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August 28, 2009 4:06 PM

Saints, Hornets symbolize New Orleans’ comeback

By LES EAST

It’s hard not to notice the irony of the New Orleans Saints playing a preseason game in Oakland this particular weekend.

The last time the Saints played a preseason game in Oakland, they didn’t make it back to the New Orleans for more than four months. They, and the city, haven’t been the same since.

It was four years ago this weekend that the Saints left early for their game against the Raiders because a hurricane named Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans. By the time the game had been played, three levees around New Orleans had failed and wind and water had severely damaged the Superdome.

Despite “a heck of a job” by FEMA, New Orleans was pretty much in ruins.

The Saints were stranded on the West Coast briefly before setting up shop in San Antonio, where they would wind up playing four of their “home games.” The first “home game” was played in the Meadowlands against the Giants. The other three were played on the LSU campus, 90 miles from the ailing Superdome.

It was possible the Saints and New Orleans’ other major professional franchise, the Hornets, who relocated to Oklahoma City, would never play another game in the Crescent City.

Well, four years later, both franchises are much healthier than they were before the storm, and have recovered much faster than the city itself.

Saints owner Tom Benson seriously flirted with the possibility of permanently relocating to San Antonio before then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue dragged him, practically kicking and screaming, back to the city where he was born.

NBA Commissioner David Stern had to act similarly with Hornets owner George Shinn, who was only slightly less reluctant than Benson to return.

I wonder if each has thought to thank their benefactor. Probably not.

Remarkably, in their first 12 months back in New Orleans, the Saints hired Sean Payton as head coach, signed Drew Brees, drafted Reggie Bush and Marques Colston, sold out on season tickets for the first time, returned to the Superdome, which was rebuilt faster than the team, which was 3-13 a year earlier, won the NFC South, and advanced to the
NFC Championship for the first time.

The Hornets didn’t make it back to New Orleans full-time until a year later because the repopulating city wasn’t quite up to handling both franchises just yet. The basketball team’s 2007-08 season was a lot like the football team’s 2006 season.

Chris Paul, who had been a rookie No. 1 draft choice who barely got a glimpse of pre-K New Orleans before it was changed forever, blossomed into an MVP finalist, the team won a franchise-record 56 games, captured its first division title, prevailed in a best-of-seven series for the first time, and came within one victory of the Western Conference finals.

(Speaking of changes, an ancillary one is that Seattle’s NBA franchise has relocated to Oklahoma City, something that almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if the Hornets’ relocation hadn’t given OKC the opportunity to show it could support NBA basketball.)

Back to New Orleans. Since those magical runs, the Saints and Hornets have been a little less magical, but both remain playoff contenders and borderline championship contenders. Both are more firmly entrenched in New Orleans than ever before.

The Saints, who have tens of thousands of names on a list on people who want to buy season tickets, and the state of Louisiana recently agreed on a new lease that will keep the team in New Orleans for 17 more seasons. The Super Bowl returns to New Orleans in 2013, for the first time since 2001.

The Hornets, who struggled at the box office when they first returned, have easily surpassed attendance benchmarks that would have allowed them to void their lease if they had not been reached.

Unfortunately, the overall recovery is on a slower pace than that of the two franchises, but the city and the region are moving forward, and the stability and competitiveness of the two franchises make life a little more enjoyable as the rebuilding continues.

The Superdome was a symbol of New Orleans’ status as a world-class sporting community and tourist destination. In 2005, it became a symbol of the devastation to the city.

It has since become a symbol of the city’s revival, as have the Saints and Hornets. Sports franchises are major components of cities’ identities, and rarely has that been demonstrated more clearly than in New Orleans post-K.

The fourth anniversary of this epic man-made disaster (not natural disaster because nearly all of the really bad stuff happened, not because of Katrina, but because of the failure of the federal government-built and maintained levees), passes as the Gulf of Mexico is unusually calm for late August (knock on wood).

So, now is a good time for us to note the potential that sports has to unify a community and provide much-needed catharsis from much weightier issues. Thanks, Saints. Thanks, Hornets.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t recognize that it’s also a good time to acknowledge the countless good people in countless communities around the United States, and the world, really, whose generosity and caring have been indispensable in getting New Orleans back to where it is.

Most of all, thank you.

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