Chitown/Nawlens Identity

by Rick

2/7/07

     I must admit to gleefully Googling [“Rex Grossman”] and looking for Telander et al after the conclusion of Sunday’s Super Bowl. I was greeted with the mentality I had been surrounded by for seven years: “We lost, and it’s dat bum’s fault. If it hadn’ta been fer…”  There is something to be said for the Chicago mentality of The Second City.  Chicago consistently tends to behave as if it has something to prove. Which it doesn’t: Chicago is a fantastic city, a really amazing place. However…

Not being New York or Los Angeles wears on Chicago in very subtle ways; most Chicagoans, I think, don’t give a hoot one way or another on most days. But Chicago always seems to come in second, last, or first — there is no in-between. Da Bears of ’85 are deified to a degree I’ve never seen before, and I’m a fan of Indiana basketball and Oklahoma football. Jordan remains the best SECOND draft pick in sports history (thank you, Sam Bowie). It is still amazing to me how Ozzie Guillermo’s White Sox of not long ago are still overshadowed by the North Side team that hasn’t done anything worth writing about for almost a century — the team in any professional sport in any nation that has gone the longest without winning a championship.

When New Orleans lost to the Bears, that snowy day a couple weeks ago, the city (as is its wont) went to its cups for a few hours. But the identity of New Orleans quickly found itself; people packed into their cars and, sober or not, made their way to good ole’ Louis Armstrong International Airport. A brass band, as it always seems to happen here, Just Showed Up! (If you don’t believe me, you need to experience this place someday.) And when the players who had given this city so much arrived at the airport after one in the morning because of weather delays in Chicago, they were greeted by a throng, more than a thousand strong, of fans thanking them — thanking them! — for the season they had. I have to emphasize this point because I had been a Chicagoan for so long.

The reason for the italics is that I had, for the past seven years, become acclimated to this perspective so demonstrative of Chicago’s sports tradition: failure is unacceptable. Chicago had itself a beaut of a season. Brian Urlacher rightly ascended to heights this year that every other player in his position dreams of. Cedric Benson and Thomas Jones mounted a ferocious running game. Devin Hester proved as a rookie that he has the ability to single-handedly change the outcome of a sixty-minute struggle.

So why is it that the return of the Saints was regarded by this city as something that meant so much? (Here’s a hint: it ain’t Katrina. And that’s the last time you’ll hear me mention that bitch’s name in this post.) It’s because New Orleans fans are New Orleanians and Bears fans are Chicagoans. Sure, you can say that New Orleans asks less of itself than Chicago, but really? Really? Does Chicago ever ask anything of its beloved Cubbies? Chicago is ever pessimistic about its prospects for professional sports, almost so much so that it actively parodies itself. It embraced the “Da Bears” spoof because its sporting history needed it to be able to look itself in the mirror. The New Orleans Saints had never, in its 40+ year history, come so far. But New Orleans never competed the way that Chicago did — Chicago is a great American city because it tries very, very hard to catch up. New Orleans, on the other hand, says, “Laissez les bon temps rouller.” New Orleanians were hurt as a city when the Saints weren’t able to get it done that snowy night in Chicago. For a few hours. After which, the city said “Our boys are coming home: let’s go!”

I went and bought supplies in a grocery store that afternoon. The national-chin store had substituted the regular muzak for NOLA sports radio, probably against company policy. Everyone in the bloody place wore black and gold, myself included. The checkers would occasionally exclaim, “WHO DAT?” And the entire store (seriously, the entire grocery store) replied, WHO DAT? WHO DAT SAY DEY GONNA BEAT DEM SAINTS? I made many cell phone calls.

Chicago sports press eats its wounded. New Orleans enjoys giving ’em hell, but loves its own. Maybe it’s because is was Spanish and French before it got stirred into the melting pot, it’s been so many things it figures it deserves to be whatever it wants to be.

New Orleans, you may or may not know, is home to the National D-Day Museum. Why? Because the amphibious landers used on that day were designed by a New Orleanian and built here. Don’t get me wrong: this city is not a place for the lazy. New Orleans knows how to fight. The past seventeen months prove that. But as Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy famously intoned, “We got our own way of doing things down here.”

I have tried to capture the spirit of this place in my writing more than once, and failed every time. It is neither an opium den nor a Girls Gone Wild DVD nor a ravaged wasteland nor a city of woebegone saints. New Orleans got fight, tru dat, but New Orleans also got heart. New Orleans isn’t the kind of town to say that Fred Thomas cost them a shot at the Super Bowl. It ain’t in their character. Football is a team game. As someone who has lived in both places, Chicago could learn something from NOLA.

Don’t believe me? Come find out.

Rick has been a contributing writer since the inception of AJS