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Sunday, April 30, 2006
New Orleans energized by Saints picking Bush

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS -- For a moment, Reggie Bush wasn't sure what to make of the rock-star ovation he got when he walked through the restaurant door.

"As soon as I got in there, there was a bunch of fans screaming and yelling. I thought it was staged," Bush said Sunday during a television interview at the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic, recalling his visit a night earlier to one of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's restaurants. "It's been great. Everyone I've run into has welcomed me. People here are so nice."

A few blocks away, Saints spokesman Greg Bensel was eating with a friend at the four-star Windsor Court hotel when he overheard chatter about Bush at a table behind him. He turned to see about a dozen people making a toast to the new Saints running back.

"And this is the Windsor Court. This isn't a sports bar. There was no TV on, no reference to Reggie anywhere," Bensel said.

Bush couldn't go anywhere without hearing chants of "Reggie! Reggie!" It even happened when he stepped out at the golf tournament in full view of fans surrounding the 18th green, who quickly recognized him and began the chant as a couple golfers were preparing to putt out.

"There's always excitement about a No. 1 pick, but this is a little different," said Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who dined out with Bush Saturday night. "People chanting spontaneously ... it was a little overwhelming how excited people were."

Recall the images of those discarded refrigerators on the sidewalk after Hurricane Katrina -- the ones emanating that throat-stinging stench of maggot-ridden rot, the outside spray-painted with the warning, "Tom Benson inside."

Remember when fans here feared Benson, the longtime Saints owner, was about to abandon them for San Antonio in this historic city's worst moment?

Call it a misunderstanding. All has been forgiven, now that Bush mania is taking hold.

Benson got the reception of a conquering hero -- high-fives aplenty -- when he ventured into a crowd of die-hard fans attending festivities outside the team's suburban New Orleans headquarters during NFL draft weekend.

And the closest thing to Saints-related graffiti to be seen was a handwritten "Bush" on the back of a Saints shirt worn by someone milling around at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Saturday, only hours after the Saints made their first pick.

"The Superdome will sell out," predicted fan Art Sigur, a former St. Bernard Parish resident whose home was ruined during the storm. "It takes a lot to kill our spirit. Tom Benson almost did it right after the hurricane."

"We love him now, though," interjected fellow fan Claude Maher.

New Orleans was a small NFL market before the storm -- even smaller now -- but predictions of sellouts don't appear far-fetched.

The Saints ticket office was open during draft weekend. It was fully staffed and everyone was busy all day taking orders, said Mike Stanfield, Saints vice president of ticket and suite sales.

"It was big -- really big," Stanfield said of weekend season ticket sales, although he didn't provide specifics. Single game tickets won't go on sale until later this year, "if there are any single game tickets left," he said.

Even before the draft, Saints executive Rita Benson LeBlanc, the owner's granddaughter, said sales were on pace with 2003, when the Saints set a franchise record for season tickets sold with about 54,000.

The team's commitment to return to New Orleans and play a full regular-season schedule in a repaired Superdome, combined with the free-agent signing of quarterback Drew Brees, already had generated excitement.

If everyone is healthy, the Saints will also line up running back Deuce McAllister and receivers Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth on offense. The addition of Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, gives New Orleans an explosive and dynamic player who can run, receive and return kicks with such scintillating speed and agility that many believe could make him the best player in a generation.

The last time the Saints drafted second overall, they took quarterback Archie Manning, whose family now has the status of de facto royalty in New Orleans.

"Obviously, he's a legend out here," said Bush, who said he has met the elder Manning. "Hopefully, I can do the same."