Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Bush that saved New Orleans

"I'm probably going get in a whole bunch of trouble" said Ray Nagin, New Orleans' mayor in an interview from the besieged city after hurricane Katrina. "We authorized 8 billion dollars to get to Iraq lickety-quick. After 9/11, we gave our president unprecedented powers lickety-quick to take care of New York and other places…You mean to tel mw that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can't figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need? Come on, man".

"You know, I'm not one of those drug addicts. I am thinking very clearly…I don't know whether it's the president's problem, but somebody needs to get their asses on a plane and figure it out right now…I don't want to see anybody do anymore goddamn press conferences…

"Don't tell me 40 thousands people are coming here. They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country", Nagin went on and on with the blunt interview, in which he heavily criticize President George W. Bush, seeing the apocalyptic sights of the city whirl pooled by water and looters.
"I am just – I'm at a point now where it don't matter", he broke down in the end, "People are dying. They don't have home. They don't have jobs. The city of New Orleans will never be the same in this time".

A year after this overwhelming interview, It's hard to say New Orleans recovered. The fun lovin' city, the corrupted night life capitol of the US, was deserted and stayed behind with half of its citizens gone. Those who stayed are trying to resurrect their life after the horrendous destruction that the storm left behind.

Now, when melancholy and sadness all around, it seems only one thing left giving hope to the local residents – Mr Bush. No, not the hated president, god forbid...but a football player - 21 years old, Reggie Bush, whom came to the 'Big Easy' as a messiah on a white Hamer and brought a new optimistic hype with him. Something bigger than sports. Something that might pull the city from the mud she is stuck in. in every way.

They say that the Southern Louisiana's swamps is a breeding nest for mosquitoes, alligators and football players. There are a lot of football stars growing up in the area, but when it comes to the local NFL team, the New Orleans Saints, the fans community knew only disappointments. Since it was established 40 years ago, the Saints made themselves a name of chronic no-luck losers that always fails in most critical time, even if they can't be accountable for it.

Once upon of time, the local voodoo shamans claimed that the source for the failures is in the course of the deads, buried so they say under the giant Superdome. Now, when the graves are flooded and the whole city became one huge cemetery, there is no use in metaphysic explanations for the devastation of the Saints during 2005. for once, it is fully expectable.

The Saints did manage to evacuate in time in the eve of the storm, leaving to San Antonio, but left their property, heart and mind in their New Orleans' homes and in the Superdome, which became a giant shelter for the thousands of refugee, and was torn apart inside-out. For a moment it seemed as if they left their loyal fans forever.

It didn't felt that way because of the players and coaching staff, that did all they can as refugees in Texas, under impossible conditions, to give the residents a light sense of normal life. Something to look forward to, beyond the personal recovery of each and every one of them. The lack of confidence was caused because of owner Tom Benson.

The 79 years old automobile dealer, whom bought the team in 1985, signaled in the last couple of years about his intentions to take his players, bag the equipment, and leave to another city – bigger and with a better media and commercial potential. Hurricane Katrina was a one time opportunity to do it. The team left to San Antonio because of the circumstance, but if it was up to Benson, it might as well stayed there.

A flirt with San Antonio's mayor and public statements indicating disconnecting from the city, brought the biggest break of trust between Benson and New Orleansians: Nagin opened his big mouth again and demanded that the billionaire will bring the team back to the city, but to stay away from its municipal borders. The residents started their own bizarre custom and sprayed harsh slogans on furniture and refrigerators that they got out of their houses.

Benson became a persona non grate in Louisiana, but the NFL board of directors forced him back to city, since deserting it in its worst time could have serious implications of the image of the league as a whole. The Saints marched back home this year, but the fans didn't, they developed too much of a deserting anxiety. Few of those who stayed purchased season tickets for 2006. Most of them preferred to buy a Benson's voodoo puppet from the closest witch shop, so they can put pins in it.

For his good fortune of the most hated man in the south-east, it's not the hell spirits that decide his destiny. The last draft brought New Orleans a messiah in Reggie Bush. The 29th of April will be remembered as one of the most important days in Saints history. USC star, one of the best college football players of all times, fell in the hands of the Saints against all odds. Now, when the sun is flickering again through the heavy clouds that covered it, you can say it laughing out cloud that something good came out from devastation.

It's been two years that Bush is mentioned as one of the most heralded sportsman in the US. After his first year in the LA campus, it was obvious he was a unique talent. An un-human athlete with exceptional field vision. One of a kind. As in the case of Lebron James in basketball, it was well known that Bush will be a future first draft pick. After he shattered so many NCAA records, won to championship as a Trojan and a lot of personal trophies (one of them, the luxuries Heisman Trophy), there were speculations surfing up that the Houston Texans started losing games intentionally so they can have the worst record in the NFL, which means gaining the first draft pick, which means getting Reggie Bush.

But even Bush, which is known for his sharp awareness and his great instincts, couldn't predict the dramatic turn of event come draft day. The negotiations with the Texans was getting into a dead end, because of the unprecedented financial demands of his agents. In Houston's ground control, they were saying: "We have a problem", and turn to their plan B, a totally unexpected scenario: The Texans went for NC State's defensive end, Mario Williams, that didn't ask as much.

They couldn't believe it in New Orleans, but picked Bush second without hesitating. Shocked sports journalists all over the US were overwhelmed as well – It reminded them of the spooky decision the Portland Trail Blazers made in the 1984 NBA draft, picking Sam Bowie second, favoring him more than Michael Jordan.

Well...Reggie Bush is not Michal Jordan, and won't be like him. Basketball is a game of stars with international exposure, unlike football – the ultimate team sports, which has troubles gaining popularity overseas. So it happened that Bush found himself in New Orleans – a modest media market of 250 thousands people, that rediscovered their team. With the news about picking Bush, the fans flooded the ticket offices. 55 thousands season tickets were sold in only a month – a new record. Really astonishing, considering the dwindling of the city population in the last year.

In few hours Bush became the most popular celebrity in the city and during his first visit there, he got chanted everywhere he went. Even the cynical Saints fans, whom maintained their apathy, when Benson started a new page and signed coach Sean Payton and Quarterback Drew Brees, found themselves smiling and shaking hand with the owner. Hey, he's the one who will need to pay Bush millions. He has no choice. The sports hope of New Orleans is his financial opportunity.

With 62 million contract for six years, you can say that also Bush got his financial opportunity. His magic numbers on the field transferred onto millions in his bank account. And there is no one like Bush dealing with the numbers. That is the reason he was so anxious to wear the Saints number 5 jersey, even though it contradicted to league rules.

It could have been an unimportant anecdote, but in two days after the draft there were 15 thousands order for his new jerseys. Without putting a number on them, stores couldn't deliver the goods. Bush asked the league to take a step towards him and promised to donate 25 percent of his merchandise income to the recovery efforts of New Orleans. The league denied his request, but Bush decided to stay firm with his promise, even though he had to settle for number 25. The new jersey became a hit and is sold in a crazy rate.

It was only a first sign of his noble behavior. A short time after he came to New Orleans, he donated tens thousands dollars to a local school for disadvantaged kids which was going to be shot down. He took upon himself to save a neglected high school football field which was destined to be destroyed. He took advantage of his connections with Hamer company (that signed a millions sponsorship deal, like he has with other commercial companies like Adidas) to donate ten SUB's to the authorities that fighting these days to rebuild New Orleans. Bush, that came from the other coast of the US, was discovered as a true philanthrop. A true service man in the ruined environment of the city.

True, there are a lot of athletes who invest a lot of their money, time and fame into charity, but nobody does it even before negotiations on his contract started. That's why the way Bush had put himself for the benefit of the city, such a short time after he went there and even before signing a contract, is an unheard of true unique story.

"Yes, it is abnormal" said Bush agent, Mike Ornstein to the Times Picayune, "There is not another player who has done as for the community he was moving into before he got signed. This is my 32rd year doing this, representing athletes like Marcus Allen, Tim Brown, Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe. They're all older guys. Reggie is the first rookie I've worked with for a long, long time. He's very, very special.

"We came here on draft day, and we drove around the community. Peter King, who writes for Sports Illustrated, made a statement in the car: 'Reggie, you have a chance to be the most influential player in the history of the National Football League.'

"He looked at Peter and we were driving around, and he said, 'You know what? I'm going to be that guy.' He stuck by that, and this is the start of that".

And if it is only the beginning, there is truly a reason to be optimistic. Reggie Bush is like the famous Dutch young kid who stuck his finger in hole in the damn and save his city from the flood. It is enough for the citizens, whom stopped expecting the president George Bush and his administration to help them. For now, they will settle for their own President Bush – He didn't score a touchdown yet or won a game for the Saints, but he is giving the people of New Orleans someone to look up too. As even mayor Nagin himself knows, as he chanted in his crown speech after last June elections: "We got Reggie Bush". Because people are dead, they don't have homes, but with this 21 years old kid, at least they have hope.

- this article was published in it's Hebrew version on on Aug 29th, 2006

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