"There’s no question. I’m having a moment. I’m having one those I’m-in-a-movie, larger-than-life moments that can happen only in New Orleans." – Bill Simmons in yesterday’s column

 

"…Then Katrina happened…. Imagine me looking around and thinking about how egregiously I underestimated the city’s rebuilding effort, and thinking to myself that New Orleans might make it after all. Imagine those dormant memories from Super Bowl XXXVI flooding through my brain, one of the single greatest weeks of my life….That’s the thing about life. You never know what’s going to happen next. New Orleans was fine, and then it wasn’t. Twenty-nine months after Katrina, the city remains in pain. You can feel that anguish everywhere you go, just like you can feel the love, the joy and the resiliency.”

So writes Bill Simmons in yesterday’s column: You Can Help Ease New Orlean’s Pain. No, I won’t waste space quibbling on a couple of lines I disagree with amongst 3000 words of Simmons most important column to date. Instead I will just thank him for using his platform to address this issue. And while I’m at it, ESPN is to be commended for giving it "front page" status on its website and giving the post-Katrina rebuilding effort heavy website play this weekend. Praise goes to Scoop Jackson for his excellent piece about "bringing the culture of basketball back" to New Orleans; JA Adande for covering the weekend’s efforts of NBA players; John Hollinger chimes in while TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott gives us a steady diet of posts, links, and player videos keeping the story on the everyday radar. All together it was a nice and refreshing ESPN tag team effort that was anything but tokenism. Simmons goes on:

"You could go back to New Orleans. You could have fun there. You could do all the same things you did before. Unfortunately, you don’t want to go back. And that’s a problem. The city’s economy and future hinge on outsiders accepting the fact something horrible happened here, then coming back anyway. The city needs our money to rebuild the surrounding areas that were destroyed by Katrina — only the money isn’t coming in because you won’t come back. And why would you? Downtown New Orleans didn’t change after Katrina; fundamentally and spiritually, it’s still the same. Shaken and battered, but the same. Unfortunately, we aren’t the same. New Orleans has baggage now — visible baggage — and when people are on vacation, they want to deal only with baggage like suitcases. The good people of New Orleans know this, and they’re worried about it, and more than anything else, those understandable insecurities made me want to write this column."

Did Simmons plan to write this column before he got down to New Orleans? It doesn’t sound like it. Last year Simmons didn’t even want the game to be held in New Orleans (security reasons). Now Simmons want us to all to ease New Orleans pain by, well, going on vacation there and bringing resources into the community. He is not even asking us to paint a house on a spare day — although he did so himself as part of NBA Cares community service day which he addresses.

"NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans might have been David Stern’s finest moment. David Stern happened to be one of those people. In December 2005, the commissioner took a tour of the devastated areas and couldn’t shake the things he saw. He committed to the city right then and there, vowing the Hornets would return someday and floating out hope the city could host the 2008 All-Star Game. Everyone thought he was crazy. (Including me.) … Fortunately for us, the Commish never wavered…. … he committed to the single largest day of community service in the history of professional sports — a group of 2,500 people that included players, NBA employees, media people, investors, sponsors and politicians spending Friday afternoon at 10 different locations — that lifted the spirits of everyone in the area. At the age of 65, following a tumultuous 2007 season that had insiders quietly wondering if he should step down soon, David Stern turned in what was unquestionably his greatest moment. I really believe that. It’s one thing to make everyone rich; it’s another thing to enrich people’s lives.”

 

I agree with Simmons on this one. Stern HAS turned in his greatest moment… and so has Simmons. And I really believe that.  I believe that just as Stern "couldn’t shake the things that he saw, neither could Simmons. Simmons committed himself to this column right then and there. And why should that be a surprise. It is impossible to visit the devastation AND the lack of progress and not feel an incredible sense of injustice. It is the same injustice that made various NBA All-stars step up to the plate merely one week after Katrina at Kenny Smith’s Charity game in Houston in 2005.  The same injustice that made NBA players collectively contribute 15 million dollars including at least one million of Kevin Garnett’s own money to build 24 new homes. It is the same injustice that made Stephon Marbury pledge a half a million dollars, break down and cry like a baby the Knick’s “Post Katrina Conference” (go to 3 min marker of video), and quite possibly helped the process in catapulting him into our sports world’s greatest humanitarian

 

Kevin Garnett and Gayle King share the exciting news.

 

And it is not just ESPN stepping up as a slew of commendable mainstream articles have come out this week on Katrina and the NBA player’s efforts. Tom Withers of the Associated Press got the ball rolling, Arash Markazi (Sports lllustrated) gives us a great article on All-Star David West’s perspective, through Jim Slater (Yahoo) Byron Scott reminds us that "we have a long way to go", and Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News has a great idea: let’s bring the game back to New Orleans in 2010. It took the impetus of NBA all-star weekend in New Orleans to get this kind of coverage. Will it continue? That’s the question. Ironically, the coverage of the NBA players efforts in rebuilding New Orleans has also brought light to another ongoing injustice: the unfair, unbalanced, and routinely biased treatment that the NBA players get in the media vs. players from other leagues. In the very same column, Simmons writes:

“If you love the league, if you care about it at all, then you’re more excited about these next four months than you’ve been about anything since Michael, Larry and Magic were playing. … From a historical standpoint, LeBron has a chance to be one of the best 10 players ever. Howard has a chance to be one of the best big men ever. And Paul has a chance to surpass Isiah Thomas as the greatest 6-footer ever…As one NBA higher-up whispered to me last weekend, ‘People still think we have an image problem, I just don’t get it. Do they even watch us? Do they see the caliber of the guys we have now?’ That’s the issue gnawing at everyone working for the league right now. The NFL has considerably more thugs, Major League Baseball has a steroids scandal that basically has tainted the past 15 years of games, yet somehow the NBA is still perceived as the league with an image problem? For god’s sake, if the NBA can’t put that tag to rest this year, of all years, then it’s never happening, and we’ll have to accept there are deeper issues at work here. (Well, one deeper issue. And you know what it is.) But that’s a story for another day."

And a very important story. But when juxtaposed to reality, there really is no such thing as "an image problem" only a "perception problem" often caused by a ‘biased media coverage problem". We keep asking players to wear cosmetic contacts when it’s everybody else who needs new glasses. Since day one, NBA players have been on Katrina like Bruce Bowen, and now the sports media is finally catching up to documenting it. A fair portrayal of what might likely be the most generous league in team sports would help rebuild homes and images at the same time. It’s really easy to do. One or two less articles about an NBA dress code and one or two more about "NBA Cares". Simmons states: 

"The league did a great thing last weekend, and when we’re remembering Stern someday, his unwavering commitment to New Orleans will be one of the first things mentioned. …Of course, New Orleans wasn’t about that. I think David Stern saw a city in pain, and I think he wanted to help, and I think he wouldn’t have been able to forgive himself if he didn’t help. And that’s the thing … he did help. Like everyone else who was there, I had more fun than I thought and I won’t forget what I saw."

Do you know what I think? I think Bill Simmons saw a city in pain, and I think he wanted to help, and I think he wouldn’t have been able to forgive himself if he didn’t help by writing this article. And that’s the thing … he did help. With over a million eyes on his column, he may have made a tangible difference. Simmons closes by asking if the weekend accomplished anything other than "painting a few schools, planting a few gardens, raising some much-needed money and making the city feel good for a few days" He believes so and urges everybody put their tourist dollars where their mouth is. Me? While always hopeful, my optimism comes with extreme caution as a couple of personal visits to New Orleans this past year — and specifically the Lower Ninth Ward  has shown no visible signs of progress. But Simmons knows why:


“In the days and weeks following Katrina, an inordinate number of Americans were affected by the sights and sounds of the disaster, with many giving money to the Red Cross and other relief funds. We were galvanized in our dismay at FEMA’s unconscionably poor handling of the crisis, truly one of the lowest moments in the recent history of this country. A few weeks passed and New Orleans was pushed to the back burner, because that’s what we do — we feel bad about something, we react and then we don’t feel as bad anymore."

There is no question about it: Bill Simmons, ESPN, and many others in mainstream media were at the very top of their game this past week. But what about beyond this week? As for Simmons himself, is this column merely a reaction to a weekend fling with devastation so that "he doesn’t feel as bad anymore", or is it a sign of a more socially conscious style of writing that might pop up more often in the future? Will there be a Katrina follow-up column sometime before next year’s All-Star game when no one else will write about it? …Perhaps a column on NFL concussions and disabilities after players have retired? Will Simmons make good on writing that "story for another day" about that "deeper issue" behind the NBA’s perceived "image problem"? Beyond Bill, will ESPN and mainstream media wash its hands of Katrina after this week? Those answers, like New Orleans continued rebuilding efforts, remain to be seen. 

Update: Our article was written before Dave Zirin (Sports Illustrated) The OTHER New Orleans: After All-star Game, City Needs More than Fresh Coat of Paint. Please check this out as it shows that New Orlean’s problems cannot be solved with community service and increased tourism alone. As always Zirin breaks down the political dimensions at work that result in economic barriers and gentrification.