RTC Travelogue: New Orleans, Part IPosted by jstevrtc on April 1st, 2011
RTC Senior Editor John Stevens covered the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in New Orleans for us last week. In addition to watching Butler emerge as the Southeast Region champion, he also had time to check out a little bit of the city. Occasionally on RTC we like to get out of our comfort zone and write up a travelogue of our experiences for your amusement. He’s home and (we think) fully recovered from the both the amazing basketball he saw and his time in the Big Easy, so here is Part I of John’s sumbission from New Orleans.
If you’re looking forward to the destination, one of the great feelings a person can have, for my money, is the series of moments right before a journey starts. Nothing screams of possibilities more than a plane awaiting its turn on a runway, an empty passport, or a camera memory card with no photos. But when RTC’s founder, correspondent wrangler and assignement hander-outer called me to talk about where I’d be traveling and what games I could possibly cover in the post-season, I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation.
I covered many games in many locales for RTC this season, and frankly, I was tired. I also remembered how I did the same thing last season, and how fatigued I was after the 10-hour car trip to the Big 12 Tournament last year. It was a total blast to cover. I loved every single moment of being there, and I can still taste the Oklahoma Joe’s Barbecue. I spent way too much time in the Power and Light District. ButI always spend too much money and push my poor automobile too hard (nothing like an engine rebuild around Christmastime!). By the time I got off the phone with him, though, my defenses had been proven futile. He landed quick jabs by telling me that I was signed up for the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, the First Four in Dayton, and the Cleveland sub-regional.
Then he finished me with this right cross: “And…you’re also penciled in for the regional in New Orleans.”
As if having a media pass to the nation’s greatest sporting event in four different locations wasn’t enough, I had the opportunity to go to one of the country’s coolest cities. I’d always wanted to go to New Orleans. He knew I couldn’t resist that, the dirty dog that he is. I had more fun covering the games in Indianapolis, Dayton, and Cleveland than I thought I would, and that made me anticipate New Orleans even more. My flight to the Crescent City was at 6:00 AM on Thursday, the day of the Sweet 16 games. I barely slept the night before out of excitement. To me, the night and even the minutes before such a journey like this starts are every bit as good as being on the trip itself.
I am somehow always among the first passengers to find my seat on any plane I’m taking, so after I took my spot at the window I played my usual game of Seatmate Roulette, a game I have never won. It’s not a kind game, but it’s honest, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t play it while sitting next to an open seat on a plane and watching prospective seatmates move down the aisle. No matter how many times I pray for, say, some callipygian and in-uniform University of Miami dance team girl who REALLY likes planes and college basketball bloggers to glide into the seat next to me, I always get patient zero of some new weird pulmonary disease whose gut spills over the armrest as he tells me about how his new meds are really taking care of most of the voices. Don’t judge me. You know you’ve played this game.
With such an early flight, I arrived with plenty of time to spare. After a kind and extremely early check-in was granted me at my hotel in the Warehouse District, I fell asleep while reading some pre-game material but woke up in plenty of time to get myself together and get some coordinates. I told the front desk that I planned to walk to New Orleans Arena and needed a point in the right direction. The nice fellow there told me I was nuts to want to walk it, since it was at least a mile and I was carrying a sizeable pack. I didn’t care. It was 80 degrees, bright as can be, and I was looking forward to the hike. My first impressions of New Orleans were a airport shuttle to the hotel and a nap, and that had to change. No better way than to take it on the heel-toe on such a gorgeous day.
It was the right call. Working my way through the Warehouse District I passed by about a thousand small restaurants, each with its door open and with aromas wafting out like gigantic hands trying to pull me inside. The path I was taking was lousy with restaurants. Every type of food you could conceive was on offer — Cajun, Creole, Italian, old-style American, Chinese, Cuban — and I got a two-second whiff of every one of them as I walked by. If I made it past, I vowed to go in at least one before my trip was done. Making it past all of them and getting to the Superdome without going into one was the toughest things I’ve ever done on any trip I’ve taken, and this is being written by someone who once had to spend two and a half hours in a McDonald’s bathroom on the Rutgers campus during a hoops-related trip to NYC. Don’t ask.
My seat on press row was right behind the CBS broadcast team of Gus, Reggie Miller, and Len Elmore. I mentioned it in the daily diary, but I have to emphasize this: Len Elmore knows the words, and possibly the fingering on a phantom guitar, to every song ever written. During the pre-game he sang every word and hit every air-guitar lick to just about every tune that came over the PA system. Dire Straits? No problem. Rolling Stones? Please. U2? Come on. This was true for both days. He had every lyric at his disposal and seemed to like taunting Gus and Reggie with his lyrical knowledge. Something else I have to expand on from the daily diary is that there needs to be a Gus Johnson-cam. Watching him call a game is every bit as exciting as hearing him. In his excitement, he stands, waves his hands, puts his hands to his head, dances, punches his color commentators, and pumps his fists at exciting moments. If you’re watching a Gus-called game, and something big happens and you hear a brisk clapping in the background, that’s not the mic picking up a nearby fan. That’s Gus getting fired up and wanting more. When Jimmer pulled up from a step behind the hash mark and drilled that long-range three to tie it at 63 with 4:56 left in the second half against Florida, when Gus said, “He’s got his J back, folks, and the EYE OF THE TIGER!” he was standing up and gesticulating wildly. When it went through the net, he grabbed Reggie Miller and jostled with him in disbelief. It was hilarious. It’s not that he was rooting for anyone, because he does these things after big plays from both sides. The man just loves good basketball, and gets particularly animated when players make big plays at big moments. It certainly translates to the audience, to say the least. Watching him call the games was as much fun as watching the games themselves. Seriously, let’s get a camera on this man. Tell me you wouldn’t at least picture-in-picture that or enjoy it as a high-def feature.
After Florida took care of BYU and Butler held off Wisconsin’s late rally, I worked a little in the media room but kept falling asleep while typing. Not counting the hour-long repose in my room, I had been up for 22 straight hours. Except for press conferences in the afternoon, Friday was an off day and there would be plenty of time to run amok and find trouble. I climbed onto the shuttle back to the media hotel even though my actual lodgings were several blocks away. I asked the driver if it was a safe walk for me to make, and he responded, “You’ll be fine. Ain’t nothing down in these pahts that’ll mess witcha. Too many people out walkin’ aroun’. But just stay youself right thayah. I’ll take y’on back to your hotel.” It was an incredibly nice thing to do, because he was certainly under no obligation to go out of his way to drive me back to my hotel. It would not be the last time I would enjoy and benefit from the friendliness of the people of New Orleans.
I woke up Friday to another 80-degree day and only one item on the schedule. I decided to walk to the media hotel and take the shuttle to the arena for the afternoon press conferences of Butler and Florida, but on the way I stopped for some grub at the only place that received repeat mentions when I asked RTC’s Twitter followers for restaurant recommendations: Mother’s Restaurant on the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas. I was already in the mind for lunch, so I followed the directives of many of our followers and ordered a po’-boy sandwich they called the Ferdi and a side of red beans and rice.
Now, you might look at this thing and think it’s something that you can make or approximate at home. This is something you cannot do. The photo above is of a Turkey Ferdi with Roast Beef and what they call debris. Throw on some shredded cabbage, pickles, mayo, and both Creole and yellow mustards, and you have a large handful of New Orleans ridiculousness that can not and should not be attempted by any hands other than those that work in this place. Oh, it might not look too imposing, but when you try to pick it up you realize that the bottom hunk of bread is really just acting as a sponge soaking up all of the liquids oozing from every component. On your first attempt, you hesitate and say to yourself like a Union general fighting off a brigade of Confederates trying to take the high ground, “It will not hold. It CAN NOT HOLD…” and you consider the knife and fork. You look around and realize that nobody else is doing this, so you screw up your courage and attempt to partake of this magnificence. It holds. You are rewarded.
Despite the out-the-door line to get in, I sat in Mother’s for a good ten minutes after finishing my Ferdi just to let everything digest and to soak up the aura of this place, which was technically just a deli but obviously means much more. Some friends who had been to Mother’s in the past said it was no longer what it once was, that the quality and size of the sandwiches and the freshness had undergone a decline over the past couple of years. If that’s true, I would have never survived it in its prime. It would have killed me. I don’t care if it was a deli at lunchtime. I’m glad it was. And I don’t care if it was experiencing some alleged decline. It was my first actual New Orleans meal, and it set the bar admirably.
Half-asleep and belching sliently, I shuffled into the media hotel and took the shuttle to the arena. The press conferences on the middle day are always a mixture of serious and sometimes downright funny questions, and the teams and coaches on the stage are both happy to still be playing and nevertheless wanting to show that they are serious about the job left to do. They answer the humorous questions with smiles and jabs at each other, but they’re careful not to show too much enjoyment of making the Elite Eight, for some reason. Players from Centenary to Duke are taught how to answer questions from the media, so what you get from a player at any given time is a reply that starts out as an actual honest answer to the question (about 5-10%) which then devolves into cliches and generalities (90-95%) as they’ve been instructed. The cliches are usually some variant of, “gotta keep working,” “just keep getting better,” “just do what coach asks of me,” and “stay hungry and play as a team.” I don’t blame them for this. They want to be sportsmanlike and they don’t want to give the other side any bulletin board material. Coaches are only marginally better at conveying actual information; the percentage of usable information from a coach’s response is often around 40-50% depending on who it is, but a lot of that depends on the question asked. Asking questions that get you real information from these press conferences is a skill, and in my three years of traveling and attending games with media credentials, the two best at it are Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy and Brendan Prunty from New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. A pet peeve of mine is the non-question question, where someone says, “Talk about the game tonight.” I know why they ask non-binary, open-ended questions like that; they want the respondent to talk freely and the asker wants to say that they were responsible for getting any eventual information that comes as a result of the “question.” But it still irks me.
After a shuttle back to the media hotel I took a stroll through the New Orleans Riverwalk, and left unimpressed. The shopping area offered nothing out of the ordinary, and though there was a line at the Cafe Du Monde on the first level, the place was pretty much empty of both natives and tourists. It was cool walking down my the Mississippi River and seeing all the cruise ships and such, but except for the chance to replace some lost luggage or buy a New Orleans trinket, there isn’t much excitement there for me, other than to feel good that the place is still standing. Hurricane Katrina took a lot of anger out on the Riverwalk, and in the days that followed it was looted like crazy and didn’t reopen until just before Christmas. Everything’s been back open for a long time, now, and while I didn’t need any fudge, refrigerator magnets, suitcases, or clothes from the Gap at the time of my visit, I’m sure there were people who did and do today, and I’m glad the Riverwalk is there for them.
I got back to my hotel and was met in the lobby by a fellow with a tray of mimosas who offered me one — why, yes, young man, don’t mind if I do! — and I asked him what the occasion was. He said, “Just a Friday night in N’awlins, sir!” I snagged another on the way up to the room — and, er, another on my way out — and set off for the French Quarter in order to find a place to watch the night’s games. It was about a mile from the hotel to the Quarter, and I felt I’d better walk it as opposed to taking a cab, since I assumed I’d need my metabolism to be cranking for the rest of the evening.
I approached the French Quarter on S. Peter’s and then Decatur, passing the Cafe Du Monde I planned to hit up on at least one of the next two days. There was no time for coffee and beignets now. I had to find a spot for purposes of basketball. I had gone too far in my trek into the Quarter and overshot Bourbon Street, the epicenter of revelry. The French Quarter is tricky that way; there’s enough pedestrian traffic, enough open containers and general merrymaking throughout the entire neighborhood to where you think you’ve found where you need to be. I got into the open-container spirit and purchased a $2 on-street Newcastle — I mean, it said Newcastle on the label — just to immerse myself further into the vibe. My error still worked out for the best, since I had ventured into the adjacent neighborhood of Faubourg Marigny and all of its gentrified glory. Here I saw elderly women sitting on porches of gorgeous historic houses folding laundry or knitting in rocking chairs, and a couple of them offered me an almost whispered “Bonjour!” as I passed. Eventually I even initiated this courtesy to a woman sitting on her steps reading the newspaper. Her eyebrows flew up as if pleasantly surprised, and she shot back, “Bonjour,” and flummoxed me with a barrage that Charles de Gaulle could maybe have understood (or probably any eighth grade French student). I merely gave her the Frenchman’s laugh — you know the one — and said, “Oui, tres bon, tres bon, merci…” in hopes that she was just asking me how I was doing and not if I enjoyed molesting farm animals. I attempted to verify my new directions toward Bourbon Street with, “Est-ce la bonne facon de Rue Bourbon?” Probably incorrect, but she understood me, and stood and pointed in the direction I was headed. Another heartfelt “Merci!” and I continued. It occurred to me after a few blocks that I do not speak French and have never studied it, but I was three mimosas, an over-sized Newcastle, and a hurricane into my evening — I didn’t tell you about that one? — and had heard a lot of it while walking around and in hotels since I’d arrived. And I’m not kidding — I’m like Good Will Hunting with languages.
The fourth place I happened by had four huge TVs that had just started showing North Carolina’s two-hour prostate exam of Marquette and almost nobody at the bar watching, so I sat down and asked the bartender what his best New Orleans draught was. He told me Abita was the home brew of the city, and poured me their Jockamo IPA. That was followed by a Bock and a version they called a Turbodog (my favorite of the three). A pair of extremely confident North Carolina alums had taken a seat beside me — and considering how their Tar Heels were pulverising Marquette, why wouldn’t they be cocky? — and were in such a good mood they bought me another Abita, this time the Amber. In the late second half, with UNC cruising, I decided to find a venue with more customers. I asked for my bil and the bartender whispered to me as he delivered it, “You actually seemed to care about the taste of my town’s beer. You threw in a couple of ice waters in between and you tipped on them. And you know your basketball. I appreciate these things.”
The total on the bill: $2.50.
I told him I wasn’t worthy of his generosity, but he was having none of it. Obviously I tipped him generously, and walked further down the Quarter to a place where I could actually hear the broadcast of the games. In the distance I could hear dueling chants of “C-A-T-S, CATS, CATS, CATS!” and “O-H!!” followed by “I-O!!” When I found the source, I walked into a watering hole full of fans clad either in Kentucky blue and the scarlet and gray of OSU. With perfect timing, a spot opened up at the bar in front of the high-def TV right at the tipoff of Kentucky vs Ohio State. I had two more hours of Sweet 16 basketball with two huge programs and a night in the French Quarter ahead of me. I was sitting in a room full of rabid and well-lubricated fans. The smells coming from the kitchen were preposterously good.
And, for the French Quarter, it was still pretty early. I had barely scratched the surface. I celebrated this fact at the time. Holy Krzyzewski, would I regret it later.
[Come back for Part II, to be published on Monday…assuming RTC allows.]