerseys and yelling “Who Dat?” to passing strangers.

When the Saints defied the odds and won, those people turned into a tsunami of humanity seeking out their fellow man. Even the ones who weren’t in the city at first made a beeline afterward—for several hours after the game, cars backed up trying to get into the city and join the fun. The revelry wasn’t short-lived, either. I wasn’t surprised that I was falling asleep to honking horns, screaming and dancing … but it took me aback was when I woke up to fly home and still heard the horns and music.

There’s a story behind the story here, and the Hornets are part of this too: A threatened community clinging to its cultural touchstones. Based on strict demographics, there is no way either the Saints and Hornets should be viable—they represent a poor city that saw 21% of its residents leave and never come back after Hurricane Katrina, one that has the nation's 46th largest metropolitan area and not a single Fortune 500 company.

Yet both clubs are doing well. Government largesse helps, yes, but I also believe the support for those teams is in part a response to Katrina, one that says something much larger: in a nutshell, that This Thing Can Work. At some level, the idea is out there that if New Orleans can preserve the Saints and Hornets, it can preserve all the other things that make New Orleans such a unique and worthwhile place too. (And a little part of me can’t help but wonder if native New Orleanian Peyton Manning thought the same thing, and if that wasn't lurking somewhere in his subconscious last night.)

The NBA, I’ll point out, did its part in this equation by putting the 2008 All-Star Game in New Orleans and showing everyone a city getting back on its feet. But the Saints’ Super Bowl? That was the cherry on top of the sundae.

And man, did these folks know how to commemorate the occasion. You could hardly ask for a better place for a post-game party than a dense warren of compact streets amidst people who love to wear costumes, play music, drink in public, and celebrate. The guy in flowing robes with No. 9 and “Breesus Christ” written on the front took the cake, but lots of folks went beyond the standard garb: the throngs featured countless jester hats, feather boas, and black-and-gold beads. Somehow a guy with a tuba picked his way through the Bourbon St. maelstrom while keeping tune; other assorted brass instruments magically appeared as well.

It wasn’t just Sunday night either. The festivities started during the week with the first wave of Mardi Gras parades. With this being the first time in history that the Saints were still in season before Mardi Gras, virtually every parade had at least one impromptu Saints float added to the mix, usually featuring a giant Drew Brees at the front. (At least one parade also had a Hornets float with a player in a No. 3 jersey at the forefront; unfortunately its Chris Paul statue may have been the single worst depiction of another human being I’ve ever seen. It looked more like Popeye Jones than CP3.)

Other factors made this occasion so special too, of course—the Saints’ history as a punching bag for the NFL’s heavyweights, the near-religious fervor for football among locals, and the dramatic NFC Championship game that led up to the big event.

All told, it was a truly unique experience—a city celebrating its first championship, yes, but as a backdrop celebrating much more. New Orleans still has a long way to go in its recovery, but one can't help but think of last night as a symbolic statement that, yes, the Big Easy is very much back.