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No longer the New Orleans Ain’ts

After the clock ticked off the game’s final seconds, a Saints fan named Charlie Brown used his flat palm to beat out a rhythm on a wall of the Georgia Dome. To fans of the Atlanta Falcons, it may have been mere noise.

But to the throngs of Saints fans here, it was recognizable as the Second Line -- the THUM pum, pa PUM pum that has driven every parade since John Philip Sousa was remixed by the West African genius of the New Orleans streets.

The beat was a territorial marking, and a call to party: The once-lowly New Orleans Saints were 13-0 after defeating the Falcons in a 26-23 squeaker, keeping alive the possibility of an undefeated regular season and a first-ever appearance in the Super Bowl.

Brown -- drawing on the deep associative voodoo that binds teams and their fans -- was quick to declare victory not only for his team, but for a city and a culture that has refused to be washed away.

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“It means everything, man!” Brown shouted Sunday as he sashayed out of the stadium with a crowd of revelers clad in black and gold. “It means we comin’ back!”

From somewhere a brass band appeared and the Saints fans took up the beat on Atlanta’s streets, marching nowhere in particular, but just happy to be marching.

This miracle season -- which continues tonight in the Superdome against the Dallas Cowboys -- has sounded a sustained note of joy amid the ongoing dirge of post-Katrina news.

But the collective euphoria has roots deeper than Katrina. Like Chicago Cubs fans, Saints fans have been defined largely by their suffering, as their team wallowed, more often than not, in poor performances and the poverty of low expectations. Over 43 seasons, the Saints have lost 100 more games than they have won, and they are one of five teams never to have made a Super Bowl appearance.

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The fans’ coping mechanisms -- pitched somewhere between Gallic fatalism and a sunnier American disposition -- have become so ingrained in the New Orleans character that it’s difficult to tell whether the condition predated the team.

“It’s a heavy Catholic town, so there’s this strong belief in a better life after this one,” said Mike Detillier, an NFL analyst on radio station WWL-AM 870 in New Orleans. “So I think there’s been a correlation of that with the Saints’ fans feeling of ‘Wait till next year.’ ”

But incredibly, as Detillier says, “Next year is today.”

Led by head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints have given locals a taste of perfection when so many local institutions since the 2005 flood have been uninspired at best, corrupt at worst.

Veteran players, like safety Pierson Prioleau, say the fans’ giddiness and wide-eyed adulation reminds them of their days playing college ball. “Not a moment of the day goes by that you don’t feel the energy from what’s going on around here,” he said.

All across New Orleans, businesses, cars and people are adorned with the words “Who Dat?"-- the first words’ of the Saints’ grammatically skewed cheer: “Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints?”

Fan apparel is in such demand that the Black & Gold Sports Shop, in suburban Metairie, has stopped taking Internet orders. YouTube is awash with Saints tribute songs. The team leads the NFL in local television ratings, according to the Nielsen Co. During the recent Monday-night showdown against New England, 84% of all local TVs in use were tuned to the game.

Brees said fans have bombarded his car with pralines, CDs and novelty T-shirts. One popular model proclaims him “Breesus.”

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Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao launched a contest asking constituents to write speeches he will read into the congressional record. The theme: how the Saints “have positively impacted our economy, helped our troops or any other way in which the Saints have brought a positive result to the city of New Orleans.”

Thanks to the 2005 hurricane, the joy has spread far beyond New Orleans. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, at least 180,000 New Orleanians have left the area and not returned.

Bonnie Payton -- a flooded-out resident who resettled in North Carolina -- used the Atlanta game as an excuse for a reunion with sisters and others scattered by the storm. “We’ve lost our connection to home,” Payton said, “so this keeps us all united.”

Back home, that’s what the Saints have always done, even when losing: They unite a city long divided by race and class, divisions that, in many cases, have deepened since Katrina.

Yet, “you go in that Dome and see people -- the black and the white, the poor and the rich -- just hugging and high-fiving,” said Al “Doc” d’Aquin Jr., a longtime fan. “That’s the one thing that’s brought this city together over the years.”

Civil rights historians might dismiss it as boosterism, but Detillier believes that the arrival of the Saints in 1967 helped keep the peace during the civil rights era.

In a memoir published last year, entrepreneur Dave Dixon, who brought the Saints to New Orleans, recalled how he had to prove to the NFL brass that the city was racially tolerant enough to deserve an expansion team. He did so by persuading Tulane University to desegregate its 83,000-seat stadium. Dixon called a 1963 NFL exhibition doubleheader at the Sugar Bowl “the first desegregated sports event in the history of the Old South.” It proved that whites and blacks could mingle -- at least over football.

The Saints’ first game, presided over by the archbishop of New Orleans, opened with Saint John Gilliam returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown against the Los Angeles Rams.

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But then, laying the foundation for the future, the Saints lost 27-13.

For years, the Saints’ claim to fame was a jaw-dropping 63-yard field goal kicked in 1970 by Tom Dempsey, a player with half a right foot. (The record kick was tied in 1998.) Even under the talented quarterback Archie Manning -- father of Peyton and Eli -- they finished most seasons as the foils in someone else’s highlight reel.

After the Saints went 1-15 in the 1980 season, fans wore paper bags over their heads in mock shame of the New Orleans Ain’ts. There were winning seasons, too, and either way, the city never stopped loving its team.

They devotedly tuned in to “The Point After,” a postgame radio show once hosted by Bernard “Buddy” Diliberto, a sports journalist and racetrack habitue who presided over sessions of communal grieving, vented frustration and gallows humor.

The show was often more entertaining than the games, as callers adopted elaborate pseudonymous characters and filled the airwaves with the odd linguistic box of chocolates that constitutes spoken English in south Louisiana.

Diliberto himself spoke in a deep, garbled version of New Orleans’ Brooklyn-ish brogue, peppering his commentary with malapropisms -- quarterback Kenny “The Snake” Stabler was “Steak Snabler” -- as well as withering wit. Writer Angus Lind recalled Diliberto once feigned agreement with a caller who said the Saints were three players away from the Super Bowl.

“Dat’s right,” Diliberto said. “Three players. Da Fawtha, da Son and da Holy Ghost.”

Diliberto died months before the hurricane, missing a season when the franchise was forced into exile and racked up just three wins. The NFL considered relocating the team to Los Angeles if New Orleans was unable to recover from Katrina.

But the city began lurching back to life and the Superdome -- the site of misery for locals fleeing the flood -- underwent a multimillion-dollar face-lift. The first game in the Superdome after Katrina, a victory over the hated Falcons in 2006, was considered the high point of the Saints’ history.

But that was before 13 straight wins.

“This is such a unique situation -- the connection that we have with all our fans is unlike any other all around the league,” Brees said this week. “And just because of what’s happened here over the last five years, and what we’ve all been through together.”

A great football team, of course, can’t solve all problems. It can’t address the continued threat of water, which tried to impinge upon Louisiana’s good mood Tuesday.

Record rainfall pummeled New Orleans this month and officials urged anyone with non-urgent business to stay home.

But Saints die-hards braved flooded streets and flocked in downtown Houma, La., where Bobby “The Cajun Cannon” Hebert, a former Saints quarterback from the nearby Lafourche Parish, was taping a local-market TV show, “Saints on the Bayou,” whose sponsors included the Cajun Meat Market and the Terrebonne Parish District Attorney’s Office.

The setting was Copeland’s, a restaurant where fans feasted on huge plates of shrimp and tasso pasta, crawfish fettuccine, and bow-tie pasta breaded and thrown in the deep fryer.

Hebert and his cohorts discussed football topics still considered exotic to fans here, like whether head coach Payton should bench his star quarterback at some point during the remainder of the regular season, to keep him healthy for the playoffs.

Hebert was also ribbed for a video, posted on YouTube, that shows him breaking the press box’s no-cheering rule during the Oct. 4 game against the New York Jets -- and joyfully offering the Jets a coarse hand gesture that’s been dubbed the Lafourche Parish Salute.

When the show was over, Hebert spoke excitedly about his old team’s chances. A Super Bowl between the Saints and the Indianapolis Colts -- also undefeated so far -- would mean a matchup with New Orleans native son Peyton Manning.

“It’s like a movie script!” he said. “Can you imagine?”

For once, Saints fans actually can.

richard.fausset@latimes.com


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