There's a man from New Orleans who's been on my mind for more than two years now, a friendly gent who was a quintessential caricature of what you'd think a Bayou boy would be.
He drove a mean swamp boat, manuevering the floating blowdryer through the canals in the pre-Katrina days and telling a mean story at the same time. He educated tourists, made them laugh with his wit, thick accent and hometown charm. I've always wondered if he made it. I'll probably never know.
The last time I was here was just weeks before the hurricane hit, as my wife and I did the New Orleans vacation during that summer and even ventured up toward Biloxi and the Mississippi coastline. I have hours of surreal home video footage, the utopian before to what became a hellish thereafter. So needless to say, I was very curious to see how the region was bouncing back as the Kings headed this way to open their campaign.
What I've realized, though, is that looks can be deceiving. I've been in the city for nearly 32 hours now, and it looks as if nothing ever happened. The French Quarter is hopping like always, the Riverwalk is in working order, and the same mix of culture and cuisine seems to have survived. A look at the front page of the local paper, however, tells a different story about the sort of surrounding areas where I met the swamp man.
* "La. OKs first 75 'Katrina Cottages," - in essence, the feds are funding housing for Katrina victims as if this tragedy happened last month. And if the obvious delay doesn't get you wondering, the fact that only military personnel can stay there surely will.
* "Aid for condos, mobile homes lags," - Self-explanatory.
* "Trailer sites face deadline in Jeff," - The locations of Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers having already been trimmed from 13 to six in the region, there's a Nov. 1 deadline to get all the trailers out. Even if there are people inside. Now in all fairness, a FEMA spokeswoman says they won't leave folks homeless for a second time but it's remarkable how the river communities still appear dependant on this sort of temporary housing.
With all that in mind, the return of the New Orleans Hornets is certainly a positive but seems to have all the impact of a President Bush apology. The locals are more excited about the All-Star game in February, with the obvious windfall that should come from that event much-needed. But as far as the Hornets, they had some 2,000 tickets available for the season opener as of today. As one local told me, "Nobody I know is too excited about it."
There were about 2,500 fans at a Hornets rally on Monday, and the good-will continued at a "NBA Cares" event at the city's Audobon aquarium a day later. If nothing else, league commissioner David Stern should be glad Chris Paul landed with this franchise. The Hornets' point guard has a way with words, and his speech to a group of 60 local students at the aquarium was one of sincerity and appreciation. At the end, he couldn't help but throw in a competitive word or two while sharing the room with the entire Kings team.
"Come out and support us (on Wednesday)," he said. "Come see us beat these guys."
Kevin Martin said a few nice words, too, and the event seemed to make the kids happy. Players split up in groups to read books and discuss the lessons therein. It was happy go lucky in every way. On the surface, anyway.
- Sam Amick