basketball

In New Orleans, the Final Four is a reason for a much-needed party

Update: Kansas beat the UN to win NCAA Championship.

NEW ORLEANS – When he wrote about trusting the kindness of strangers, the city’s most famous playwright probably did not anticipate that the Carolingians and conventions would sneak the dark Roux Gumbo to Herbsaint.

But then again, Tennessee Williams might not have been able to conjure up the locks his adopted New Orleans suffered over the past two years – and welcome the arrival of this better-than-fiction Final Four to the strangers who the city brings.

Rarely in sports history has there been a convergence of a contest with the hype of the Duke-North Carolina showdown on Saturday, and a guest city that so desperately needs the buzz of the game of the century, and revenue that comes with it.

Since Joe Burrow led Louisiana State to the college football title at the Superdome in January 2020 and Louisians celebrated Mardi Gras a month later – back-to-back civic holidays for that state – New Orleans has plunged into a dark winter .

The coronavirus pandemic came here early and was bad; then last year it was Hurricane Ida, which still left blue lines where roofs should be; Crime has consumed many residents, thanks to a series of gruesome carjackings; and last week, as if to propose the only plague that was still hit was a descent of locusts, a tornado struck, 150 houses damaged.

Less visible but equally threatened to the psyche and economy of the city was what did not happen – the canceled concerts, conventions and festivals in a place that more than any other destination this side of Las Vegas depends on visitors. In 2020, the Superdome Stadium Authority lost over $ 90 million in event and tax revenue.

The tranquility and emptiness were destroyed in a community, so that not only was the noise of the jazz club trumpeter and Bourbon Street reveler used, but also the lower decibel trunge of conference participants and tram riders, the st.

“Covid has really closed our world,” said Kermit Ruffins, the New Orleans trumpeter and club owner.

Mr. Ruffins, who plays every Tuesday and Sunday in his mother-in-law’s lounge, has suffered more than most here. The pandemic drained his two sources of income: he lost his own appearances as well as clients in his club. This month, his pregnant girlfriend was hit by a streak (she and her baby are OK).

Despite his problems, Mr Ruffins said he was optimistic. “We can feel it, since Mardi Gras it just feels like we’re back,” he said.

Some things about the Saints lose irritating New Orleanians more than foreigners patronizing them for their “resilience” – so cliché that it is sometimes referred to as “the R word” here – but it’s hard to miss the guarded hope that maybe, just maybe, spring has finally arrived.

It was a sunny Mardi Gras, with tourists arriving in just below prepandemic numbers, immediately followed by a heavily attended, first New Orleans book festival that brought the “Today” show to town.

But those were perhaps the gumbo before the main event – what ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale said in an SMS was the biggest college basketball game since the 1979 clash between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State and Larry Bird’s Indiana State established “the excitement of March Madness “.

In a city that celebrates its excesses and appetite, it is fitting to organize an event so superlative.

New Orleanians, however, see the first tournament clash between Tobacco Road rivals, and what could be Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last game, through a crucial local objective.

“It’s the first big, good news attention we’ve received since January 13, 2020,” said James Carville, the famed Democratic strategist, pointing to the date of his beloved LSU Tigers’ college football title triumph. “This is a chance for the country to know New Orleans again.”

For those who want to do this personally, it will not be cheap.

Most nonstop flights to New Orleans this weekend were sold out, and many connections were over $ 1,000. Housing was scarce; the only remaining Marriott property with rooms for Friday and Saturday nights was an AC hotel for $ 1,458 per night. And tickets for Saturday’s matchup were some of the most expensive in the tournament’s history: over $ 4,000 per seat on StubHub for everything in the bottom bowl where the game can be viewed without the aid of a giant video screen.

The highly regarded graduates of Kansas, Villanova and in particular, Duke and UNC are a welcome addition to restaurateurs, hoteliers and local chefs.

“Mardi Gras is one thing, but this is reaching another visitor, there are CEOs and business people,” said Anne Milling, a pillar of the New Orleans Philanthropic Community. “This is our bread and butter, and I’ll tell you what, we welcome everyone like family.”

It’s one of the enduring irony of this city, where the virtues and vices of Europe, the Caribbean and the Deep South all seem to converge: It can handle big events like any city in the world, but it struggles with basic services. , such as garbage pickup for residents.

“We can not synchronize the lights on Canal Street, but we can organize the most iconic events in the sport,” said Jeff Duncan, the carefully read sports columnist for The Times-Picayune.

Other event cities have similar weather and beaches that New Orleans lacks, to say nothing of more flights and fewer homicides per capita – but the big players are always coming back.

“When you cover a Super Bowl here, you feel it on every street and in every neighborhood,” Mr. Duncan said. “You do not have the same immersive feeling in Los Angeles or even Miami. The footprint of the city is so compact.

You get off the plane, said Doug Thornton, who helps operate the superdome, “and come into the French Quarter and you’re surrounded by 30,000 other people wearing their team jerseys and drinking hurricanes.”

New Orleans was the site of 10 Super Bowls (second only to Miami), many college football title games, a few WrestleManias and a Papal visit.

But it had its best luck with college basketball.

It hosted the first Final Four in a dome. That was in 1982, when Michael Jordan’s basket lifted the UNC to a national title – so long before the welcome brochure found that some New Orleans restaurants demanded coats and ties, while many “men allowed jackets or casual suits. they carry. “

More than any sport, however, this is a city focused on fun.

“New Orleans is ready for any kind of party,” said Mr. Ruffins, noting that he has already met visitors here for Jazz Fest, the next big event.

What makes it such an attractive destination – over beignets, pearls and drinks – is the sense of place here, the enduring and reliable culture that visitors know and demand from memory. So many out-of-town laughs when one mentions New Orleans because it reminds them of their own visits here and makes them happy to come back.

It’s the kind of city where, as the author and native boy Walter Isaacson put it in another context, one invites 90 people to an event and the 100 come.

Meetings are, of course, the food of the economy. But they also represent the joy of the city. And not just for tourists.

There are Mardi Gras, Final Fours and Super Bowls, of course. But this place also has smaller businesses whose absences during Covid-19 were so painful: the buses of college kids coming to town for fraternity formalities; the impromptu stop at the Creole Gumbo Festival in Tremé or just a night out with friends for bourbon; red sauces and garlic with a side of oysters in Mosca’s, the legendary boer-only common whole Mississippi River.

Nina Compton, a local restaurateur whose popular meals were booked for the weekend, said the ups and downs of covid life were “mentally controllable”, with the pivot for takeout followed by the need for outdoor dining and then the mandated vaccination card The control.

But Ms Compton said it was not just the restaurant business that was excited to get back to normal here – it was all New Orleanian.

“We really haven’t had that in two years,” she said of the lively, sweaty and sweet way of this town. “We need it, we live for it.”

To borrow another regional term, one long before the time of Tennessee Williams, means more here.

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