With an excess of sin and sports, New Orleans always left us stuffed


September 05, 2005|By CHUCK CULPEPPER

WE'VE ALWAYS needed an isthmus of sin to offset the tedium of existence or even the desolation of piety, and New Orleans has provided and provided without apology, bless it.

Its reign as the ideal site for big-time sports events has fit snugly, what with big-time sports events, like New Orleans, providing such fertile study of sin. To us, New Orleans has beckoned.

You want to hold a teeming monument to human corruption and give it a cute little name such as "Final Four"? Great. Come here. It'll fit right in.

You want to simulate Greece and Rome with a bacchanal of gluttony loosely tethered to a "Super Bowl"? Give me your tired, your poor, your bored masses yearning to explore excess free of nosy neighbors.

The Sugar Bowl? We do know about calories.

So both in New Orleans and from New Orleans by TV, we've wound up seeing some sights. We've seen a neophyte Super Bowl quarterback named Tom Brady steer the Patriots frenetically downfield in the waning seconds against the Rams. We've seen Michael Vick leave perfectly fleet Florida State defenders strewn across the Superdome rug like carcasses. We've seen Chris Webber frantically call timeout when the University of Michigan didn't have any left.

We've seen Desmond Howard run a kickoff past Bill Parcells to the delight of Wisconsinites with cheese wedges on their heads, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice performing in "Stomp" (of Denver), Hank Stram yelling on the sideline while Otis Taylor traveled up the sideline.

John Thompson hugged Fred Brown in New Orleans. The great, great Chicago Bears carried off two coaches on shoulders in New Orleans (Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan). From a New Orleans baseline, Keith Smart levitated to lend Bob Knight a third national title.

Chuck Noll won his first Super Bowl in New Orleans. Joe Paterno finally snared that first national title in New Orleans. Dean Smith and Tom Landry won two titles each, all four in New Orleans.

Ever surreal, New Orleans one night in 2003 suddenly featured a huggable geek named Jim Boeheim, arms raised. He actually had won the whole thing.

An Alabama defensive front hardened four times to Penn State from near the goal line in New Orleans. An LSU defensive end (Marcus Spears) made big din with a big interception against Oklahoma in New Orleans. Notre Dame and Alabama played a 24-23 New Year's Eve classic that insulted neither, freshman Herschel Walker gained 150 Sugar Bowl yards for champion Georgia, and an Alabama defensive back (George Teague) unforgettably chased down a runaway Miami receiver (Lamar Smith) seemingly all the way across New Orleans.

The Superdome, so hauntingly decrepit as a national beacon of distress this bygone week, once stood as a national beacon of hope with a gigantic yellow ribbon on a Super Bowl Sunday. The Tehran hostages had come home.

The city had its own magically quirky lore. A last-second field goal kicked with half a foot once soared into the New Orleans sky - up, up, up - until gravity yanked it down barely over the Tulane Stadium uprights, and even the officials had trouble believing the Saints' Tom Dempsey had just hit from 63 yards to win a game, 19-17, on Nov. 8, 1970.

On Super Bowl Sunday morning 2002 at Cafe du Monde, that whole bustling tourist haven suddenly rose impromptu, beignet powder on its faces, to forcefully applaud a passerby. You had to crane to see whom. Rudy Giuliani.

That stands out because, for as much as we saw on fields and courts, New Orleans has always majored in intemperate sidelights. You might sit in a quiet, rented apartment when suddenly a rambunctious parade blew by for no apparent reason except Mardi Gras lying only four weeks away. You might read unspeakably bizarre crime stories in the Times-Picayune Metro section. Visiting hicks might walk alongside homestanding transvestites. You'd lose wee hours in a dark place with no clocks or walk in a throng feeling genuinely scared.

The throng contained both inebriated Florida fans and inebriated Florida State fans.

Only in New Orleans would a cabdriver's name become absolutely unforgettable because he took you on the side-roads tour from the airport. "You see that hotel over there?" Cleveland Mitchell said in January 1997. "That's where they found the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart," the words "with a prostitute" going without saying.

All that indulgence, all those nights, all that calorific glory, all that stuff your silly parents had warned you against doing, then, suddenly, a week of devastating TV footage and untold national embarrassment, and we revelers might realize what we did all along.

We borrowed a city from residents always willing to lend it and from residents with no say in the matter, and we ran amok, interlopers grabbing life, ignorant of so many things such as an aching reliance upon levees.

Chuck Culpepper is a columnist for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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