ArenaBowl coming to New Orleans -- a city living and dying

NEW ORLEANS -- The trick, most days, is to surround yourself with familiarity and to pretend. A handful of pink flamingos, old red bricks and a welcome mat lead to the door of Cindy and Ron Morgan's trailer, which sits in the front yard of what once was.

They call it their can-dominium, part condo, part tin can, and today, Cindy is peering out the window and pacing in a three-foot space. She sees a guy outside chatting on a cell phone in the Bayou heat, and asks if he wants to come in and sit a spell in the air conditioning. He says no; she keeps poking her head out the tiny window to check on him. She wants everybody to be comfortable.

Their neighborhood encapsulates New Orleans, nearly two years post Katrina. Up one block, children play near brand new, perfectly manicured homes. A few shock-busting bumps down the street, a rotted shell of a house sits with the spray paint that lists body counts and once branded New Orleans unlivable.

All around them, buzz saws and trucks cut through late-afternoon air.

"Y'all didn't see it when we first came back," Cindy says. "It reminded me of that movie 'Planet of the Apes.' There was nothing, no cars, no squirrels, no birds. The absence of sound … Everything was brown and there were dead cats under the house.

"It's not where it should be. But there is a lot of progress going on."

The trick in New Orleans is to take one step, and try not to turn sideways. Look too far past the progress downtown, or in the Morgans' once-ravaged Lakeview neighborhood, and you're likely to stumble upon the misery of the Ninth Ward. Become too fixated on what isn't, and it's easy to get sidetracked.

This is where Jay Cicero sits these days, in a relocated office on St. Charles Avenue, scrambling to bring sporting events back to New Orleans while a disillusioned city keeps waiting. This week, it's the ArenaBowl (ABC, Sunday, 3 p.m. ET), the city's first professional championship since Katrina. Next winter, the NBA All-Star Game and BCS championship are coming.

Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, is a big-picture guy who loaded his family up at 5 in the morning and evacuated just before the storm hit, knowing he'd be back.

He was the one on the phone with the NCAA, when his city was still under water, listening to the sports moguls ask what they could do to help.

"The best thing you can do," Cicero said, "is bring your events to New Orleans."

A man in a bad toupee is waiting for a hamburger at Harrah's, a twinkling casino on Poydras Street that is hopping with Hoverounds, high rollers, big hair and beautiful people on a Friday night.

Tonight, the K word isn't forbidden. It just doesn't apply.

On Bourbon Street, frat boys with pushed-up collars and alligator shirts are hanging from the balcony, swinging beads and the occasional fib while country, jazz and rap blast in different directions. Thirty-two ounce daiquiris flow from styrofoam cup to inebriated body.

On Poydras, which was reduced to stop signs three months after the hurricane, the slacks and heavy hair jels unwind at the hotel bars while valet lines stretch into the street.

"I think the national perception is that you can't walk down a street here that the city's still half under water. That it's a slow recovery, and nothing is happening down there. But what isn't shown is the hundreds of victories on a daily basis."
-- Jay Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation

In this one-mile patch of paradise and temporary memory loss, progress is everywhere. Billboards tout the soon-to-be-built Trump Tower, a luxurious piece of property that can be obtained, in part, for anyone with $395,000 to $2 million.

The restaurants are back to their pre-Katrina numbers. If New Orleans rebuilds, city leaders know, it will start here, with tourism dollars. In March, a year and a half after Katrina, a study listed New Orleans' population at 255,000. That's about 56 percent of the city pre-September 2005.

Tyson Rihner clicks off the casualties in the French quarter as he works behind the counter of Big Easy Daiquiri & Cafe. He points to one shop that closed down and another that is coming back.

"In the alcohol business," he says, "you don't really lose. Alcohol consumption went up from people being depressed."

But on this particular night, he has time to chat because the bar is relatively dead. A woman passes through to use the bathroom, then says it's out of toilet paper. Two young guys stop by, then decide they don't want to spend 10 bucks on a margarita.

Rihner says the lull isn't because of Katrina. It's a combination of the humidity, the 90-degree heat, and the fact that it's hurricane season.

The national media types haven't helped, either.

Rihner blames CNN and USA Today for focusing on crime rates and scaring tourists off. That, Rihner and Cicero say, is where sports come in. ArenaBowls and All-Star games bring tourists, cameras and national attention.

"I think the national perception is that you can't walk down a street here," Cicero says, "that the city's still half under water. That it's a slow recovery, and nothing is happening down there. But what isn't shown is the hundreds of victories on a daily basis."

Cicero refuses to call the ArenaBowl a dry run for bigger events. He says it's just another test.

Rihner, who's wearing a shirt that says "I love New Orleans," says any event that brings tourists to the city is a victory. He lost everything in 13 feet of water, and temporarily relocated to Natchitoches, La., after the storm.

But his family was OK and his life changed. He met his future wife during that stay in northern Louisiana.

"All that bad," he says, "and something good came out of it."

For decades, the Roby family has owned houses on Louisa Street, a gritty industrial area in the Ninth Ward where trucks rumble through potholed streets and a good night's sleep is as rare as a corner daiquiri stand. Never in his life did Kevin Roby think he'd see this -- tour busses rolling through his neighborhood.

Roby spends most of his afternoons outside, sitting in his wheelchair, drenched in the heavy air of humidity and stagnation. His green house near the corner still isn't repaired -- isn't close to being finished -- but sitting outside beats waiting in a cramped trailer.

"Downtown, it's like nothing ever happened," Roby says. "When you come this way, people really see … The only thing I get tired of is the people riding past with the video cameras, taking pictures. It's like, you know what? They're making money off of us."

Businesses have been slow to rebuild in Roby's neighborhood. The Pizza Hut and the Foot Locker and the strip mall are gone; the Winn Dixie down the street is the only grocery store for miles. Roby says the butter that used to sell for 65 cents is now going for $1.50. It's harder each month to make his $623 dollar check from Social Security stretch.

So on this day, he sits with his neighbors, pondering the economics of Katrina. Up the street, the McDonald's is making a supply-and-demand killing. Next door, his neighbor Eula Mosley wants to make beans and gumbo but can't. The fire alarm would go off in her trailer.

Each one of them had seemingly more comfortable situations elsewhere. Mosley initially joined her family in Minnesota after Katrina, but found her way back. "It's too cold up there, baby," she says.

Roby returned from Colorado, because this, the mosquitoes and the $1.50 butter, is home.

Roby tried to wait out the storm at an uncle's house in Bullard, then the levees broke and the water crept up to the last step.

"You're sweating to death, trying to survive, trying to get out of there," he says. "You had fishes floating in the house and everything. That's when it was time to go. It was time to go."

They found a boat, then a friend with a truck, and kept going. Desperate friends tried to hitch a ride, but there was no room. They kept going.

Cars and semis zoom by now, but Roby doesn't raise his voice. The noise, in some ways, is calming. It helps block the memories.

"Right now, it's the little things that are killing you," he says. "My light bill is like 187 dollars, plus I'm trying to get a job. With that and a water bill, it's tough to buy clothes. What am I supposed to do? You don't try to do nothing wrong, but it's hard to survive.

"I'm not looking for handouts or nothing like that. After Katrina … Man, it's hard out here."

C. David Baker is a big man, a 6-foot-9, 300-plus pound pitchman who's built like an offensive tackle and spins stories like an old campfire leader.

Give him a half hour, and a good seat, and the Arena League's commissioner will tell you about how he'd just moved to New York in the months before 9/11, how he was a man in late-40s at the time, alone in his apartment, who was scared. He'll say that the NFL and college football games after that, with the singing and flag-waving, were therapeutic, almost like going to church with 60,000 friends.

He'll tell you that he rarely takes a vacation, but was in Hawaii in late August 2005 when Katrina hit. He turned on CNN, and barely moved for days.

"I think," Baker says, "this is one of the best stories out there."

He knows the Arena League can't do what the Saints and the NFL did for New Orleans, lift a city that is thriving and dying at the same time, pull them together for one day a week.

But three hours might do. When the New Orleans VooDoo, one of the most popular teams in the Arena League, asked to suspend operations for a year after Katrina, Baker vowed to bring the ArenaBowl to town as soon as it was feasible. All 17,000 tickets for the game were snatched up weeks ago, making it the event's first sellout at a neutral site.

"I don't know if pride is the word," Baker says, "as much as it's a feeling of fulfillment. I think we're doing just what we should do, and frankly, what every American should do. Because right now, I think it's going to take a long time for the job to be completed. But we can do our part."

The Arena League is sort of a hopped-up version of the NFL on caffeine, with a padded surface, a 50-yard field, and massive scoring. Even Tom Benson, who owns both the Saints and VooDoo, has loosened up in the Arena League.

Baker likes to tell the story about when Benson invited him to watch a game in his suite. The commish politely declined because he likes to sit with the fans. Southern hospitality got the better of Benson, who sat in the crowd with Baker.

Years later, Benson is a regular in the front row of the stands.

"I think that's one of the neatest things I've ever seen," Baker says. "Here's a guy in his mid- to-late 70s who's out there with the fans learning something, and they're bonding together."

It's not the Saints, but Baker knows how important the VooDoo is to New Orleans. One more story -- after Katrina, Baker was at a Gatorade party when he saw Archie Manning. They'd never met before.
Manning introduced himself, then told Baker, "I just came over to tell you how important it is for New Orleans for the VooDoo to come back."

"It meant a lot to me," Baker says. "There were times when I'm working on this that those words echoed with me."

Progress, these days, can be measured sometimes by empty spaces.

Cindy and Ron Morgan waited a year to see this, to walk outside their trailer to an empty lot. Before they could rebuild, they had to demolish their house. Like many other homeowners in New Orleans, they were stalled by money that didn't come and massive bureaucratic tape.

About a month ago, Crescent Rising came along and offered free demolition. The program is part of the Reggie White Foundation. White wasn't from New Orleans, but developed an affection for the city when his Green Bay Packers won a Super Bowl there in 1997.

With White's widow Sara watching, the Morgan house became the program's first demolition. What took nearly two years of phone calls and haggling with the city was done in two weeks by White's foundation. Sports, in some ways, has succeeded where politics have failed.

"I'm standing in the lot, and I didn't believe it," Ron says. "So I took pictures."

They raised their boys in that house, and watched Saints' games and countless Saints' losses. The boys are men now, and their pictures needed someplace to go. They hang on the refrigerator in the trailer.

Cindy walks outside, near the bricks, which used to hold their old house together. These are going in the new one, she says. How can you start a future without part of the past?

"It makes me feel more comfortable in staying," she says. "It gives me hope, I guess."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.