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New Orleans energized by Saints picking Bush

NEW ORLEANS -- For a moment, Reggie Bush wasn't sure what to
make of the rock-star ovation he got when he walked through the
restaurant door.

"As soon as I got in there, there was a bunch of fans screaming
and yelling. I thought it was staged," Bush said Sunday during a
television interview at the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic, recalling
his visit a night earlier to one of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's
restaurants. "It's been great. Everyone I've run into has welcomed
me. People here are so nice."

A few blocks away, Saints spokesman Greg Bensel was eating with
a friend at the four-star Windsor Court hotel when he overheard
chatter about Bush at a table behind him. He turned to see about a
dozen people making a toast to the new Saints running back.

"And this is the Windsor Court. This isn't a sports bar. There
was no TV on, no reference to Reggie anywhere," Bensel said.

Bush couldn't go anywhere without hearing chants of "Reggie!
Reggie!" It even happened when he stepped out at the golf
tournament in full view of fans surrounding the 18th green, who
quickly recognized him and began the chant as a couple golfers were
preparing to putt out.

"There's always excitement about a No. 1 pick, but this is a
little different," said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who
dined out with Bush Saturday night. "People chanting spontaneously
... it was a little overwhelming how excited people were."

Recall the images of those discarded refrigerators on the
sidewalk after Hurricane Katrina -- the ones emanating that
throat-stinging stench of maggot-ridden rot, the outside
spray-painted with the warning, "Tom Benson inside."

Remember when fans here feared Benson, the longtime Saints
owner, was about to abandon them for San Antonio in this historic
city's worst moment?

Call it a misunderstanding. All has been forgiven, now that Bush
mania is taking hold.

Benson got the reception of a conquering hero -- high-fives
aplenty -- when he ventured into a crowd of die-hard fans attending
festivities outside the team's suburban New Orleans headquarters
during NFL draft weekend.

And the closest thing to Saints-related graffiti to be seen was
a handwritten "Bush" on the back of a Saints shirt worn by
someone milling around at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage
Festival on Saturday, only hours after the Saints made their first
pick.

"The Superdome will sell out," predicted fan Art Sigur, a
former St. Bernard Parish resident whose home was ruined during the
storm. "It takes a lot to kill our spirit. Tom Benson almost did
it right after the hurricane."

"We love him now, though," interjected fellow fan Claude
Maher.

New Orleans was a small NFL market before the storm -- even
smaller now -- but predictions of sellouts don't appear far-fetched.

The Saints ticket office was open during draft weekend. It was
fully staffed and everyone was busy all day taking orders, said
Mike Stanfield, Saints vice president of ticket and suite sales.

"It was big -- really big," Stanfield said of weekend season
ticket sales, although he didn't provide specifics. Single game
tickets won't go on sale until later this year, "if there are any
single game tickets left," he said.

Even before the draft, Saints executive Rita Benson LeBlanc, the
owner's granddaughter, said sales were on pace with 2003, when the
Saints set a franchise record for season tickets sold with about
54,000.

The team's commitment to return to New Orleans and play a full
regular-season schedule in a repaired Superdome, combined with the
free-agent signing of quarterback Drew Brees, already had generated
excitement.

If everyone is healthy, the Saints will also line up running
back Deuce McAllister and receivers Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth
on offense. The addition of Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner,
gives New Orleans an explosive and dynamic player who can run,
receive and return kicks with such scintillating speed and agility
that many believe could make him the best player in a generation.

The last time the Saints drafted second overall, they took
quarterback Archie Manning, whose family now has the status of de
facto royalty in New Orleans.

"Obviously, he's a legend out here," said Bush, who said he
has met the elder Manning. "Hopefully, I can do the same."