NEW ORLEANS — When he wrote about relying on the kindness of strangers, this city’s most famous playwright probably wasn’t envisioning Carolinians and conventioneers slurping down the dark roux gumbo at Herbsaint.
But then even Tennessee Williams may not have been able to conjure the blows that his adopted New Orleans has suffered over the last two years — and the welcome arrival of this better-than-fiction Final Four and the strangers it’s bringing to town.
Rarely in sports history has there been a convergence of a contest with the hype of the Duke-North Carolina showdown on Saturday, and a host city so desperately in need of the game-of-the-century buzz, and revenue, that comes with Item.
Ever since Joe Burrow led Louisiana State to the college football title in the Superdome in January 2020 and Louisianans celebrated Mardi Gras a month later — back-to-back civic high holidays for this state — New Orleans has been plunged into a dark winter.
The coronavirus pandemic came early here and was vicious; then there was Hurricane Ida last year, which has still left blue tarps where roofs should be; crime has consumed many residents, thanks to a series of gross carjackings; and last week, as if to suggest the only plague yet to hit was a descent of locusts, a tornado swept through, damaging 150 homes.
Less visible but just as threatening to the city’s psyche and economy has been what hasn’t happened — the canceled concerts, conventions and festivals in a place that, more than any other destination this side of Las Vegas, depends on visitors. In 2020, the Superdome’s stadium authority lost over $90 million in event and tax revenue.
The quiet and emptiness have been jarring in a community so used to not only the noise of the jazz club trumpeter and Bourbon Street revealer, but also the lower-decibel throngs of lanyard-wearing conference attendees and streetcar riders rolling up St. Charles Avenue.
“Covid really shut down our world,” said Kermit Ruffins, the New Orleans trumpeter and club owner.
Mr. Ruffins, who plays at his Mother-in-Law Lounge every Tuesday and Sunday, has suffered more than most here. The pandemic drained his two sources of income: He lost gigs of his own as well as customers at his club. And this month, his pregnant girlfriend was hit by a stray bullet (she and their baby are OK).
Despite his troubles, Mr. Ruffins said he was feeling optimistic. “We can feel it, since Mardi Gras it just feels like we’re back,” he said.
Few things beyond the Saints losing irritate New Orleanians more than outsiders patronizing them for their “resilience” — so cliché that it’s sometimes termed “the R word” here — but it’s hard to miss the guarded hope that maybe, just maybe, spring has finally arrived.
There was a sun-dappled Mardi Gras, with tourists arriving in just below prepandemic numbers, immediately followed by a heavily attended, first-ever New Orleans Book Festival that brought the “Today” show to town.
But those may have been the gumbo before the main course — what the ESPN broadcaster Dick Vitale said in a text message was the biggest college basketball game since the 1979 clash between Magic Johnson’s Michigan State and Larry Bird’s Indiana State established “the excitement of March Madness .”
In a city that celebrates its excesses and appetites, it’s fitting to be hosting an event so given to superlative.
New Orleanians, however, view the first-ever tournament clash between the Tobacco Road rivals, and what could be Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last-ever game, through a decidedly local lens.
“It’s the first big, good news attention we’ve gotten since Jan. 13, 2020,” said James Carville, the famed Democratic strategist, alluding to the date of his beloved LSU Tigers’ college football title game triumph. “This is a chance for the country to get reacquainted with New Orleans.”
For those wanting to do so in person, it won’t come cheap.
Most nonstop flights into New Orleans this weekend were sold out, and many connections were over $1,000. Lodging was scarce; the only remaining Marriott property with rooms for Friday and Saturday nights was an AC Hotel going for $1,458 a night. And tickets for Saturday’s matchup were some of the most expensive in tournament history: over $4,000 per seat on StubHub for anything in the lower bowl where the game can be watched without the aid of a giant video screen.
The many well-heeled graduates of Kansas, Villanova and, especially, Duke and UNC are a welcome sight to restaurateurs, hoteliers and local leaders.
“Mardi Gras is one thing, but this is reaching a different visitor, it’s CEOs and business executives,” said Anne Milling, a pillar of New Orleans’s philanthropic community. “This is our bread and butter and, I’ll tell you what, we’re going to welcome everyone just like family.”
It’s one of the enduring ironies of this city, where the virtues and vices of Europe, the Caribbean and the Deep South all seem to converge: It can handle major events as well as any city in the world, but it struggles with basic services, like trash pickup for residents.
“We can’t synchronize the lights on Canal Street but we can host the most iconic events in sports,” joked Jeff Duncan, the closely read sports columnist for The Times-Picayune.
Other event cities have comparable weather and the beaches that New Orleans lacks, to say nothing of more flights and fewer murders per capita — yet the big games always return.
“When you cover a Super Bowl here you feel it on every street and in every neighborhood,” Mr. Duncan said. “You don’t have that same immersive feeling in Los Angeles or even Miami. The downtown footprint is so compact.”
You step off the airplane, said Doug Thornton, who helps run the Superdome, “and come to the French Quarter and you’re surrounded by 30,000 other people wearing their team’s jerseys and drinking Hurricanes.”
New Orleans has been the site of 10 Super Bowls (second only to Miami), numerous college football title games, a pair of WrestleManias and a papal visit.
But it has had its best luck with college basketball.
It hosted the first Final Four in a dome. That was in 1982 when Michael Jordan’s basket lifted UNC to a national title — so long ago that the welcome brochure noted that some New Orleans restaurants demanded coats and ties while many allowed “gentleman to wear jackets or leisure suits.”
More than any sport, though, this is a town focused on fun.
“New Orleans is ready for any kind of party,” said Mr. Ruffins, noting that he was already meeting visitors here for Jazz Fest, the next big event.
What makes it such an appealing destination — beyond the beignets, beads and booze — is the sense of place here, the enduring and dependable culture that visitors know and crave from memory. So many out-of-towners smile when one mentions New Orleans because it reminds them of their own visits here and makes them eager to come back.
It’s the sort of city where, as the author and native are Walter Isaacson said in a different context, you invite 90 people to an event and 100 will come.
Gatherings are, of course, the lifeblood of the economy. But they also represent the joy of the city. And not just for tourists.
There’s Mardi Gras, Final Fours and Super Bowls, of course. But this place also has smaller affairs, whose absences during Covid-19 were so painful: the buses of college kids coming to town for fraternity formals; the impromptu stop at the Creole gumbo festival in Tremé or just a night out with friends for bourbon; red sauce and garlic with a side of oysters at Mosca’s, the legendary cash-only joint across the Mississippi River.
Nina Compton, a local restaurateur whose popular eateries were booked for the weekend, said the ups and downs of Covid life had been “mentally taxing,” with the pivot to takeout followed by the need for outdoor dining and then the mandated vaccine card checks.
Yet Ms. Compton said it was not just the restaurant business that was thrilled to return back to normal here — it was every New Orleanian.
“We really haven’t had that for two years,” she said of the bustling, sweaty and sweet ways of this town. “We need that, we live for that.”
To borrow another regional phrase, one well before Tennessee Williams’s time, it just means more here.