Another huge lift for the Big Easy

NEW ORLEANS, La. - As you drive on Highway 10 from Louie Armstrong Airport, and as you get closer to downtown, you start to see remnants of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated this city not so long ago.

You see buildings boarded up in a state of disrepair from the highway. You see the damage done in the once-glitzy French Quarter where many of the buildings are still boarded up and have never re-opened.

You also see plenty of hotels, restaurants and businessess that are trying to make a comeback.

Service help has been hard to come by according to reports, and some eating establishments don't stay open as long as they did in the pre-Katrina days.

The city is recovering, but it's been slow, expensive and certainly a painful process.

Bill Curl, media coordinator for the Louisiana Superdome, has been through it all. He admits to leaving the area for two years, but he came running back because of the passion he has for the Big Easy.

Curl said there is a misconception about the population.

"They are saying that only half of the people have returned, but those numbers are based on the population of the downtown area," he said. "It doesn't take into consideration the suburbs. The total population of the area was 1.1 million, and now it is somewhere around 900,000.

"Certainly we're not back, but we're not absolutely slaughtered. Some parts of the city are returning (and being rebuilt), and some may never be. People with a passion for the city are fighting to bring it back."

Playing a big role in the city's comeback according to Curl are the talented people - the musicians, the chefs and the artists, who made the city a haven for tourists.

Curl named Harry Connick Jr. and actress Angela Jolie who have been instrumental in the city's rebirth.

Sports has played a huge role in that comeback with the success of the New Orleans Saints this past year, which galvanized the city.

"We've had more success than we did before Katrina," Curl said. "The return of the Saints means more to us than any other NFL city because we rely on tourism."

It's a city that when Reggie Bush signed his first contract, sold $15,000 Reggie Bush T-shirts.

Curl said it's (tourism) critical to the city's success, and he hopes that maybe fans watching teams in new Orleans play on TV, might stop putting off that trip to the Big Easy.

The Big Easy gets another big lift this week by hosting first and second-round games at New Orleans Arena, which is located just a walkway apart from the Louisiana Superdome, the site of four previous Final Fours. The arena seats approximately 18,000, which is just right.

"It's a good thing," Curl said. "It's a better fit in the arena. For the Final Four, you want 40, 50 or 60,000 fans in there (dome stadium) to have that kind of experience. For a first or second-round game, you don't need 60,000."

The Louisiana Superdome has played host to four Final Fours - 1982, 1987, 1993 and 2003. It has also hosted four regionals, too. The first three title weekends drew more than 179,000 fans.

One thing is certain, the Big Easy has been great for the NCAA. Some of the best championship games in the history of the NCAA were played in the Superdome, and obviousy New Orleans officials are hoping this year's regional event is a good one.

Eight of the 12 Final Four games, including semifinal action, have been settled by six points or less.

Curl remembers the first time New Orleans tried to lure the NCAA there.

"The role New Orleans has played in NCAA men's basketball goes back to 1978," Curl said. "When we were bidding for the Final Four, there was so much being written we had to be careful how people perceived the Superdome. We were talking about moving stands to one side or another. "

The trouble with mega-arenas like the Astrodome and Superdome is that the basketball floor was being put in the middle of the arena, and there are some seats far from the action.

"Wayne Duke (former NCAA honcho and Big Ten commissioner) came in and looked at the seats on the opposite side of the court and said you could see the court from there," Curl said. "That's when they decided to scale the tickets (different prices for different areas) for the first time."

Tickets were priced at $18 apiece for the seats that were approximately 150 feet away from the floor.

Television interviewers, including the CBS telecast of the Final Four, visited the most distant seats. The general response was the fans were a long way from courtside, but they were pleased just to have the opportunity to attend the championships.

New Orleans was the trendsetter. Since then, the NCAA has played title games in the old Seattle Kingdome, Indianapolis' RCA Dome, Atlanta's Georgia Dome, San Antonio's Alamodome and the Hubert Humphery Metrodome in Minnesota. Domed stadiums will host NCAA championship games through 2010.

The summer following New Orleans first time hosting the championship, the Division I committee was considering sites for the 1987 Final Four. The National Association of Basketball Coaches recommended that the mega-arenas should be avoided the previous year, expressing concerns about the intimacy of the arenas.

In the 1982 meeting, former Michigan State coach Judd Heathcote, representing the NABC, offered an enthusiastic endorsement of the Superdome.

According to reports, Heathcote related a personal experience while walking down Bourbon Street during the Final Four. He encountered six fans in University of Minnesota gear.

"Why are you here?," he asked. "Minnesota isn't in the Final Four."

Their response was this was the first time they had been able to get tickets to the championships, and they were having a great time in New Orleans.

The committee opted to return to the Superdome in 1987 by a unanimous vote.

Let's look at those tightly contested games here in New Orleans:

• In 1982 before a crowd of 61,612, Michael Jordan's jump shot gave North Carolina a 63-62 win over Georgetown after Georgetown had taken a 62-61 lead.

The win was sealed when Fred Brown threw a pass that was intercepted by MVP James Worthy as time ran out.

It was the first NCAA title for Dean Smith. The game proved that NCAA basketball could be played in a football stadium.

• In 1987, Indiana's Keith Smart scored from the baseline to give the Bobby Knight-coached Hoosiers a 74-73 win over Syracuse. Smart finished with 20

points. A record crowd of 64,959 watched the game.

• This was the game where Michigan's Chris Webber thought the Wolverines still had a timeout left. North Carolina had a two-point lead at the time, and Chris Williams' two free throws sealed Carolina's 77-71 win.

Williams finished with 25 points and was the game's MVP. Before the 1992-93 season began, Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith had his players put photos of the Superdome in their lockers to remind them of their ultimate goal: to win the title in the Dome.

• In 2003, with the block heard around the world, sophomore Hakim Warrick swatted away a Jayhawk three-point attempt with 1.5 seconds left in the game to propel Syracuse into its first national championship in basketball, 81-78. Most Outstanding Player Carmelo Anthony contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds for Coach Jim Boeheim's winners.

That's the past. What's ahead for New Orleans?

The city also will host the annual New Orleans Bowl, Sugar Bowl and next season's BCS championship game.

Three big football games, and all within just a few weeks.

And, the New Orleans Arena will play host to next year's All-Star game in February. Not only does the on-the-court production draw a lot of fans, but the NBA all-star game is also a big thing socially. It will put milllions into the city's coffers.

I don't know any city that couldn't use a few million bucks.


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