November 29, 1993|By ANDREI CODRESCU

New Orleans. -- First, Michael Jordan retired. Then Spuds McKenzie died. The hoop star and the beer-drinking mutt left millions bereft.

I know how the masses feel. When I was living in Baltimore I woke up one morning to find the football team missing. Turns out the Baltimore Colts, as those perennial losers were then called, had packed in the middle of the night and skipped town. The disoriented population was too stunned to even riot, though there were many calls to set fire to City Hall.

Let's face it; we need our package-deal TV heroes more then they need us. Everybody knows it's all hype but we get all wrapped up anyway. Personally, every time I go to the Superdome I thank the gods that the 60,000 delirious mob members stomping their feet are calling for the football and not for the heads of Jews. Anything that will keep them occupied is A-OK by me.

Things are changing quickly in American cities; aliens arriving every day, neighborhoods turning into war zones at night, the schools pouring out illiterates, people living in cardboard boxes. Only the team transcends conditions, even if it's just a clever sales pitch and everyone knows it.

And then there are the super-heroes, Michael and Spuds, who are bigger than the localities: They are the nation. They live on TV, permanent as programming. When they leave us, it's like being alone for a moment with all the scary complexities of real life. The roar dies down and you hear the president calling for health-care revolution, Congress bickering and faintly, the roar of cannons in Bosnia and land mines in Somalia. You'd give anything to hear Spuds barking again. Andrei Codrescu is editor of ''Exquisite Corpse.''

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